Commentary Magazine


Topic: designer

Not the Social Diva, But the Presidential Diva

Maureen Dowd — I know you’re shocked I’d think this — doesn’t get it remotely right in her column on the fall from grace of Tiger Woods and Desiree Rogers. (I leave the Woods episode to others, who have greater interest in golf and sports-celebrity infidelity.) As for Rogers, Dowd observes:

Even if Desiree thought Congress was grandstanding, it was goofy of her to use the Constitution to get out of a Congressional summons. The Obama White House is morphing into the Bush White House with frightening speed. Its transparency is already fogged up.

The smart thing would have been for Desiree to sail up to Congress, wearing designer sackcloth and pearls of remorse, apologize for the oversight at her first state dinner and promise it wouldn’t happen again.

It just made her look weaker that she couldn’t simply accept some blame publicly for what happened at a dinner she was in charge of, and draw the heat away from the First Family she serves. She’s no G. Gordon Liddy.

But, of course, it is the president who holds the executive privilege and who asserts it. It is the president and his enablers, not Rogers, who is treating the Constitution as though it were silly putty, stretching and bending it however it suits their fancy. When Dowd writes, “Both the golf diva and the social diva mistakenly think the rules need not apply to them, ” she’s missing — or disguising — the point. It is the president who thinks the rules don’t apply to him. And even Dowd can’t really conceal what is going on as she declares, “Never mind the White House’s absurdly asserting executive privilege to dismiss a faux pas.” Well, we should mind.

Dowd may be obsessed with the golf and social divas, but there is a real and recurring theme here that should trouble those who used to inveigh against George W. Bush for ”shredding the Constitution” or restoring the “imperial presidency.” The normal rules of restraint against political opponents and critical media outlets (e.g., the Chamber of Commerce, Fox News) don’t apply to Obama and his enablers. The normal rules of Constitutional interpretation don’t apply to them, whether it concerns czar mania or executive privilege. That’s a recipe for abuse, overreach, and the political landmines, which befall a White House indifferent to advice and hostile to criticism.

The troubling trends – from czars to the war on Fox to the stunt of elastic executive privilege – flow from the mindset and prickly personality of the president, not from his social secretary. Perhaps that’s why when you Google “Obama” and “Nixon” and “arrogance,” you get 4.29 million entries. Try it.

Maureen Dowd — I know you’re shocked I’d think this — doesn’t get it remotely right in her column on the fall from grace of Tiger Woods and Desiree Rogers. (I leave the Woods episode to others, who have greater interest in golf and sports-celebrity infidelity.) As for Rogers, Dowd observes:

Even if Desiree thought Congress was grandstanding, it was goofy of her to use the Constitution to get out of a Congressional summons. The Obama White House is morphing into the Bush White House with frightening speed. Its transparency is already fogged up.

The smart thing would have been for Desiree to sail up to Congress, wearing designer sackcloth and pearls of remorse, apologize for the oversight at her first state dinner and promise it wouldn’t happen again.

It just made her look weaker that she couldn’t simply accept some blame publicly for what happened at a dinner she was in charge of, and draw the heat away from the First Family she serves. She’s no G. Gordon Liddy.

But, of course, it is the president who holds the executive privilege and who asserts it. It is the president and his enablers, not Rogers, who is treating the Constitution as though it were silly putty, stretching and bending it however it suits their fancy. When Dowd writes, “Both the golf diva and the social diva mistakenly think the rules need not apply to them, ” she’s missing — or disguising — the point. It is the president who thinks the rules don’t apply to him. And even Dowd can’t really conceal what is going on as she declares, “Never mind the White House’s absurdly asserting executive privilege to dismiss a faux pas.” Well, we should mind.

Dowd may be obsessed with the golf and social divas, but there is a real and recurring theme here that should trouble those who used to inveigh against George W. Bush for ”shredding the Constitution” or restoring the “imperial presidency.” The normal rules of restraint against political opponents and critical media outlets (e.g., the Chamber of Commerce, Fox News) don’t apply to Obama and his enablers. The normal rules of Constitutional interpretation don’t apply to them, whether it concerns czar mania or executive privilege. That’s a recipe for abuse, overreach, and the political landmines, which befall a White House indifferent to advice and hostile to criticism.

The troubling trends – from czars to the war on Fox to the stunt of elastic executive privilege – flow from the mindset and prickly personality of the president, not from his social secretary. Perhaps that’s why when you Google “Obama” and “Nixon” and “arrogance,” you get 4.29 million entries. Try it.

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Embraced

There’s a very “balanced” piece about the planned Flight 93 memorial in today’s New York Times. But this surreal tale has been kicking around the blogosphere for a few years now.

