“Unbuilt Washington” is the National Building Museum’s best chance at drawing blockbuster crowds in years. Devoted to the might-have-beens in the wastebasket of Washington’s design history, it begins with variations on the basic city plan laid out by Pierre L’Enfant in 1791 and ends with a spectacular sculptural bridge the museum would like to construct in the enormous atrium of the Pension Building.
But it is far more than a catalogue of lost opportunities and terrifying near misses. It is also a compendium of Washington’s architectural phobias and obsessions, its neurotic compulsion to grandeur and countervailing fear of anything too elegant, too bold or too French. It is, in the best sense, profoundly disorienting, an exhibition that makes you laugh at the absurdity of a pyramid-shaped Lincoln Memorial or a new White House built on the scale of Versailles. You laugh, and then you wonder why you laugh. And in most cases, the chain of questions leads back to fundamental and often arbitrary assumptions about what the architecture of democracy should look like.
Washington residents will view many of these unrealized plans with profound and proprietary relief.
Residents of Capitol Hill will be glad that long-standing proposals for an East Mall, balancing the National Mall, running through the historic residential neighborhood all the way to the Anacostia River, were never carried out. The Capitol Hill Expressway, a plan for two elevated highways along the Mall, must have seemed like an obvious solution to an obvious traffic problem when it was proposed in 1946, but the effect would have been to turn core of Washington’s downtown into a dispiriting dead zone.
In both cases, better ideas about urbanism — and local resistance — won out in the end. But how to account for a seemingly risible proposal for an ornate, faux-medieval Memorial Bridge, with turrets and towers, instead of the relatively modest, low-arched Memorial Bridge we have now? Why does an 1875 design for a Victorian Gothic Library of Congress seem so strange?
We might call this the pyramid question: The pyramid has architectural pedigree even more ancient than the Greek temple, yet no major pyramid has been built in Washington. Why? Not because it’s never been proposed. Benjamin Latrobe designed a monument with a pyramid-shaped top and simple columns as a mausoleum for George Washington in 1799-1800, but it was never built. Nor was the 1837 colossal pyramid-shaped Washington monument proposed by Peter Force, who seemed to be channeling the terrifying utopian grandeur of the visionary French architect Etienne-Louis Boullee.
Nor were any of the various pyramid schemes, or the round ziggurat, proposed by John Russell Pope (architect of the Jefferson Memorial) as a monument to Lincoln in 1911-12. In each case, the form seems desperately, even comically out of place, and yet as curator Martin Moeller argues, a pyramid is no more or less arbitrary as a Lincoln memorial than the rectangular classical temple (designed by Henry Bacon) that was ultimately finished in 1922.