The scaffolding does more than that. It gives us an opportunity to reconsider our least enlightening memorial. Although we fawn over other patriotic marble, we don’t get mushy about this monument. In the summer action flick “White House Down,” for example, Jamie Foxx, playing the president, asks the pilot of Marine One to execute an illegal maneuver just so he can get a glimpse of the Lincoln Memorial’s seated statue — the memorial where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 and President Richard Nixon debated student war protesters in 1970. Meanwhile, on film, the Washington Monument has been destroyed by an earthquake in “2012” and by aliens at least three times — in “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” in 1956, in “Mars Attacks” in 1996 and in the only season of the NBC sci-fi series “The Event.”
But under scaffolding, the monument is — quite inadvertently — newly relevant. Because Americans broadly agree that governance in this nation is broken, there is a casual elegance to the symbolism of a monument to national unity under construction. We are a work in progress, the cracked memorial reminds. Our union is not perfected.
The same can be said for the Mall. Its defining feature is its indefinability. It represents the vision of no single planner, politician or architect. Rather, as Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, writes in “Civic Art,” the monuments “are the conscious creations first of political will, translated through the work of design visionaries who sought to communicate the political ideals of the nation.” The Washington Monument, at the center of an ever-changing landscape, is always in progress. It belongs under wraps.
Today, the obelisk looks like Germany’s Reichstag in 1995 when, after three decades of debate, the German Parliament allowed artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude to wrap the building in fabric for two weeks. Just five years after the nation’s reunification, this was an artistic accomplishment, but a civic one, too. The Washington Monument looks like it has been encased in an animated version of itself, lines drawn in blue fabric to evoke its brick pattern if that pattern were drawn by, say, the pop artist Roy Lichtenstein.
The monument wore this same armor once before: The National Park Service and Target commissioned architect Michael Graves to design the scaffolding and fabric for a restoration between 1998 and 2000. He managed to encapsulate the world’s tallest stone obelisk in scaffolding that does not actually touch it. It looked cool then, and it looks cool now.