PRINT September 1978

Capital Follies

PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE ISN’T VERY beautiful, which is why the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation has been created. The P.A.D.C. is a federal agency with a total budget of $130,000,000 (with congressional approval to raise this figure to $225,000,000 through borrowing), of which it proposes to spend $14,000,000 on the first part of the overall task, the improvement of an area at the avenue’s western end.

The P.A.D.C.’s original plan called for the collaboration of two teams of architects, an artist, and a group of engineers. These, following a selection process described below, turned out to be: Venturi and Rauch with George Patton, and M. Paul Friedberg with Jerome Lindsey; Richard Serra; and the firm of Hennington Durham, and Richardson (Consulting Engineers).

Of these, the two participants who matter most in our story are Venturi and Serra. Serra is now off the project, which will instead be Venturi’s from tip to toe, with Friedberg designing the adjacent wooded area. How and why this sorry state of affairs came to pass is, to use an expression preferred by the neighborhood’s most prestigious temporary resident, a disgrace. It is a disgraceful situation because, when one has considered what evidence there is, one is led to the conclusion that what went wrong was the result of a fundamental insensitivity to Serra’s art. (Nor is that all.)

Serra, Venturi and Rita Abraham of the P.A.D.C. talked to me about what happened: what follows depends almost exclusively on their different accounts of the events which took place. I talked, furthermore, to J. Carter Brown, the director of the National Gallery, who is also chairman of the Fine Arts Commission. The Fine Arts Commission has the last word on the projects undertaken by the P.A.D.C., and I wanted to know what Brown’s views were in the dispute that led to Serra’s departure from the scheme. Brown’s view seemed to be that Serra, whose work he admires, had taken a wholly unrealistic attitude toward the project. I am, with respect, not convinced.

I said that in my opinion what happened was the product of insensitivity. The following reconstruction of the events which took place provides the reason why I make that charge. That some of the insensitivity is in a way innocent, of course, makes no difference: we still don’t get the sculpture.

Innocent insensitivity may indeed be said to have sown the seed of the sad denouement now before us. Serra was chosen for the project through a process initiated, at the P.A.D.C.’s request, by a committee of experts from within the National Endowment for the Arts. They—Jim Elliot, John Neff, Irving Sandler and Diane Vanderlip—produced a list of a hundred eligible sculptors, which they then narrowed down to five. The short list was then passed on by the N. E. A. committee to a committee of administrators and architects, appointed by the P.A.D.C., which selected Serra from that list of five.

Here is where innocent insensitivity becomes an issue. When I talked to Rita Abraham, she assured me that the quality of the proposed sculpture was not in question, only its placement. “Quite frankly,” she said, “this is the story of a participation that didn’t work.” But Serra, as almost anyone who reads this magazine must know, has never made an outdoor piece that wasn’t attuned to its specific location. An outdoor Serra and its location are inseparable; one does not exaggerate in saying that any collaboration which fails to recognize this obvious fact could not be expected to work. The N.E.A. committee that put Serra on its list of finalists was surely cognizant of this, but one wonders whether the P.A.D.C. committee which chose him could possibly have taken it sufficiently seriously.

This, I think, is where innocent insensitivity—that of the bureaucrats, who are obliged to rely on the experts they appoint to guide them—converges with a less ingenuous indifference, or at least may. The committee which chose Serra included two architects, but—even though one of the P.A.D.C. administrators who belonged to it was described to me as an artist—no recognized authority on contemporary sculpture. Nor does the Fine Arts Commission, which also has two architects. The most casual observer would have to intimate that the situation was potentially loaded in favor of the view that sculpture is something which can simply be moved around like furniture by architects.

The collaborators-to-be were first brought together at a series of meetings held on January 11th, 12th and 13th of this year. If the facts of that encounter seem in retrospect to suggest that the proposed collaboration was doomed to failure from the start, then it will be well to recall that Freud meant what he said when he observed that we always overlook what we really don’t want to see. Here the very tendency of those present not to become alarmed by the distance between the participants points of view would testify to their mutual goodwill—unless there were already those who were prepared to entertain the possibility of the outcome that actually occurred, in which case other possible interpretations unfold.

The area of Pennsylvania Avenue to be improved is divided into two sites. One was to be a plaza—the design responsibility of Friedberg et al.—the center of which, originally, was to have been the site of Serra’s sculpture. The other was to be a wooded park (“Site 226”), for which the P.A.D.C. chose the Venturi team. (As I have already indicated, this arrangement is now reversed: Venturi is doing the plaza and Friedberg the park.)

At those meetings all the participants were invited to submit tentative proposals for the total area covered by the plaza site and Site 226. Venturi put forward a scheme which, by his own account, gained general favor but which, as one reads it now, was clearly incompatible with anything Serra might want to do.

Still, that wasn’t Serra’s opinion at that time, and a videotape of a press conference held on January 17th has him describing a work which “you could walk into, through and around.” A piece, significantly, in regard to which Serra took pains to say, at that same press conference: “In no way am I going to interfere with that axis from the Capitol to the Treasury Building.”

It was on that axis that the incompatibility of Venturi’s and Serra’s vision was to revolve. From the beginning Venturi has had his own ideas about the kind of orientation the plaza site should have, and from the beginning his opinion was, in principle, opposed to drawing attention to the axis between the Capitol and the Treasury Building.

In the proposal put forward at the outset, Venturi distinguishes between the Federal and local order in L’Enfant’s original plan for the city. The Federal order is contained in the diagonal avenues; the local, in the rectangular grid of the city’s streets. The plaza, says Venturi, is an amorphous space and, “Despite its location on the diagonal axis, it is by its direction [sic] associated with the grid and therefore with the local, not the Federal, scale.”

