Public sculpture: a universal good. Whether it’s Chicago’s Bean, London’s Nelson’s Column, or that giant thumb in Paris, colossal outdoor sculptures deliver grandeur and whimsy to the modern cityscape. It’s in this proud tradition that I must commend the District of Columbia’s newest work of civic art: these two humungous Transformers in front of a random row house in Georgetown.
Unfortunately, some snooty neighbors want the generous benefactor who bestowed these masterpieces upon his block of Prospect Street NW to take them down. But they are wrong. These statues rule.
First reported in a delightful post on DCist, the story of the Transformers sculptures is one of techno-utopianism, mild trolling, and upper-crust neighborhood drama. Installed in January by Georgetown University biochemistry professor Newton Howard, the more than one-ton statues—a 10-foot Bumblebee and a somewhat out-of-scale 6-foot Optimus Prime—replaced two brick planters that had formerly flanked his front door. Howard, whose research focuses on applied technology in human neurology, commissioned the statues from an unnamed friend. “The artist is a welder,” Howard told me Wednesday. “I commissioned them because the Transformers represent human and machine living in harmony, if you will.”
“So that’s why you have Autobots, not Decepticons,” I said.
“Oh, so you understand!”
Although Howard’s headshot on Georgetown’s website vaguely resembles that of a supervillain, on the phone he was chipper and enthusiastic about his research on the KIWI chip, which, he says, “interfaces directly with neurons in the brain,” and has the potential to help counteract neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s disease. The Transformers statues, he said, celebrate the spirit of that work. “The Transformers are machines that have the core logic of a human. The KIWI chip has the core logic of a machine, inside a human.”
Some of Howard’s neighbors, meanwhile, have the core logic of people who live in multimillion-dollar houses in Georgetown. The former NBC News personality Luke Russert, who lives next door, complained at a meeting of the neighborhood board that the sculptures are a safety hazard, citing the number of people who stop in front of Howard’s house to take photos. Howard scoffed. “In my humble opinion,” he told me, the objecting neighbors, including Russert, “are individuals who are entitled.”
Russert also made a slippery-slope argument: The statues need to come down, he said, “lest anyone get any other ideas.” What ideas? “What’s to stop someone from putting up a statue of Joseph Stalin and saying, Well this is provocative, it’s art, it speaks to me?”
Howard did not inform me of any plans to erect a Stalin likeness, either in Transformer or non-Transformer form. And the neighborhood board, DCist reports, did not weigh in on the safety or aesthetic issues the statues represent, instead focusing on whether the sidewalk in front of Newton’s house is his property or the city’s, and whether he went through the proper channels to get permits. It turns out he did not. “These people are rather Byzantine in their process,” Howard admitted. With his application to the neighborhood board rejected, he must wait for a ruling from the Old Georgetown Board, the federal body that governs planning and design in the historic neighborhood. If they turn him down, he told DCist, “I will take it to the next level and fight it in court.”
I emailed Russert to ask what his objections were to the statues. “I stand by the comments I made at the meeting,” he wrote back, adding: “Georgetown is a federally protected historic district. Any changes to a home visible from the street require a permit. That means if you’re changing out a window pane, you need a permit. … It can be annoying but it’s the current law passed by Congress in the 1950s.”
Russert may be right that this is the law, but in the immortal words of St. Augustine, lex iniusta non est lexas—”an unjust law is no law at all.” And what could be more unjust than a law that removes from public view these monuments to peaceful robot-human interaction? The statues are spectacular. They are lovingly crafted, immense, and tacky. They celebrate a medical development that seems like it could potentially be a lifesaving miracle even as it gives off mild mind-control vibes. Best of all, they’ve generated comical, bloggable, hoity-toity Georgetown neighbor drama. What’s not to love?