It’s tempting to argue that the positive side of the city’s innate architectural conservatism is seen in some of the more wretched “might-have-beens,” but usually it’s all about money. In the 1920s, the Masons, who owned the land where the Washington Hilton now sits, wanted to build an enormous temple on the site, and they had the connections necessary to get a variance from the District’s height ordinance. Harvey Wiley Corbett’s designs would have made Albert Speer blush at the ego and overscale grandeur of the project. Several projects like this, which would have radically altered our sense of Washington, were thwarted only by economic downturns or wars that shifted attention away from building projects. The only hope that we won’t be saddled with the badly designed and ill-considered Vietnam Veterans Memorial visitors center, which will eat up public land near Maya Lin’s entirely self-sufficient memorial, now rests on the vagaries of fundraising.
The exhibition features two projects that shouldn’t be left to languish at the conceptual stage. A model of Morphosis Architects’ 2011 plan for reuse of the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building — with deliciously amorphous internal bubbles of space that could be used as auditoriums — should be greenlighted. It’s far more innovative and exciting than any of the half-baked and halfhearted efforts to put a traditional museum or visitor’s center in the now empty Victorian brick building. And architect Jim Eyre’s proposal for a “tensegrity bridge” in the enormous open atrium of the National Building Museum would be a delightful folly. The web-like bridge seems to stay up without any rational support for its structure, and though it is conceived as a temporary installation, it might spark meaningful debate about one of this city’s strangest architectural tics: We are a city of rivers that is determined to build ugly bridges (the one exception is Memorial Bridge).
We are also a city entering in a new age of symbolism. The American century has passed and the United States, riven by political dysfunction, debilitated by cultural infantilism and saddled with unsustainable debt, is passing into an age of decline. Paradoxically, what’s bad for the country might actually be good for the city, allowing Washingtonians to reclaim their town from an outdated design ethos devoted to imperial grandeur, and rebuild it in more livable, sustainable and welcoming ways.
As the dissonance grows between the decrepit reality of our political life and the remains of our City Beautiful idealism, the District might seize the opportunity to think its way into a more pleasant senescence. The Mall doesn’t really make sense anymore, as a symbol or an urban feature. Rebuild the old parks and pleasure grounds, plant trees and retire the memorials that have become meaningless. Reclaim the waterfront, including the Navy Yard and Fort McNair (which would make an elegant academic campus). Eliminate parking on the Capitolgrounds and near the Reflecting Pool, no matter how loud the VIPs squawk. Rather than representation in Congress, pursue tax-free status for the District, and use the local wealth boom to focus on housing, culture and night life.
Given jurisdiction battles and the city’s second-class status relative to the federal government and the states, none of this is unlikely to happen any time soon. But as historians have long argued, Washington is the speculative city par excellence. The material on display in this fascinating exhibition suggests that there is something fundamentally American at work in the restless spirit of redesign, refashioning and remaking of the urban landscape. As we look for new forms that express our diminished role in the world, a more modest sense of self, one can imagine a more arcadian city, and new and exciting idylls among the ruins of passing splendor.
runs through May 28 at the National Building Museum. For information on admission charges and opening hours visit www.nbm.org.