In the name of Islam, a group of terrorists turned an airplane full of unsuspecting civilians into a missile packed with corpses. In order to honor the men, women, and children whose last experience was a death plunge over Pennsylvania, a memorial is designed. This memorial, named “Crescent of Embrace,” is a massive landscape sculpture of a star and crescent, the symbol of Islam.

The memorial’s designer, Paul Murdoch, said “The framing of that space is like a large-scale embrace, on a scale commensurate of the heroic acts of the people who died there.” There’s more than enough vagueness in that drivel to leave you wondering just whose acts Murdoch deems heroic.

The original design has to be seen to be believed. It’s as unmistakably an Islamic crescent as Mount Rushmore is a row of U.S. presidents. This is from the Times:

The critics complain that the shape of the memorial – designed by Paul Murdoch, an architect based in Los Angeles – is an Islamic crescent, that a wind-chime tower mirrors an Islamic minaret and that the memorial would point east toward the Islamic holy city of Mecca.

Here’s an experiment: Take out the words “The critics complain that” and take out the “that” after “crescent.” Look at the picture of the original design for the memorial side-by-side with a picture of an Islamic crescent. Can there be any doubt that “the critics” are merely observers? And sloppy observers to boot. They missed something: the little satellite cluster of trees standing in place of the crescent’s star.

Is there a term to describe this phenomenon? Irony doesn’t cut it, and self-loathing misses the irony. Forget the nuances. Let’s go with surrender. For that’s what the symbol literally says. The Arabic meaning of Islam is “surrender” (not “peace” or “love” or any other rubber-bracelet sentiment). Constructing the “Crescent of Embrace” on a Pennsylvania field is simply writing “we surrender” in the very language of our enemy.

People have complained, and the Times reports that the design has been changed. It’s now the “Circle of Embrace.” The crescent’s gap has been (mostly) filled in, giving the Islamic symbolism a “Where’s Waldo?” spin. It’s still in there, you just have to look a little harder. Of course, the design and the designer should have been scrapped altogether. But amid all this embracing, it would be rude to leave him out.

If and when there’s another such attack, one wonders what they might throw up to commemorate victims. Maybe an all-in-one flight school, passport office, and mosque?

There’s a very “balanced” piece about the planned Flight 93 memorial in today’s New York Times. But this surreal tale has been kicking around the blogosphere for a few years now.

In the name of Islam, a group of terrorists turned an airplane full of unsuspecting civilians into a missile packed with corpses. In order to honor the men, women, and children whose last experience was a death plunge over Pennsylvania, a memorial is designed. This memorial, named “Crescent of Embrace,” is a massive landscape sculpture of a star and crescent, the symbol of Islam.

The memorial’s designer, Paul Murdoch, said “The framing of that space is like a large-scale embrace, on a scale commensurate of the heroic acts of the people who died there.” There’s more than enough vagueness in that drivel to leave you wondering just whose acts Murdoch deems heroic.

The original design has to be seen to be believed. It’s as unmistakably an Islamic crescent as Mount Rushmore is a row of U.S. presidents. This is from the Times:

The critics complain that the shape of the memorial – designed by Paul Murdoch, an architect based in Los Angeles – is an Islamic crescent, that a wind-chime tower mirrors an Islamic minaret and that the memorial would point east toward the Islamic holy city of Mecca.

Here’s an experiment: Take out the words “The critics complain that” and take out the “that” after “crescent.” Look at the picture of the original design for the memorial side-by-side with a picture of an Islamic crescent. Can there be any doubt that “the critics” are merely observers? And sloppy observers to boot. They missed something: the little satellite cluster of trees standing in place of the crescent’s star.

Is there a term to describe this phenomenon? Irony doesn’t cut it, and self-loathing misses the irony. Forget the nuances. Let’s go with surrender. For that’s what the symbol literally says. The Arabic meaning of Islam is “surrender” (not “peace” or “love” or any other rubber-bracelet sentiment). Constructing the “Crescent of Embrace” on a Pennsylvania field is simply writing “we surrender” in the very language of our enemy.

People have complained, and the Times reports that the design has been changed. It’s now the “Circle of Embrace.” The crescent’s gap has been (mostly) filled in, giving the Islamic symbolism a “Where’s Waldo?” spin. It’s still in there, you just have to look a little harder. Of course, the design and the designer should have been scrapped altogether. But amid all this embracing, it would be rude to leave him out.

If and when there’s another such attack, one wonders what they might throw up to commemorate victims. Maybe an all-in-one flight school, passport office, and mosque?

