A Monumental Task
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MARGARET WARNER: The Washington Monument has stood as a symbol of the nation’s capital for more than a century.
STEPHEN LORENZETTI, National Capital Parks-Central: This one here shows some ideas of what the building might have looked like.
MARGARET WARNER: This tribute to America’s first President was a long time in the making. Architect Robert Mills won the original design competition in the 1830′s.
STEPHEN LORENZETTI: This is the Robert Mills’ design that won in 1836.
MARGARET WARNER: Work began in 1848, but soon lack of money and the onset of the Civil War froze construction for 20 years. When work resumed in 1876, builders had to use a slightly different color marble.
And Mills’ design was scaled back, eliminating all but the simple obelisk of classical proportions that remains today. When the 555-foot structure opened to the public in 1888, it was the tallest building in the world. Since then, tens of millions of tourists have ridden the elevator or climbed the nearly 900 steps to catch the views from the top. But decades of scorching sun, strong winds, and rain have badly weathered the facade.
A 1992 study commissioned by the National Park Service found several serious cracks near the top that have let rain penetrate the interior, damaging the commemorative stones inside.
STEPHEN LORENZETTI: If you look closely, you can see rust stains on various parts of the stone. This is caused by water coming through the joints over the iron lentil above the stone and depositing the rust stains on the stone itself.
MARGARET WARNER: The Park Service decided a lengthy overhaul was in order, inside and out. But it didn’t want to create the same kind of eyesore the last renovation had, with its bulky steel scaffolding that obscured the beauty of the landmark.
A public/private partnership sponsoring the new renovation — including the Park Service, the Park Service Foundation, Target Stores, and the Discovery Channel — chose famed Princeton, New Jersey, architect Michael Graves to design a scaffolding that wouldn’t obscure the landmark’s dramatic effect.
After nearly 40 years as an architect, Graves has produced a remarkable collection of high-profile buildings throughout the world. His distinctive style, blending classical elements, building block geometric shapes, and sun-kissed Mediterranean colors can be seen in smaller projects like this Napa Valley winery and in large-scale structures like the Humana, Inc. headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky.
He’s known, too, for his occasionally playful elements, as in the Disney Company headquarters in Burbank, California. Graves’ scaffolding for the Washington Monument, which has taken four months to erect, consists of 36 miles of aluminum tubing covered with a semi-transparent blue mesh in a pattern that echoes the rhythm of the blocks on the monument’s face.
The scaffolding sits three feet out from the monument face on all sides and tapers to a pyramid cap, just as the obelisk inside it. The elevator and hoists for workers and materials are inside the mesh layer to avoid marring the profile. But visitors who approach up close can see through the fabric to watch the restoration in progress.
The scaffolding alone was expected to cost between $2.5 million and $3 million, a hefty chunk of the projected $9 million total budget. Predictably, reaction to the structure’s new look has been mixed.
KATIE EDWARDS: I think it’s hideous. I’m really disappointed. I was looking forward to seeing it, and you can’t see anything.
LEE GLAZE: I’m an art teacher, so it’s pretty interesting. And I also like to work with clay, so I love the style and the simplicity of it.
CHRISTOPHER PARKHILL: I mean, it has to be done. If it needs to be fixed or rectified, then that’s what you have to do. I mean, it’s going to preserve it for a long time.
MARGARET WARNER: The Graves scaffolding will stand as the face of the Washington Monument until the restoration is complete, expected in July of 2000.
MARGARET WARNER: And with me is Michael Graves. Why did this project interest you?
MICHAEL GRAVES, Architect: Well, I thought that given my interest in restoration and the Washington Monument itself and the city, I thought it was a great chance to give back to let’s say an eight-year-old who comes from Des Moines with his parent or her parents to see the Washington Monument, and then discover that indeed it’s covered with scaffolding — what could you do to — to somehow give them something that they didn’t expect, give them two monuments — the original monument, of course, and then this new scaffolding to sort of highlight or amplify the question of restoration.
