The Magazine

Malling Washington

The new Indian museum adds to the cacophony.

Oct 11, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 05 • By CATESBY LEIGH
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IT IS A SIGHT to make L'Enfant's jaw drop: a great pile of buff limestone, like a mesa promontory somewhere in the desert. The walls undulate as the mass tapers towards the east--with large, glazed cavities and overhangs on one side, a main entrance overhang facing the Capitol, and a low, stepped saucer dome on top. Welcome to the National Museum of the American Indian--the newest museum to appear on the Mall.

With the advent of the Indian museum, the Mall is complete, according to the planners. Time will tell, but the fact remains that the major buildings built in and around this precinct over the last half century offer sad comparisons with their older neighbors.

Any number of Mall vistas testify to the chasm World War II marks in the nation's architectural history. The West and East Buildings of the National Gallery of Art--completed in 1941 and 1978--offer the best-known example: a stark contrast between two different ideas of what architecture is. But visitors can see such contrasts up and down the Mall. Take, for instance, the first of the Mall's postwar museums, the National Museum of American History. Designed by Walker O. Cain and completed in 1964, it faces an ensemble of federal offices designed by Arthur Brown Jr. and completed three decades before.

From American History's elevated terrace, reached by a pair of long exterior stairways rising from Constitution Avenue, you stare out at Brown's magnificent second-story porch. Its Roman Doric columns, entablature, and pediment crown Brown's Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium. Below, the auditorium boasts three handsome portals crowned by carved masks. Recessed colonnades flank the auditorium and link it to office blocks terminated at both ends by pediments containing allegorical groups, as the central pediment does.

Then you stare up at the façade of Cain's museum. Can these buildings really be just three decades apart? What cataclysm intervened? Generous decoration has given way to a lifeless geometric rationalism. American History is a long box containing two stories of exhibition space above the terrace. Two low, rectilinear attics are stacked on top. A cornice, pitched at roughly forty-five degrees, offers very scant relief from the tyranny of right angles. The American History museum is a steel-framed building clad in Tennessee marble, but the stone is laid not in blocks suggesting mass in compression, as with traditional buildings, but rather in large, vertically oblong panels that suggest a thin screen. Narrow window-strips separate the recessed masonry screens from the rest of Cain's curtain walls, heightening the impression of flimsiness.

IS THE DEPRESSING CONTRAST with Brown's ensemble simply a question of unequal talents? No, even though Cain was a minor architect. The key factor is that the designers of Brown's school benefited not only from a treasury of expressive resources but also from the "fail-safe" mechanisms that all but guaranteed at least satisfactory architectural results. The primary cause of Cain's failure must be sought in the dogma that took hold of architecture schools in the 1930s--a dogma that claimed architecture must reflect changes in the human condition wrought by modern science. It must speak of "progress" and "evolution" through abstraction and the absence of ornament; it must be "scientific" in expressing its structural properties, as Cain's flimsy curtain-walls do. But because modernism never shed its Romantic roots, such scientific dogma had to cohabit with the notion that buildings should enshrine novelty, as the expression of the designer's originality and creative prowess. This cult of originality has contributed to the stylistic instability of the Mall's modernist architecture.

THE DESIGNERS of the Mall's modernist museums have enjoyed varying degrees of success in replacing traditional means of expression with new ones. Some of them have unquestionably erected far more engaging buildings than Cain's. And yet, time and again, their work confronts us with fundamental deficiencies. For instance, the elementary gesture of endowing entry into a building with formal significance is almost entirely absent. Modernist entrances tend to be mere voids in a mass. How can such reductionism contribute to the dignity of the nation's premier civic precinct?