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Pakistan’s Glitzy New Government

Pakistani-American women may soon be compelled to embrace humility and subservience in larger and larger numbers. But the women of Pakistan’s new political elite are unfazed. In a curious article—part political analysis, part red carpet dish—the AP’s Lauren Frayer offers a glimpse of what representative government looks like amid the violent changes in Pakistan.

In the last parliament, about a dozen female lawmakers from the religious alliance wore body-shrouding black veils that concealed everything except their eyes.

But as parliament elected its first female speaker Wednesday, just a single lawmaker — one of 74 women in the 342-seat house — covered her face with a light beige wrap. Others wore traditional flowing gowns, some with bare heads and others with their hair only partially covered by loose scarves.

Fehmida Mirza, a medical doctor, is the first woman elected as National Assembly speaker in Pakistan’s 60-year history.

Half a dozen other female lawmakers touched her shoulders as Mirza, wearing a diamond nose ring and an elegant lavender tunic embroidered with silver rosettes and a deep V-neck, rose to take her oath.

“We are writing a new chapter in history,” she said, diamond-studded pearl droplet earrings and a pouf of dark hair springing out from under her sheer veil. She repeatedly touched her forehead in a gesture of thanks to her peers a thick gold bracelet sliding down her arm.

“Benazir’s dream has come true,” said fellow party member Farzana Raja. “We have proven we’re not only chanting slogans for women’s empowerment — we’re taking practical steps,” she said, shoving the designer sunglasses back on her head and letting her headscarf slip off.

“Benazir” is, of course, the late Benazir Bhutto. And while her political dream was indeed heavy on female emancipation and glam, her historical relationship to governance was always accessorized by entitlement and corruption. The question at hand is: to what extent will that part of the Bhutto legacy live on? Ms. Frayer spoke with a number of people who objected to the ostentation of upper-class politicos in a country so wracked with want. A good deal of what she describes (gold-trimmed SUV’s, for instance) is troublingly reminiscent of Saudi decadence. But it is important to note that the new, bejeweled parliament is at least free of Wahhabist sentiments. And all that bling is evidence of an increasingly secular Pakistan. Ms. Frayer spoke to a police officer who summed up the situation:

“Islam doesn’t allow women to unveil themselves, but the atmosphere in Pakistan is changing day by day. You can see it in the fashion here,” he said, requesting anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to the media.

“It’s a bit of a charade, but it’s also a big sign of democracy and hope,” he said.

The forging of a consensually-governed Pakistan can allow for a little charade. As long as they don’t lose sight of the democracy and hope.

Pakistani-American women may soon be compelled to embrace humility and subservience in larger and larger numbers. But the women of Pakistan’s new political elite are unfazed. In a curious article—part political analysis, part red carpet dish—the AP’s Lauren Frayer offers a glimpse of what representative government looks like amid the violent changes in Pakistan.

In the last parliament, about a dozen female lawmakers from the religious alliance wore body-shrouding black veils that concealed everything except their eyes.

But as parliament elected its first female speaker Wednesday, just a single lawmaker — one of 74 women in the 342-seat house — covered her face with a light beige wrap. Others wore traditional flowing gowns, some with bare heads and others with their hair only partially covered by loose scarves.

Fehmida Mirza, a medical doctor, is the first woman elected as National Assembly speaker in Pakistan’s 60-year history.

Half a dozen other female lawmakers touched her shoulders as Mirza, wearing a diamond nose ring and an elegant lavender tunic embroidered with silver rosettes and a deep V-neck, rose to take her oath.

“We are writing a new chapter in history,” she said, diamond-studded pearl droplet earrings and a pouf of dark hair springing out from under her sheer veil. She repeatedly touched her forehead in a gesture of thanks to her peers a thick gold bracelet sliding down her arm.

“Benazir’s dream has come true,” said fellow party member Farzana Raja. “We have proven we’re not only chanting slogans for women’s empowerment — we’re taking practical steps,” she said, shoving the designer sunglasses back on her head and letting her headscarf slip off.

“Benazir” is, of course, the late Benazir Bhutto. And while her political dream was indeed heavy on female emancipation and glam, her historical relationship to governance was always accessorized by entitlement and corruption. The question at hand is: to what extent will that part of the Bhutto legacy live on? Ms. Frayer spoke with a number of people who objected to the ostentation of upper-class politicos in a country so wracked with want. A good deal of what she describes (gold-trimmed SUV’s, for instance) is troublingly reminiscent of Saudi decadence. But it is important to note that the new, bejeweled parliament is at least free of Wahhabist sentiments. And all that bling is evidence of an increasingly secular Pakistan. Ms. Frayer spoke to a police officer who summed up the situation:

“Islam doesn’t allow women to unveil themselves, but the atmosphere in Pakistan is changing day by day. You can see it in the fashion here,” he said, requesting anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to the media.