I thought we could tell a story about restoration, about monuments in general, obelisks, George Washington, that monument in the mall on the axis of the capital, et cetera, that had never been told before, simply by this act of making something new there that ultimately will come down, but to, as I say, amplify the question of restoration.
MARGARET WARNER: This kind of creative scaffolding is much more common in Europe, isn’t it?
MICHAEL GRAVES: Well, you know, in Europe the buildings are so old, they’re constantly under scaffold. There’s a wonderful church in Rome that during the two years I lived in Rome in the 60′s was under restoration the whole time. I thought it would soon come down. The next time I saw was 20 years later, it was still under scaffolding.
And it was called Sempri in Restaro. But it was always in restoration. But in Japan and Asia, we cover our buildings in scaffolding so the workers can work with a kind of netting over the whole thing so that they are protected from the elements, so they — one doesn’t really see the building until it’s finished, and then it all comes down.
MARGARET WARNER: So, you mean even when you’re building a building from scratch?
MICHAEL GRAVES: Mm-hmm.
MARGARET WARNER: You did this in stages, where first the aluminum scaffolding went up and then the mesh went up. And a lot of people loved it with just the aluminum scaffolding. Why did you add the mesh?
MICHAEL GRAVES: I added the mesh because I thought it was important to describe what the problem was, that my eight-year-old that I mentioned wouldn’t know anything about pointing, for instance. Pointing is that act of taking mortar out very carefully and putting new mortar in, repairing the stone, and fixing that surface, the outer surface of the stone, any cracks.
All of that will be fixed and replaced. And I thought it was important to highlight or amplify that question of, what is restoration? Why do we need to restore buildings? Aren’t they good for all time? No, in fact they need their health care as well as we do.
MARGARET WARNER: So you mean by the pattern that you used with the mesh and the aluminum, you were trying to suggest the mortar underneath?
MICHAEL GRAVES: Yes. You might have ten or twelve blocks across the top of the Monument. If we make two or three, we have sort of amplified that whole suggestion of the coursing, the ability to lay one stone against another and another one on top of those two, so that there is a pattern called running bond.
But it’s kind of not a layman’s term, but it’s a way of seeing the staggering that occurs in the laying of the stone, which is the most structurally important part of the whole Monument.
MARGARET WARNER: I was amazed to read that the Park Service had decreed that your scaffolding is supposed to support all these workers and materials, but could not be actually riveted into the Monument in any way. Was that hard to work around?
MICHAEL GRAVES: Not at all. The scaffolding is about three feet from the monument itself, enough room for workers to get through, around each other, and so on working on it. And we thought that it was important that the scaffolding simply touch or lean against the Monument. But if one side is leaning and the other side is leaning, they counterbalance each other, so it’s not a structural problem at all.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, as you heard, the reaction to this has been mixed. Does that surprise you?
MICHAEL GRAVES: It does surprise me, because last week I was here for another meeting for another project, and as I was going to my hotel, I asked the cab driver to take me around the Monument, “One turn around please,” and he said he would. And he asked — he then told me that, did I know the Monument was closed? I said, yes, I didn’t want to go in, I just wanted to see the scaffolding.
He said, “Well, it’s very interesting,” not knowing who I was or what my role in this was. He said, “It’s very interesting. All my fares”– in other words, all his passengers that have gone to the scaffolding have said — “I like it better this way than the former way.” And Robert Mills is a favorite architect of mine, the original architect, so I wouldn’t want him to hear that, but nevertheless, I like that comment. So I was all pumped up that a lot of people liked it.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, some in our piece liked it also.
MICHAEL GRAVES: Yes, of course.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, the critics have tried to describe you, and they’ve described you as a postmodernist or postmodern classicist. I mean, one — do those terms mean anything to you? How do you define yourself?
MICHAEL GRAVES: An architect. That’s good enough. You’re a journalist, I’m an architect.