Reading this, which was discussed several days before the press conference, one might wonder how Serra could blithely discuss what he was going to do with the Federal axis. The fact is that he could do so because he hadn’t realized how committed Venturi was to the general scheme he’d (Venturi himself) proposed.

One reads the next paragraph of Venturi’s proposal, which contains the reason why Serra has left the project in light of that:

But we also don’t think the plaza should have a form in the middle of it. Not even a large round fountain . . . Anything we can think of, at least, would look pompous or inadequate as a complement to the Capitol. We think there should be two forms in the plaza: two pylons, both incomplete in themselves, oriented to the diagonal axis, and intrinsic to the giant order. From down the avenue and by their positions within the plaza, they should frame the portico of the Treasury and its trees in front.

Venturi, far from feeling that this proposal in any way usurps Serra’s function, says simply that he put forward a scheme which gained support early on because it “conforms to what the client asked us to do,” but to which Serra couldn’t accommodate himself.

Yet the point is that Serra did attempt to accommodate himself and his thinking to the idea of “two elements” in the plaza. What is significant is that no one seems seriously to have entertained the implication of his failure to make it work, which is precisely that the idea stinks artistically. Serra, having actually closed off Pennsylvania Avenue at one stage in order to try out the two pylons idea with rigging equipment, had finally proved to himself that the notion was hopeless and had gone back to working with a “single” element—in fact a piece of eight or nine sections—by the time the participants met with the F.A.C. on March 1st. It is hard to establish precisely what happened there, not least because the stenographer was sent home before any substantive discussion took place.

Two questions, in particular, about that meeting seem to beg for a more complete explanation. One would have to do with J. Carter Brown’s enthusiasm for Venturi’s scheme, which Serra describes as unbounded, but which Rita Abraham—and Brown himself—do not. The other would have to do with whether Brown, in the days that followed, was committed to a monumental work in the plaza, and/or that he was no longer committed to such a work’s being in the plaza but would find instead a way to move it to Site 226; whether, when it came down to cases, he couldn’t care less whether Serra ended up making a contribution or not. My feeling is that he certainly would have liked Serra to make a contribution, but—at least in retrospect—not a monumental one. Brown took the position, when speaking to me, that sculptors could not be expected to understand all the ramifications of urban planning. In the meetings which had taken place between the participants. first coming together and the meeting with the F.A.C. of March 1st, Serra had already drawn attention to the political reading offered by Venturi’s proposal “picturesquely” to frame the Treasury Building with the White House behind it, as he had also shown the implications of sinking the pedestrian plaza below street level on precisely that avenue which is the main public thoroughfare in the capital of a democracy pledged to the right of its people to assemble freely (without being swept out of sight). At a meeting held on March 15th Serra drew attention to other uses of pylons in civic architecture, particularly pylons crowned—as Venturi’s proposed ones now are—with flags: the tradition is imperial, and there are a number of especially striking uses of the device in Germany in the later 1930s.

By March 27th Serra had reached the point of asking those within the P.A.D.C. who continued to implore him to work with two elements to put in writing their demand that he conform to Venturi’s scheme. On March 29th he received a letter telling him to stop work as of March 31st, adding that the P.A.D.C. would like to see a proposal for a minor “horizontal” work to be placed, possibly, in a sculpture garden at Site 226, but advising him that funds were not authorized for the development of such a work.

Serra, in his own words, doesn’t make minor sculpture, and for the P.A.D.C. to counter that it is not talking about a work which is minor in status, but only in its relation to the two orders in L’Enfant’s plan, is merely to confirm that the P.A.D.C. doesn’t know with whom it is dealing, and hasn’t from the start. If you just want a leitmotiv, Serra isn’t the man for the job. We return to my original point, that it seems likely that from the very beginning Serra’s opinion wasn’t given the weight it deserved. He was a victim of the assumption that sculpture simply ornaments architecture, in a milieu tacitly unsympathetic to the historical point that that is not necessarily the way things need be. (Michelangelo’s Campidoglio and Bernini’s Piazza of St. Peter’s are the exact opposite—grand urban schemes designed by architects who were primarily sculptors.)

Consider, again, Serra’s point about the thin line between liberal democracy and the totalitarian alternative. Perhaps high art represents, for Venturi, a limit to the contradictoriness which elsewhere he has deemed necessary to a healthy urban architecture.1 Whether or not this is true, we lose. My view is that we have lost a monumental work by an artist of high achievement, to an orchestration of the context that seems to me like nothing so much as a deification of the banal.

In regard to this question of actual merit, incidentally, there are those who have observed that few voices have been raised within the architectural community——even among those who don’t care for Venturi’s work—which are critical of the Pennsylvania Avenue project. One rumor suggests that no New York architects want to rock the public boat before they see how the giant Westway pie will be sliced. Be all this as it may, the fact is that Serra’s psychic energy was drained to no avail, and our expectations were raised and then summarily dashed, because once more an artist was inveigled into a situation which contained no guarantee that his contribution would be substantive rather than token.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe



1. Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (The Museum of Modern Art Papers on Architecture, 1), New York, 1966, p. 59: “One thing is clear—from . . . false consistency real cities wit never grow. Cities, like architecture, are complex and contradictory”; or p. 103. “In the validly complex building or cityscape, the eye does not want to be too easily or too quickly satisfied in its search for unity within a whole.”