A spot of good news from the Washington, D.C., preservation front. Today the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) announced a resolution has been reached to save MARABAR, the 1984 site-specific installation by New York-based sculptor Elyn Zimmerman at the main entrance plaza of the National Geographic Society (NGS)’s D.C. headquarters. Composed of a long and narrow reflecting pool flanked by five massive granite boulders, MARABAR has long served as the dramatic focal point of the David Childs-designed modernist plaza. When NGS first unveiled its plans for a major overhaul/modernization of the beloved plaza—a project headed by D.C.-based firm Hickock Cole—in the summer of 2019, Zimmerman’s work was conspicuously absent.
In March of last year, TCLF began to sound the alarm bells over what appeared to be a planned demolition of the installation. The D.C.-based nonprofit swiftly moved into action, adding MARABAR to its Landslide program and alerting D.C.’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) to the fact that Hickok Cole “had not adequately illustrated the installation nor apprised the HPRB of the artwork’s importance” when presenting its plaza renovation plans.
In turn, the HPRB ultimately decided to revisit its unanimous August 2019 vote permitting NGS to move ahead with the MARABAR-less renovation plans. Last May, following a deluge of letters in support of saving Zimmerman’s work from a range of prominent artists, architects, critics, and museum leaders (Childs himself among them), the HPRB admonished both Hickock Cole and the NGS while opting, as mentioned, to reassess the situation. In recent weeks, Hickock Cole disclosed that even if MARABAR was not ultimately demolished and instead incorporated into the refreshed plaza, it still would have been moved during construction, according to TCLF.
As part of the resolution, announced during a recent meeting of the HPRB, Zimmerman’s work will be spared from demolition or relocation within the redesigned plaza and instead will be reinstalled at a yet-to-be-determined new location at the expense of NGS. Per the resolution, both TCLF and Zimmerman will be actively involved in selecting a “cultural institution or another appropriate site” for MARABAR to be relocated to. NGS had previously hinted that it would foot the bill for expenses relating to the potential relocation of MARABAR; the resolution now formalizes this agreement.
“We are pleased that a resolution has been reached that the artist can support and that will ensure a safe future for MARABAR and we’re grateful to National Geographic for being a strong and generous collaborator in this process,” said TCLF president and CEO Charles A. Birnbaum in a statement.
According to the TCLF, last month NGS proposed a plan that would have involved relocating MARABAR to Washington Canal Park in southeast D.C. However, the scheme was opposed by both Zimmerman and landscape architect Dave Rubin, who designed Washington Canal Park while an equity partner at OLIN.
Zimmerman, who designed MARABAR as her first large-scale stone work and named it in reference to the fictitious Marabar Caves of E.M. Forster’s 1924 novel A Passage to India, has vocally expressed her displeasure with regard to the imperiled status of the work, something she has said she never thought possible due the size and composition of the installation. In particular, Zimmerman voiced her concern about the expensive and potentially damaging process of removing and relocating the installation’s boulders.
“The largest of those boulders weighs a quarter of a million pounds,” she explained to the New York Times in a May 2020 article on MARABAR’s plight and the controversy stemming from the plaza redesign. “They’re going to have to dynamite the thing out of there.”
While those concerns may persist, Zimmerman appears to be satisfied with the new resolution.
“I have been assured by NGS that I will have an active role in overseeing the removal, transportation and eventual installation of the components of MARABAR on a new site which will be carried out at National Geographic expense,” said Zimmerman in the TCLF statement released today. “I am deeply grateful to The Cultural Landscape Foundation for bringing attention to the issue of MARABAR’s pending demolition to the HPRB last year.”