The Magazine

Gehry, Going, Gone

The Corcoran Gallery needs an addition, but not this one.

Jun 27, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 39 • By CATESBY LEIGH
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This construct boils down to one word: history. Not history as a normative concept, but history as mere process. This concept of history, as the architecture historian Carroll William Westfall has noted, is the enemy of tradition. Tradition is about architectural continuities that span the ages, continuities conducive to the ennoblement of the public realm: human scale, arrangement of masses by analogy with the human body to create compositions rather than mere agglomerations, employment of a hierarchy of ornamental and decorative forms crowned by the human figure.

Yet instead of focusing on the historic continuities tradition has nurtured, the academic paradigm cuts the history of art into little fragments. This conceptual Balkanization led Levy to speak of the Flagg and Gehry structures as discrete objets d'art--period pieces--in the Corcoran's "collection," as if it would be lunacy (or, again, philistinism) to insist on any real formal consistency between the two.

The conventional understanding of architectural history has thus become a function of particularized cultural contexts, each with its own religious, political, social, and technological characteristics. Like art history in general, it has been reduced to a pseudo-scientific stew in which aesthetic considerations are all too easily lost in a mass of historical or socio-psychological trivia.

This is the dysfunctional intellectual matrix from which Gehry's Corcoran project, like modernism's many other stylistic variants, springs. It is also the cause of the preservation bureaucracy's failure to oppose the Gehry design. That bureaucracy, no less than our leading architecture critics, would dismiss a sympathetic Corcoran addition as an exercise in "faking history." Architecture must be authentic! These are modern times, so we must be modern! Of course, "authenticity" and "modernity" are subjective notions, not to mention the "genius" so widely attributed to Frank Gehry.

Too bad the civic idealism, the enduring vision of the classical city, that inspired Flagg's design was lost on David Levy and the Corcoran's trustees. The fact remains that when (or if) the Corcoran gets its identity, its mission, and its financial situation sorted out, it will need to build an addition. To build an appropriate one, it needs to get past the current academic wisdom. And one barrier to the restoration of common sense is the fact that, back in the heady days of postmodernism--1987, to be exact--the Washington office of Hartman-Cox attempted to design a compatible Corcoran wing. But that addition would have been a speculative office building that would include some additional space for the museum. It was mainly intended to generate cash for the gallery's depleted coffers. Moreover, Hartman-Cox is a modernist office that went "eclectic" because of market demand. It's done some good work along the line, but it was not equal to designing a worthy Corcoran wing.

So, should a prospective big-time benefactor muster the common sense to say, "How about an architecturally harmonious addition?" you can bet he will be told, "We tried that." Or, "You won't get the Bilbao effect."

Maybe not. But should the Corcoran choose the right classical architect, it would get a new wing that would enhance Flagg's magnificent achievement rather than negate it. And there are architects equal to this brief: the Philadelphian John Blatteau comes to mind, as does the New York office of Fairfax and Sammons, also the London architect Julian Bicknell. What's more, the gallery would actually be ahead of the curve in the resurgence of classical civic art.

Such glasnost would also benefit the gallery's collection and the art school, separating the Corcoran from the postmodern herd. The collection, like the Corcoran's tiresome Biennial exhibitions (one is on display now), basically reflects the art-historical pieties that led to the Gehry addition project. The Corcoran should ditch the postmodern "anything-but-traditional" consensus, and start collecting work by the growing American school of painters and sculptors who are forging new links to the great tradition: artists like Edward Schmidt, Jacob Collins, Randy Melick, Leonard Porter, Brad Parker, and Will Wilson who, increasingly, are represented by leading commercial galleries in New York and elsewhere.

The Corcoran should emphasize its eclecticism and proudly proclaim itself an institution at the service of a pluralistic visual culture. The Corcoran School of Art need not be ideologically prescriptive--as it is now, insofar as its curriculum basically boils down to the "anything-but-tradition" routine. But it should distinguish itself not only by retaining classically oriented instructors in drawing and sculpture, but also by requiring students to study with them to acquire a demonstrable grasp of traditional principles of form and composition.

No doubt, the Corcoran can muddle along indefinitely. The alternative is to adopt a truly propitious identity, eschewing the reactionary taboos of America's institutionalized avant-garde and embracing a wide-ranging, truly pluralistic, postmodernism.

Catesby Leigh is writing a book entitled Monumental America.