What Would Hammurabi Do?

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In the outrage of many comments over the closure of the main entrance to the Supreme Court building, an architectural paradox has been neglected.

The doors are sculptural treasures, but they are concealed when open. As the official curator's statement, published before the decision, reads:

To view the doors in unison...visitors must arrive during non-business hours because each weekday morning when the main entrance to the Supreme Court opens these sculpted doors are rolled into pockets in the wall and recede from view.

Cass Gilbert, the Court's architect, was no stranger to paradoxes. Like many other prominent Americans of the interwar years he revered Mussolini -- surely no champion of an independent judiciary. Even the marble friezes of the courtroom, researched and carved by the great sculptor and engraver Adolph Weinman, raise some questions. Few would argue with the presence of Hammurabi, Moses, Solon, or Confucius. But Draco? As the Supreme Court's curator notes: "His code included many strict penalties and death sentences, often for what seemed to be minor offenses." Score one for the Duce.

But this is probably quibbling. The Supreme Court was the superb swan song of Beaux-Arts monuments in America, the last showplace of a now-obscure symbolic language. It didn't hurt that the Court building took shape during the Depression, when the finest artisans and materials were available at bargain rates. Taking a virtual tour of the Court, now available through C-SPAN (some videos load slowly), is a legal and artistic education in itself.

If the Justices are concerned about security -- and there is a controversial depiction of the Prophet Muhammad among the great lawgivers -- wouldn't it be better to leave the doors closed but visible rather than turn an entrance into an exit?

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center and holds a Ph.D in European history. More

Edward Tenner is an independent writer and speaker on the history of technology and the unintended consequences of innovation. He holds a Ph.D. in European history from the University of Chicago and was executive editor for physical science and history at Princeton University Press. A former member of the Harvard Society of Fellows and John Simon Guggenheim fellow, he has been a visiting lecturer at Princeton and has held visiting research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. He is now an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center, where he remains a senior research associate.

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