ECA News Briefs

DC Historic Preservation Review Board Reassesses Vote to Demolish MARABAR Site-Specific Installation

The District of Columbia Historic Preservation Review Board’s decided on May 28, 2020 to revisit its August 1, 2019, 7-0 vote that would result in the demolition of the site-specific installation MARABAR on the National Geographic Society’s (NGS) campus. NGS’ plans to renovate the M Street plaza on their campus includes the demolition of the installation created by New York-based artist Elyn Zimmerman.

The Cultural Landscape Foundation launched a campaign on March 31, 2020, to get the case reopened and the vote reassessed, asserting that the HPRB was not adequately informed about the plaza renovation’s impact on MARABAR. HPRB Chair Marnique Heath affirmed TCLF’s position, noting that the “issue of the sculpture was not raised” by NGS. Board member Outerbridge Horsey concurred that MARABAR “should have been brought to our attention” by NGS. Citing majority opinion to reconsider the case, Ms. Heath said that NGS should “strongly consider whether the sculpture can remain.”

MARABAR by Elyn Zimmerman. Image courtesy Cultural Landscape Foundation.

MARABAR, which opened in 1984, was Zimmerman’s first large-scale and (ostensibly) permanent project. The work was created as a complement to the 1981 building addition created by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. She received the commission not long after returning to the United States from India—a journey that marked her transition from being primarily a photographer and painter to a sculptor and environmental artist.  According to the artist, the installation was created as an artistic interpretation and expression of NGS’ mission. The focal point of MARABAR is a rectangular reflecting pool (6 x 60 ft.) set amid five mahogany-colored granite boulders, three of which have highly polished and reflective surfaces, mirroring one another across the pool. The massive stones are deliberately shaped, having been sheared along natural cleft lines, their forms and positions alluding to some seismic event that has lacerated the plaza to reveal a natural spring. Because the boulders sink below the granite pavement, which also hovers above the water in the pool, the plaza’s natural elements appear to antedate the man-made construction. Seven other boulders are strategically sited throughout the nearby gardens, creating individual moments of discovery and a dialogue with the pool ensemble. The title of the piece, bestowed after it was completed, derives from the fictional Marabar Caves (based on the real Barabar Caves outside the City of Gaya) in E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India.

MARABAR is the jewel in the setting,” said Charles A. Birnbaum, TCLF’s president and CEO. “We are pleased with today’s decision and urge National Geographic to work with Ms. Zimmerman, architects Hickok & Cole, and landscape architects OLIN, to develop a design that meets the Society’s programmatic needs and retains MARABAR.”

Several dozen letters have been sent to the HPRB attesting to MARABAR’s importance. Whitney Museum of American Art Director Adam Weinberg wrote that MARABAR is a “masterpiece” and described Zimmerman as “one of the great public artists of her generation.” Marc Treib, professor of architecture emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote that “‘Marabar’ is a key representative of American site-specific art, elegant in its form, impressive in its use of stone, and engaging in its effects,” adding, “It is certainly one of the great works of the later twentieth century, and one of the few located in a city.” New York University Professor Joseph Low (“Pepe”) Karmel wrote that “Marabar is one of the most important sculptural installations of the twentieth century. It will be included prominently in my book Abstract Art: A Global History, to be published by Thames & Hudson in October of this year.”

In July 2019, National Geographic filed plans for approval by the District of Columbia’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), seeking to “unify the existing national geographic campus with a new pavilion, plaza, renovated ground level, and cohesive streetscape.” Although the HPRB approved the plans by a 7-0 vote on August 1, 2019, according to a May 8, 2020 New York Times article: “Steve Callcott, a preservation officer for the district who speaks for the [HPRB], said that, at the time of the August vote, members had not understood that the society intended to remove the sculpture.” In fact, the renderings of the site, as presented to the review board, did not label or otherwise identify the work of art.

In a May 25, 2020, letter to the HPRB, TCLF cited attorney Cary R. Kadlecek, of Goulston & Storrs, who wrote to the HPRB on behalf of NGS and asserted: “There was no need for NGS to specifically highlight the removal of Marabar beyond any other elements of the existing plaza.” Elsewhere in the same letter Mr. Kadlecek wrote: “Since the Board’s jurisdiction does not extend to Marabar, NGS had no obligation to specifically discuss Marabar in its plans in any event since it not relevant to the concept review.”

About Elyn Zimmerman

Elyn Zimmerman’s work is featured in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of America Art, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, for example, and it has been recognized by awards from the Art Commission of the City of New York, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Maryland chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects. Among her many large-scale public projects are commissions from the Institute for Advanced Studies, in Princeton, New Jersey; the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden at the New Orleans Museum of Art; the U.S. State Department for the embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; and the Vancouver Art Commission for a prominent project in the city center.

Zimmerman served as a member of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts from 2003 to 2008, and in 2016 she, along with Tadao Ando, received the Isamu Noguchi Award, given annually to practitioners who “share Noguchi’s spirit of innovation, global consciousness, and East-West exchange.”

For additional information, TCLF has published a conversation with Elyn Zimmerman.

About The Cultural Landscape Foundation

The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit founded in 1998 to connect people to places. TCLF educates and engages the public to make our shared landscape heritage more visible, identify its value, and empower its stewards. Through its website, publishing, lectures, and other events, TCLF broadens support and understanding for cultural landscapes. TCLF is also home to the Cornelia Hahn Oberlander International Landscape Architecture Prize.

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