David Alpert on Monumentalism

Dear Coalition Friends:

It’s exciting to see the growing interest for outside-the-box thinking about the future of the National Mall.

Here’s yet another take on how we think about Washington and the Mall.  What is our modern vision for our capital and its “central park”?  According to David Alpert, “We should be importing the look and feel of the rest of Washington to the Mall, not exporting its aesthetic to surrounding neighborhoods.”


“Monumentalism” puts postcard DC above human DC

by David Alpert
April 19, 2010 11:32 am

Three recent opinion pieces in the Washington Post raise some thought-provoking questions about the way planners, preservationists, and others view Washington, DC, and question the long-standing consensus around a “monumentalist” vision at odds with other preservationist, environmental, and urbanist viewpoints.

The widely-accepted view of Washington is that its key feature is its grand, “monumental” views, along major avenues terminating in significant buildings and memorials. That was the focus of the 1901 McMillan Plan, which expanded the Mall to create the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials and the Federal Triangle.

Certainly some views are amazing and worth preserving, such as those of the Capitol along Pennsylvania Avenue. But does worshiping viewsheds go too far?

This past Sunday, Philip Kennicott defends streetcar plans and criticizes overhead wire opposition. His argument also applies to many other debates around the federal core of Washington, including the form of federal buildings and bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue. Kennicott writes,

The deeper issue is Washington’s relation to the nation. Do we want to preserve the early 20th-century sense of ourselves as a grand, imperial city that overawes tourists? Or do we want to be a model city for the 21st century, a place where visitors from across the country and around the world can be inspired by innovative experiments in sustainable urban life?

Washington was designed to inspire visitors. Kennicott is asking whether inspiring visitors still just means creating large, empty spaces that terminate in vast domes and colonnades. Those are inspiring, but is that all there is to being inspirational? And is inspiring the only objective?

In his April 11 column, Kennicott discusses Kirk Savage’s Monument Wars:

Savage references a forgotten history of the Mall, its once diverse landscape of parks and public pleasure grounds, a beloved tapestry of old trees and curving paths that was uprooted to create a grand, empty, rigid public space connecting symbolic nodal points of memory and government.

Savage reminds us that creative destruction always causes pain somewhere, and in the case of the Mall, the harm was mainly to the well-being and good humor of Washingtonians, who used the 19th-century Mall for carriage rides, strolls and shaded relaxation, and who didn’t much relish the huge, open, often hot and aesthetically arid greensward that replaced a valued civic amenity.

In our live chat, Brett Abrams, author of Capital Sporting Grounds, talked about a lost civic ideal of public space for public enjoyment, the same one that led to Robert Moses building public swimming pools before he started bulldozing neighborhoods for freeways.

The Mall wasn’t always just a windswept stage for large protests or a chain of stops for tour buses; it was once much more the Central Park of Washington, a place for residents and visitors to enjoy civic outdoor space. It could again serve residents while still also maintaining its use for protests and tourists as well.

In an Sunday op-ed, preservationist Adam Irish writes,

The monumentalist vision of Washington has choked nearly all urban life from the Mall and its environs. It has fashioned large sections of our city into pleasing vistas for tourists but has given the rest of us lifeless wastelands …

The monumental core should be the city’s heart, not its parasite.

Sadly, the National Park Service is continually pushing in the opposite direction. The National Mall Plan prioritizes “large areas of open space” and “public gatherings, events, and high-use levels” over “urban open space, urban ecology, recreation, and healthy lifestyles.” And even the large public gatherings face strong resistance.

After decades of successful Folklife Festivals, the Park Service told the Smithsonian that this year’s festival can no longer operate under the trees, where the festival often programs more relaxing activities that benefit from the shade and provide visitors opportunities for respite from the hot summer sun. While it’s important to maintain the trees, surely the festival can still enjoy their shade as it has for so long in the past without harming them.

I virtually never visit the Mall, which is unpleasantly sun-baked, too spread out, and largely devoid of convenient transportation or food. The Tidal Basin and Jefferson Memorial are wonderful, but even more distant from transportation, and crossing Independence and Maine Avenues gives pedestrians the feeling that they are unwelcome interlopers in a highway median.

It’s sad that DC’s large, central park is virtually ignored by most residents, and even more sad that the “monumentalist” planning philosophies that made it that way now stand in opposition to enriching the rest of the city with a streetcar system that most residents clamor for. We should be importing the look and feel of the rest of Washington to the Mall, not exporting its aesthetic to surrounding neighborhoods.


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