“It’s a bit of a charade, but it’s also a big sign of democracy and hope,” he said.

The forging of a consensually-governed Pakistan can allow for a little charade. As long as they don’t lose sight of the democracy and hope.

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“Chunky Jello Salad”?

The plan to move the Barnes Foundation from suburban Merion to central Philadelphia took another step forward last Friday when a short list of six architects was announced. The Barnes, of course, houses the peerless collection of post-Impressionist and modernist paintings of Dr. Albert C. Barnes, which until recently was accessible only to the students of his idiosyncratic school of art. Since a controversial 2004 court decision permitted the trustees of the Barnes to relocate its collection to a site near the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the foundation has been preparing to build a new museum.

According to Inga Saffron, architecture critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, the short list is a fashionable roster of current celebrities: Rafael Moneo, the Spanish designer of the new Los Angeles Catholic Cathedral; Tadao Ando, the Japanese specialist in museum architecture; Thom Mayne of Morphosis, a Los Angeles firm whose work has an assertively theoretical character; and Kengo Kuma, a Japanese minimalist who works with traditional materials. The final two firms on the list, coincidentally, are the husband-and-wife teams I mentioned here last week: Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, designers of the American Folk Art Museum, and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, whose Institute of Contemporary Art opened in Boston last fall.

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The plan to move the Barnes Foundation from suburban Merion to central Philadelphia took another step forward last Friday when a short list of six architects was announced. The Barnes, of course, houses the peerless collection of post-Impressionist and modernist paintings of Dr. Albert C. Barnes, which until recently was accessible only to the students of his idiosyncratic school of art. Since a controversial 2004 court decision permitted the trustees of the Barnes to relocate its collection to a site near the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the foundation has been preparing to build a new museum.

According to Inga Saffron, architecture critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, the short list is a fashionable roster of current celebrities: Rafael Moneo, the Spanish designer of the new Los Angeles Catholic Cathedral; Tadao Ando, the Japanese specialist in museum architecture; Thom Mayne of Morphosis, a Los Angeles firm whose work has an assertively theoretical character; and Kengo Kuma, a Japanese minimalist who works with traditional materials. The final two firms on the list, coincidentally, are the husband-and-wife teams I mentioned here last week: Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, designers of the American Folk Art Museum, and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, whose Institute of Contemporary Art opened in Boston last fall.

The list is revealing. Note the conspicuous absence of such “starchitects” as Frank Gehry and Richard Meier, but also the absence of local firms and firms with no celebrity status whatsoever. None are signature architects, possessing immediately recognizable personal styles. Evidently the Barnes does want celebrity architects—but, as much as possible, pliable ones.

It remains unclear precisely what the chosen firm will do. According to the court decision, the new building must replicate exactly the layout, proportion, and materials of the original galleries, as well as Barnes’s famously eccentric hanging scheme. There is little scope for invention, other than in the way this simulacrum is to be enclosed. I spoke with Andrew Blanda, of the Philadelphia firm Sandvold/Blanda, who was interviewed for the Inquirer article. His prediction: “I’m betting that the effect will be like a chunky jello salad: blocks of galleries encased in a glassy shell of nebulous public space.” Those who dread this prospect might want to pay a visit to Paul Cret’s stately classical pavilion before it’s too late.

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LeWitt’s Legacy

The artist Sol LeWitt died last week at the age of 78, just two months after the death of Jules Olitski, another artist who achieved fame in the 1960′s. Each took as his point of departure the “action painting” of the 1950′s, reacting against its convulsive gestures and swagger—although they did so in sharply different ways.

Olitski stained his canvases with frail veils of color, creating mists or fields without any bounding lines. LeWitt, by contrast, made hard-edged sculptures and paintings. Cool and cerebral in character, they were invariably bounded by firm lines and planes. He preferred working with “deliberately uninteresting”—to use his phrase—forms and geometric modules, which he assembled into sprawling additive compositions. These laconic assemblages mark the beginning of Conceptual Art, a term LeWitt coined in 1967.

In that year LeWitt published his landmark essay, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” in Artforum. “Paragraphs” contains a celebrated definition: “In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair.” So perfunctory, indeed, that the execution of LeWitt’s wall paintings was invariably left to assistants or student volunteers working from his written instructions.

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The artist Sol LeWitt died last week at the age of 78, just two months after the death of Jules Olitski, another artist who achieved fame in the 1960′s. Each took as his point of departure the “action painting” of the 1950′s, reacting against its convulsive gestures and swagger—although they did so in sharply different ways.

