architectural photography

What do Monica Lewinsky, the Watergate and Mussolini have in common? by Alston Thompson

Bob Dole and Monica Lewinsky were next door neighbors at the Watergate during "Monica-Gate". I imagine Senator Dole speed walking, fiddling for his keys to avoid having to chit-chat with Monica in the hallway....."awkward"..... Like most people, I know more about the scandalous side of the Watergate than I do the complex itself. When we were editing our images for the Wall Street Journal piece we worked on about the Watergate and its residents, I looked at aerial photographs and realized the offices and apartments form a deconstructed Colosseum with poolside sunbathers at its center rather than gladiators and lions. I realized I knew nothing about the Watergate's architect Luigi Moretti or its development. 

View of the Watergate from the Kennedy Center. Photo: Alston Thompson Photography

When I discovered the architect was Italian, I figured I was on to something. Moretti is considered a Modernist. The Watergate was one of the first ever structures derived from a computer aided design. Moretti was heavily influenced by Brutalist architects, particularly Le Corbusier. While Brutalism in English equates to violent, oppressive behavior, in French it means wild, rough or unrefined. After World War II Corbusier wanted cheap, unfinished surfaces that reflected the state of urban reconstruction after the war. Reinforced concrete fit the bill. 

Architecture As Propaganda ........In some ways the selection of Moretti is as scandalous as its occupants. A fervent Fascist, he designed Mussolini's personal gymnasium and the fencing academy within the Foro Mussolini (now called the Foro Italico in an attempt to separate it from its Fascist past). The complex was home of the Fascist Academy of Physical Education. In 1938 Mussolini hosted Hitler at the academy with a performance by hardbodied young men carrying torches in the shape of a Swastika and the words "Heil Hitler". Hitler was so impressed he told Mussolini he had seen "the Roman state resurrected from remote tradition to new life." 

How Moretti, someone so closely associated with the Fascist leader, was able to pull off the Watergate design in the cradle of democracy is astonishing. Either the classical, curvilinear influence of the Colosseum obscured the developer's Fascist design roots or Moretti was one hell of a pitchman. It's hard to believe that Moretti didn't revel in planting a ten acre Modernist/Fascist flag in the heart of Fascism's ultimate foe. But whether that's the case or not isn't clear. There were practical considerations for it's curved structure in that it echoed the proposed Inner Loop Expressway and surprisingly the Kennedy Center next door (originally called the National Cultural Center). Edward Stone's initial design for the Kennedy Center was curvy and modern rather than the final rectangular classic revival design. So perhaps Moretti's design was more in keeping with Brutalism's aspiration for a structure to reflect the untamed nature of the urban concrete cityscape.

One problem that arose in the extensive approval process of the Watergate was its height. At the time there was a ninety foot limit for residential buildings. So to satisfy zoning laws, retail and office space were added to the design. So, no, apparently the communal design was not some subversive Fascist ploy, but rather a practical attempt to satisfy zoning laws.

And the theory this author put forth, that Moretti's design was some sort of Fascist Trojan Horse draped in neoclassical clothes can neither be proved nor disproved.  Yet it's hard to believe that Moretti didn't take some subversive pleasure in pulling off the Watergate complex.                                          

And, finally, below is the Wall Street Journal article we contributed to that led me down this rabbit hole:                                                                                                                                              

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We are headed to the Chicago Architecture Biennial by Alston Thompson

We are so excited to be heading to the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial. We'll be arriving October 2nd. The official kick-off is on October 3rd. The first event we'll be attending is an interpretive performance of Powers of Ten; a Charles and Ray Eames film commissioned by IBM in 1977. The performance, Superpowers of Ten is an interpretation presented by the Madrid-based architect Andres Jaque and his Office for Political Innovation. The Eames' produced almost sixty books, films and performances highlighting the aesthetic elegance of scientific principles for clients such as: Polaroid, Westinghouse, Boeing and IBM. These principals were central to their design vision. They sought to breakdown complex scientific concepts into simple visual elements for the layman. 

The next event we have on our itinerary is a panel discussion: Post Modern Architecture: Preservation's New Frontier. This discussion will highlight the post-1970 architecture of Chicago as a case study. It will explore the evolution of concepts related to major projects from this period; while exploring conceptual issues about the interpretation of history through urban architecture. Panelists include: Cynthia Weese of Weese Langley Weese and  Zurich Esposito, Executive Vice President of A.I.A. Chicago. The discussion will be moderated by Paul Makovsky of Metropolis Magazine.

We've also got a couple of social events planned, a 125th anniversary tour of the University of Chicago and a tour of the Frank Lloyd Wright designed  S.C. Johnson headquarters.

We hope to see you there.....