Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Ellen Harvey looks into the future and sees extraterrestrials amid neo-classical ruins.
Why would aliens be attracted to neo-classical architecture?
U.K.-born and now Brooklyn-based artist Ellen Harvey grew up intrigued by how classical and neo-classical architecture seemed to serve as a representation of so many different civilizations. "My first response to neo-classical architecture was informed by my English background, so to me it symbolizes the architecture of an empire," says the artist. "I remember going to Rome for the first time, seeing all of these classical buildings but thinking of it as something indigenous to my (British) culture."
Harvey is even more intrigued by D.C.'s heavy collection of neo-classical buildings, its identity formed by landmarks that seem to come from a time much older than the city itself. So why does seemingly every civilization adapt the style to its own values? Harvey explores that question in an especially playful way with "The Alien's Guide to the Ruins of Washington, D.C.," on exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art through October 6.
In the exhibit, Harvey imagines the District of Columbia in a post-human state, one where the same monuments human visitors seek out today still exist, but in far more ruinous condition. The only tourists left, aliens visiting the planet, orient themselves in the city at a traditional D.C. hot dog stand since converted into a visitors information booth with printed guides ("carefully researched and deeply incorrect") that explain the three types of classical columns (no longer known as "doric", "ionic" or "corinthian" but "boring", "frilly" and "very frilly") as well as a list of the city's most important structures to visit. In the museum's Rotunda, one finds an alien spaceship designed as a metallic, upside down corinthian (or "very frilly") column as their homage of sorts to the design sensibilities of humans.
On the second floor of the exhibit, Harvey imagines that aliens have put together the history and meaning of neo-classical architecture through a time capsule filled with postcards (printed during human times) that highlight these kinds of structures everywhere from Lithuania to Pennsylvania. For the display, Harvey actually acquired 5,000 real postcards of neo-classical buildings around the world, assembling them as if diagrammed and classified by the aliens that discovered the collection.
Underneath the jokes, the exhibit questions why we build what we build and what our monumental structures say about us. How does one architectural style manage to find ways to appeal to civilizations democratic and tyrannic, ancient and contemporary? And is there reason to think future civilizations won't give in to the allure of the same columns and pediments so many civilizations have before?
If those questions or the exhibit lead to a bit of discomfort, perhaps it's from the thought that what we build represents our values to anyone who comes after us. Perhaps it's a bit strange that the most iconic buildings of the U.S. capital look a lot like the ones ancient Greece left behind. In Harvey's mind, any embarrassment "that these productions sometimes elicit is the strongest sign that they are meaningful," adding, "it's impossible to be embarrassed by something you don't care about."
"Ellen Harvey: The Alien's Guide to the Ruins of Washington, D.C." is on exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art through October 6, 2013.
Top image: Alien Souvenir Stand, 2013. Photo: Junnie Shah, courtesy Corcoran Gallery of Art.