As the exhibition makes abundantly clear, the idea that Washington could only be a rigidly neo-classical city of white marble and columns is relatively recent. Buildings such as the Smithsonian Castle remain as echoes of a rich argument about style that only ossified into dogmatic classicism in the last century. The city we ended up with seems inevitable, the only possible Washington that can and should exist, but it was achieved by fiat, with grand disregard for the multiplicity of architectural styles and the diversity of cultural inheritances upon which this country is built. The Mall, which was still very much a work in progress in the 1930s, is a classic example of architectural groupthink, an aggressive manifestation of the fashionable City Beautiful movement that stressed the positive value of harmony and order, dramatic vistas and generic architecture in the classical and beaux arts idioms.
But it came at enormous cost. Parkland on the Mall was denuded of trees and paths, and landscape was give rigid geometric order. Government power was expressed in dramatically framed views and an orderly march of white palaces along the north and south sides of the lawn. Some of the prize pieces in the “Unbuilt Washington” exhibition remind us what could have been if the Mall had been treated as an urban amenity rather than a national symbol.
Designs by Robert Mills (the first architect of the Washington Monument) and Andrew Jackson Downing remind us that the Mall was once devoted to a diversity of uses, including pleasure gardens. Downing’s serpentine paths, evergreen grove and small lake look a lot more inviting than the shadeless greensward we have today. Benjamin Latrobe’s plans for a university campus (reminiscent of Jefferson’s University of Virginia design) where the Washington Monument now stands are also intriguing.
It’s hard to imagine, but a worthy thought exercise: What would America be like if this land hosted a functioning academic institution, questioning all aspects of American life, rather than a monument that serves only to express one idea, the greatness of the Founding Father?
Several of the unbuilt designs are intended as critiques of Washington rather than serious proposals for new construction. In 1984, the Museum of Modern Art commissioned Leon Krier, an architect and planner born in Luxembourg, to rethink the basic design of the city’s central core. He proposed reflooding the west end of the Mall, creating a Venice-like waterway, with the Washington Monument jutting into the lagoon on a large stone plinth. That part of his notorious design seems like pure flippancy. But his plans for filling in the neighborhoods near the Mall, now devoted to large federal buildings that empty out at night, with mixed-use buildings and housing make a lot of sense.
The 1995 idea for a “National Sofa” on the White House grounds, proposed by Jim Allegro and Doug Michels, is also more conceptual art project than genuine architectural plan. In response to the closing of Pennsylvania Avenue — the first of many hysterical security measures since the Oklahoma City bombing and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — Allegro and Michel envisioned a wide, arching “sofa” in front of the White House, with a giant video screen giving visitors an insider’s peek into the executive mansion. A nation of couch potatoes would have its own national symbol. But the interposition of a screen between visitors and the real White House was also a striking and prescient commentary on how cable news was degrading American political life, converting politics to entertainment.