The inauguration of the President of the USA has been widely covered, from many angles, but there is one matter that deserves further analysis: design. Because design matters. Even in politics where it is consumed with symbolism.
As you would expect, the contrast in design between the former and the current incumbents is just as different as their politics. Not that you need a reminder after 4 years of relentless self-promotion by the narcissistic sociopath, but ‘Trumpitecture’ looks like this:
Trumpitecture clings to easy symbols: big means strong, bigger means stronger. There is a tale of Trump shortening an adjacent building in a scale model of Manhattan so his building would appear taller. The Las Vegas Trump Tower is gold, ah the subtlety. The Trump sign is 260 sqm in area (larger than the average American home) and the architect remarked: “Just for the record, I had nothing to do with this sign”.
Enough of the hideousness. Let’s look to better ideas.
The Covid pandemic hangs heavy over Biden’s start, but far from ignoring it as Trump had done, he acknowledged, almost memorialised, the tragedy of more than 440,000 deaths (from 26m+ total cases) over the last year, in two distinct ways. One was 400 lights in two rows either side of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. The other was a field of almost 200,000 flags where the great and the good have stood in inaugurations past.
The pool defines the National Mall between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, built in honour of 16thUS president Abraham Lincoln, who led the nation through the American Civil War that claimed 620,000 lives. The Covid death toll is projected to climb closer to this figure in coming months (depending on the success of vaccination). So, the location is deeply symbolic.
Some nerd details: the lights were made from ETC Source Four Pars lamps, placed inside 400 framed ‘monoliths’, covered in fabric by IWEISS. Made by ‘Daedalus Design & Production’, to designs by Bruce Rodgers and Tribe Inc; the lighting was by Bob Dickinson and Full Flood Inc with scenic support by PRG. Not a last-minute quickie, this was carefully planned and executed.
At sundown on 19th January, the day before the inauguration, the 400 lights were illuminated before a ceremony featuring Joe Biden & Kamala Harris. Gospel singer Yolanda Adams sang Hallelujah, then a minute’s silence in memory of the Covid dead, then a Michigan hospital nurse, Lori Marie Key, sang Amazing Grace. Biden spoke from a podium, before a tolling of the bells 400 times at the National Cathedral, 6.5km away.
The area where the public and guests would normally stand on inauguration day was vacant on the 20th owing to Covid restrictions. This was the source of the first of Trump’s whoppers: that the crowd was bigger than Obama’s. Nobody believed that one, although sadly many of the 74 million that voted for him came to believe the 30,000 lies that followed.
Into this space was installed the ‘Field of Flags’ and the ‘Pillars of Light’. 191,500 US flags of various sizes, including smaller flags from every US state and territory, represented the absent attendees. 56 pillars of light, representing each state and territory, illuminated the flags at night for periods of 46 seconds, commemorating Biden’s status as the 46thPresident.More nerd stuff: the production design was by Austin-based C3Concerts, who also worked on Obama inaugurations in 2009 and 2013. The lighting using 56 Syncrolites, each 8000 watts and visible 800m vertically, was provided by ‘Image Engineering’. The lighting design as by Chris Lisle, who had done the NYE stage lighting in his native Nashville.
Lisle’s team spent four days installing 1500 lights for the flags and then the light beams into the air. "When you're doing something that's going to be seen by the world, that changes your whole mentality," said Lisle, "I've done a lot of events that were televised locally and nationally but when you get to the world scale, I definitely felt the pressure."
Nobody does democratic symbolism better than the USA. It helps if your flag has a deeply symbolic resonance.
The theme of shining lights was repeated throughout the country; on the iconic (the NY Empire State Building, the Space Needle in Seattle) and the lesser known (in Wilmington, Oakland, Miami, Atlanta, Chicago, Dearborn, Philadelphia, Scranton, Charleston, Houston, and tribal lands). Significantly for our readers there was a special light event in Las Vegas at the Clark County Government Centre that featured in A+D here.However, the Trump towers remained dark (of course) to avoid sending any positive message unity. As Doug Staker has said in Dezeen: “Trumpitecture stands as a sad but honest reflection of the values Trump proudly embodies…one Trump Tower dreamed of being the tallest building in the world, an aspiration that in today’s world has more to do with testosterone than taste. Trumpitecture does not know timing. It does not know its own era, but clings to easy symbols of might.” But not light.
There will be a follow up later this week on the inauguration fashion designs and their symbolism. All of which are important design matters, because design matters.
Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Tone does not read Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or Linked In. Sanity is preserved by reading and replying only to comments addressed to [email protected]