Another Architecture

by Mitch McEwen

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    On the White House Rose Garden “Renovation”

    Mitch McEwen
    Aug 27, '20 8:16 PM EST

    (Photo from July 26th New York Times)

    The project is presented as a “renovation.”  It is presented not in terms of a project brief, a program, or any goals related to a national agenda.  (The last garden change tied explicitly to a national agenda, of course, being Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden.)  Instead, there is a Before and After set of photographs and a time-span.  No landscape architect is mentioned, though the landscape architect who designed this, Perry Guillot, published a book on shrubs in the Hamptons.  He is nationally recognized only because the Hamptons are nationally recognized-- as a place of intensely concentrated wealth, a place of secluded mansions frequented by high-net-worth visitors from New York City, up and down the east coast and beyond.  The mansions of the Hamptons are secluded from each other by landscaping, specifically shrubs and trees.         

    So, the design expertise marshaled here is an invocation of the metonym of secluded wealth (the Hamptons) through the further metonym of the landscaped screen, edge of seclusion (shrubs).  This is a series of metonyms that produce a synecdoche.  This synecdoche swallows the White House.  The White House is transported into these terms of private wealth and seclusion, shrubs from the Hamptons.  This is presented as a renovation.  The renovation demands a Before and After and a timeline because this is the logic of televised renovations and construction management marketing.  

    Two rows of small trees are removed.  What species were they that they grew so small?  I have no idea.  The species choice had probably meant something.  The tree pits had organized the meandering of flowers and bushes around them, a wave or zig zag of color bent for those trees.  Without those trees, the bushes and flowers form pattern-shape-diagonals on their own.  Of course, the most obvious change is significant hardscaping.  A stone walkway lines the edges of the grass where grass had met shrubs before.  Where previously the line of shrubs demarcated the edge between grass and flowers, now that edge is defined primarily by hardscape.  The line of shrubs shifts from demarcating an edge to being what is demarcated.  

    The shrubs are now the point-- from the lack of trees to the introduction of the excessive walkway.  Both moves elevate the shrub.  Closer to the White House, at the original entrance to the Rose Garden, other trees have been removed.  At least two trees frame the end of the garden, deep in the center of the photo above.  Those trees are replaced by shrubs.  In the foreground of the photo, where the two hardscape paths converge, where there had been lawn, there are now symmetrical plots of different size shrubs.        

    This is no longer the Rose Garden.  This is now the Hamptons-esque Shrub Garden.  This landscape design, like so much of the televisual imagery, reflects the Trumpist shrinking of governance to personal interest, private wealth, and images of whiteness. 

    We should stop calling this the White House now.  That name had already become too laden and too informal in all the wrong ways.  We can return to the name that the building opened with -- Presidential Palace -- or come up with another.   The metaphors at work in the design and presentation of the presidential palace have been hacked.  A real estate developer autocrat is using design-plus-TV tactics to destroy American democracy.  When this is over, if it is ever over, design will need to participate in forms and meaning that announce democracy anew.   


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Posts are sporadic. Topics span architecture, urban design, planning, and tangents from these. I sometimes include excerpts of academic articles.

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