MARGARET WARNER: How do you describe — do you describe your style?
MICHAEL GRAVES: Well, you can, but to — to label people is a thing that you guys do to us that is too easy — because it’s — whether music or poetry or politics, you have to — you have to give the description a greater breadth. And I’m interested in lots of things in architecture, but in terms of making buildings that are accessible and making language that is accessible — the language of architecture — because, you know, if an architect makes a door or a window, it comes with a whole lot of baggage. And if -
MARGARET WARNER: You mean expectations people have?
MICHAEL GRAVES: Yes, yes. Where is the front door? Where is the back door? What do they mean in our society? What’s front and back? What’s the threshold? What’s — what is the facade of a building here in Washington, let’s say, say to us as we approach that building?
And that’s the language that is carried out every day in architecture, those kinds of expectations. It’s not to say that you simply repeat the language. You might turn it on its head, you might change it, you might vary it in various ways, but you first of all have to — you speak a language that uses accent, uses change, uses difference.
But unless you’re speaking a language people get, nobody’s going to get anything. So I’m trying in my architecture to refine the kind of language that I’ve been working with for 35 or 40 years and make that language more explicit and clearer every day.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, you’ve received much critical acclaim, also of course sometimes critics, as you know, look at some of your buildings– particularly I’m thinking of, say, that Disney facade, the Disney headquarters facade with their 18-high-foot Seven Dwarf Gargoyles– and they say, “He’s just gimmicky.” Does that bother you?
MICHAEL GRAVES: I haven’t read that one. Actually, it was a wonderful partnership between Frank Wells and Michael Asner and myself in terms of constructing that facade. And they really pushed me to say something about what they were, what they stood for, and how they supported their part of the industry, the film part of films of Disney. And the Seven Dwarfs — “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was the first full-length movie, and so I think it was Frank Wells who said, “Why don’t we use them somehow on the facade?”
So using the kind of classical idea of Hermes to support the roof was an idea that came rather quickly, and then we developed the facade using that. I don’t really see it as a gimmick. They are the — you are working for an entertainment company. You’re not doing a tombstone for somebody. You’re not doing something that is altogether serious. You’re working for Disney.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, as we noted in the piece, you also don’t just build buildings. I think one of your most recognizable, I don’t know, symbols or pieces of work is that Alessi Teakettle. And you design all kinds of things you sell in your shop in Princeton. I read one article that said you were the only architect in America who had his own bridal registry. I’m just wondering, why do you do that? Why do you — why do you -
MICHAEL GRAVES: I haven’t been married that often.
MARGARET WARNER: I think they meant you provide one for people.
MICHAEL GRAVES: Yes, yes, yes.
MARGARET WARNER: Why do you do this? Why does it interest you?
MICHAEL GRAVES: I guess it interests me because I’ve never thought that architecture is limited to, you know, making just buildings. We came through a time in the 1950′s where architects became specialists. They were going to only do museums or only do, let’s say, office buildings.
And I’ve never felt that way about architecture because when I was trained in the 40′s and 50′s, it was the time of Saarinen and Mies and Le Corbusier, and the Eameses. And these are people who designed furniture and fabrics and buildings and the interiors, the exteriors, the landscapes and so on, just the way Michelangelo designed the costumes for the Swiss Guards in front of St. Peters — very few people know that. But if I were to do that, you know, the critics would come out of the woodwork and say, you know, “What’s he up to now?”
So it’s a way of saying that — that everything in the domestic interior, as well as the office environment, is up for grabs in terms of an architect or a designer working in that manner.
Many of the designers, the industrial designers of Europe were trained as architects. They happened to specialize in industrial design, but I have elected not to do that. But small things, as well as large things, interest me a whole lot, and I don’t see why to — why I should stop at the moment we reach the door.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, thank you very much, Mr. Graves, and congratulations.
MICHAEL GRAVES: Thank you.