Housing Complex

Meet the Anti-Modernists

From the National Civic Art Society's facebook page.

My column this week is about D.C.'s spate of new libraries, and as usual, some of the interesting things won't quite fit. Among them: A chat with Jubal Biggs, chairman of the board of directors of the National Civic Art Society.

Along with the Ralph Nader-founded D.C. Library Renaissance group, the NCAS has been sharply critical of Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper's building blitz. Founded in 2002, the Civic Art Society is dedicated to the preservation of classicism nationwide, focused in particular on the District's public buildings and monuments. Naturally, Biggs–whose day job is foreign policy research for the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute–hates the new glass-and-steel constructions, and thinks surrounding residents do too.

"Everybody thinks it looks like a McDonalds playhouse," he says of David Adjaye's design for the Washington Highlands Library. "It's urban junk. They don’t want it cluttering up their neighborhood. They don’t want that being the focal point of their community."

Biggs' critique is that the architecture actually isn't new, but rather a throwback to "antique modernism" that subordinates form to function. Instead, he says, the District should be innovating upon more traditional design fundamentals, holding up the Alaska state capitol as a model contemporary civic building.

"There are buildings which, through generations, people have always found value in, years after they were built, centuries after they were built," he says. "Washington is a classical city, everything was designed on a classical layout. The entire central core of the city, everything that’s iconic about Washington, that people remember, it’s all classical."

And you thought the Committee of 100 was old-fashioned.

To that end, the NCAS is advocating on a few fronts. Locally, they'll be preparing design alternatives for large new monuments, starting with the Eisenhower Memorial, which Biggs thinks "doesn't live up" to the former president. On the federal level, Biggs sees a problem with entrenched ways of doing things at the National Endowment for the Arts, and says he and his board are going "over the heads of the bureaucrats" to push for a public policy environment more friendly to traditional architecture with members of Congress directly. He wouldn't say who specifically, except that members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus have been particularly receptive.

And perhaps they do have the connections to make some headway. One of the NCAS' founding directors–and the owner of its headquarters at 904 Massachusetts Avenue NE–is conservative lobbyist Howard Segermark.*


* This article has been corrected to reflect the fact that Howard Segermark did not represent the adult entertainment industry, but rather a free speech advocacy group of the same name.

  • Eric

    There are plenty of modern architecture fans in the city who are tired of classical architecture and are screaming for something outstandingly modern and classy (such as the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge in Boston) to be built in DC to counteract this less-than-powerful-despite-what-they-say group of anti-modernists. I'm not worried in the least.

  • Jerry A. McCoy

    Oh, poor Jubal DC's-Libraries-Don't-Have-Doric-Columns-On-Them Biggs.

    If he loves libraries he needs to advocate for more money so they can be properly stocked, staffed, and operated instead of criticizing their design.

  • Howard Segermark

    Lydia DePillis could have avoided a disgraceful misrepresentation by one phone call or email. The I was involved in working on behalf of the Free Speech Coalition, a Maryland corporation dedicated to the first amendment rights of citizens to petition their government – and more specifically, the rights of groups and individuals to engage in grassroots advocacy. It has nothing to do with a California organization with a similar name involved in so-called “adult entertainment.”

  • Erik Bootsma

    Why did the author try to besmirch the effort by implying some sort of philistine hypocrisy here.

    Here is the link to the other non porn Free Speech Coalition (.org)


  • http://grenfellarchitecture.com Milton W. Grenfell

    Once upon a time DC said "Enough with the classical, we want something modern and classy!" So they hired the one of the most esteemed modernist architects, (indeed one of modernisms founders, and cofounder of the Bauhaus) of modernism's high water years, Mies van der Rohe, and we got the MLK Library. Alas, we find that the thermal failure of its glass and steel skin are damaging to its books, and its black, warehouse- like, life crushing presence is a blight to the city, apparently attractive to only the indigent.

    No more modernist experiments with our libraries seem a prudent policy.