Saving Marabar

John Hill
28. maio 2020
MARABAR: Five boulders sit astride a 60-foot-long reflecting pool. (Photo: Elyn Zimmerman Studio/Wikimedia Commons)

Preservation efforts to save MARABAR, a site-specific artwork by Elyn Zimmerman in Washington, DC, took a positive step forward, when DC's preservation review board determined it would revisit its 2019 decision that paved the way for its demolition.

The District of Columbia Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) met today and decided it would revisit a 7-0 vote from August 2019 that would have resulted in the demolition of the 36-year-old artwork. MARABAR is located at the National Geographic Society (NGS), which is looking to renovate the plaza at the heart of its four-building campus. Zimmerman's artwork is located at the end of a drop-off (it's visible in Google Street View), an area would become a pavilion serving as an entrance to the campus and an event space for NGS.

The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), which is based in DC, is leading the preservation efforts, having launched a campaign at the end of March to save MARABAR. TCLF president Charles Birnbaum stated then, "National Geographic is one of the world’s leading champions of cultural awareness, so its plan to demolish a significant work of art under its stewardship is especially disconcerting."

MARABAR is considered Zimmerman’s first large-scale artwork, the first of many public projects and sculpture commissions she has carried out since. TCLF has argued that the HPRB was not made aware of this important sculpture, given that documents submitted for review did not label the sculpture or show it in any of the "before" images. 

A lawyer for NGS asserted that HPRB's jurisdiction does not extend to the sculpture so highlighting it was unnecessary, and in a letter to the review board last week, NGS defended its decision to remove the sculpture, arguing that it "should not be protected," per The Art Newspaper, "because it does not qualify as a historic landmark or contribute to the historic district in which it partly lies." TCLF countered with statements from artists and scholars stressing the artwork's importance.

In TCLF's report on today's meeting, it quotes HPRB Chair Marnique Heath noting that the "issue of the sculpture was not raised" in 2019 by NGS, while another board member agreed it "should have been brought to our attention." The board will revisit its 2019 vote after seeking further information from NGS, seeing if the artwork can be relocated, for instance, or if the designers (Hickok Cole and OLIN) have explored incorporating it into their plans for the plaza.

Even though today's positive preservation news is far from final, TCLF's Birnbaum was optimistic: "MARABAR is the jewel in the setting. 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."

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