Elyn Zimmerman, Marabar, 1984. Courtesy of the artist.

National Geographic’s Renovation Plans Stalled Amid Campaign to Save Elyn Zimmerman Sculpture

The National Geographic Society’s plans to push forward with a redesign that involves the dismantling of a major site-specific land artwork by sculptor Elyn Zimmerman at its headquarters in Washington, DC, have been put on hold after an outcry from academics, art historians, architects, and museum administrators. On Thursday, May 28, the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) of the District of Columbia decided to suspend the proposed redesign while it revisits the plans, the New York Times reports.

The preservation panel originally gave Nat Geo the green light to overhaul its current campus in August 2019, but was unaware that it meant the removal of Marabar, a large-scale stone work—the focal point of which is a sixty-foot-long reflecting pool surrounded by five massive granite boulders—that was built into the society’s courtyard and completed in 1984. The threat of its destruction has prompted the Washington, DC–based Cultural Landscape Foundation (CLF) to lead a campaign to save the installation, and two dozen leading cultural figures have since written to the board urging it to reconsider its approval of the renovation due to the piece’s art-historical significance.

Among those urging Nat Geo to safeguard Marabar are Adam D. Weinberg, the director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; Penny Balkin Bach, the executive director and chief curator of the Association for Public Art; Jennifer Duncan, the head of the Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies; Adam Gopnik, a longtime writer for the New Yorker; architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, who saw one of their buildings, the Folk Art Museum in New York, get razed to make way for an expansion of the Museum of Modern Art; and architect David Childs, a former chairman of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, who commissioned Marabar in 1982.

In his letter to HPRB, Weinberg wrote: “The destruction of a great work of art is akin to the destruction of an irreplaceable ecological cultural heritage site. I know that destruction is not the intent of National Geographic, I do however ask that they consider other options. Now only do I believe that it would be the right thing—for Zimmerman and art history—but it would be an important signal and reaffirmation of National Geographic’s own values as a leading organization committed to protecting the great wonders of the world, be they woman-made or natural.”

In a letter written to the panel by Cary Kadlecek of Goulston & Storrs, Nat Geo’s legal representation, on May 22, Kadlecek claims that Marabar is “not historic” and that “reconsideration would establish a bad precedent.” He also argues that Nat Geo was transparent about its intention to deinstall the work and that the site where it is located is private property. HPRB chair Marnique Heath countered, saying the “issue of the sculpture was not raised,” and Outerbridge Horsey, a board member of the preservation committee, called the unanimous 7–0 vote to approve the redesign “very uncomfortable.” The plans will be revisited by HPRB in the near future.