Olitski stained his canvases with frail veils of color, creating mists or fields without any bounding lines. LeWitt, by contrast, made hard-edged sculptures and paintings. Cool and cerebral in character, they were invariably bounded by firm lines and planes. He preferred working with “deliberately uninteresting”—to use his phrase—forms and geometric modules, which he assembled into sprawling additive compositions. These laconic assemblages mark the beginning of Conceptual Art, a term LeWitt coined in 1967.

In that year LeWitt published his landmark essay, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” in Artforum. “Paragraphs” contains a celebrated definition: “In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair.” So perfunctory, indeed, that the execution of LeWitt’s wall paintings was invariably left to assistants or student volunteers working from his written instructions.

LeWitt’s own artistic training was spotty. Born in Hartford, Connecticut to a family of Russian immigrants, he studied at Syracuse University, designed posters while serving in the army in Korea, and worked for a time in the bookshop of the Museum of Modern Art. He even served a term in the mid-1950′s as a designer for the architect I.M. Pei. This varied background helps account for his versatility—sculpture, print-making, graphic art—but it also suggests why his artistic language remained a schematic affair of simple geometric units and shapes. He was never a fluid draftsman and never sought to achieve painterly effects.

Strangely, after he had brought art to this conceptual pass, LeWitt retreated from the disembodied logic of his 1960′s work. His late wall paintings, like the one I pass each morning in the Williams College Museum of Art, are distinguished by a vibrant and sumptuous sense of color, worlds away from his bleached lattices of the 1960′s. Might it be that he was closer as an artist to Olitski than one might have thought?

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Compromised Memorial

New York’s World Trade Center memorial is again the subject of controversy. Two years ago I criticized the design in the New Criterion for its remorseless Zen minimalism, and for offering only negations. The design, I wrote, “with its drumbeat of void, absence, falling, is filled with the presence of death and nowhere aware of the context of that death.” To some extent this was inevitable, given that the design plan mandated that the footprints of the fallen towers be retained, but the choices made by the designer, Michael Arad, have only tended to enhance its overwhelming sense of despair.

One choice in particular—how to list the names of the victims—was especially upsetting to the bereaved families. Arad rejected any systematic order, either alphabetical or by affiliation; instead he proposed to place the names in random order, making no distinction between World Trade Center employees, hijacked passengers, and first-responders. After two years of furious protest by police, fire, and rescue units, which felt that their sacrifices were of a different order, a compromise was made, in which names would be grouped according to where victims died, and crucial bits of information—such as airline flight number or fire house—would be provided.

This compromise has now drawn the ire of other survivors, who fear that separate classes of victims are being established, with their loved ones enjoying less status than those who sought to rescue them. It is a painful dilemma, and one sympathizes with both factions. Unfortunately, it does not lend itself to an elegant and elegiac solution like that of the Vietnam veterans memorial in Washington, where the names are inscribed in the sequence in which they died. One wonders if a better designed monument, one that offered hope and solace and not merely gloom, might have provoked less squabbling. As it is, the void of the memorial offers little comfort beyond the incised names themselves. Small wonder, then, that they are contested so bitterly.

New York’s World Trade Center memorial is again the subject of controversy. Two years ago I criticized the design in the New Criterion for its remorseless Zen minimalism, and for offering only negations. The design, I wrote, “with its drumbeat of void, absence, falling, is filled with the presence of death and nowhere aware of the context of that death.” To some extent this was inevitable, given that the design plan mandated that the footprints of the fallen towers be retained, but the choices made by the designer, Michael Arad, have only tended to enhance its overwhelming sense of despair.

One choice in particular—how to list the names of the victims—was especially upsetting to the bereaved families. Arad rejected any systematic order, either alphabetical or by affiliation; instead he proposed to place the names in random order, making no distinction between World Trade Center employees, hijacked passengers, and first-responders. After two years of furious protest by police, fire, and rescue units, which felt that their sacrifices were of a different order, a compromise was made, in which names would be grouped according to where victims died, and crucial bits of information—such as airline flight number or fire house—would be provided.

This compromise has now drawn the ire of other survivors, who fear that separate classes of victims are being established, with their loved ones enjoying less status than those who sought to rescue them. It is a painful dilemma, and one sympathizes with both factions. Unfortunately, it does not lend itself to an elegant and elegiac solution like that of the Vietnam veterans memorial in Washington, where the names are inscribed in the sequence in which they died. One wonders if a better designed monument, one that offered hope and solace and not merely gloom, might have provoked less squabbling. As it is, the void of the memorial offers little comfort beyond the incised names themselves. Small wonder, then, that they are contested so bitterly.

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