Washington yields too few opportunities for this kind of “Mission: Impossible” design. We should envy New York for its High Line, a new kind of park built on a former elevated rail by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the same architects who proposed the Bubble. Our neglected civic infrastructure feels no less abandoned than that elevated line once did. For every controversy like the one over a proposed Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial designed by Frank Gehry that some criticize as underwhelming, there are a dozen monuments that go unnoticed. Doughfaced President James Buchanan has a memorial, but how many people know it’s in Malcolm X Park? We don’t want to pave over our history, but we’re allowed to reimagine it.
Surely some will balk at the notion of mucking with the Washington Monument. But history shows that the meaning of even this singular structure has been negotiated over time. Construction, begun in 1848, was completed in 1884, interrupted by a civil war that broke the notion of national unity. The monument’s stones feature inscriptions from the bible, but when Pope Pius IX contributed a block of marble to its construction in the 1850s, members of the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party reportedly threw the stone into the Potomac River.
And when the monument was completed, it was hardly thought of as an anchor to an immutableMall. In 1897, philanthropist Charles Carroll Glover, of Glover Park fame, succeeded in having the entire Mall designated a park. President Grover Cleveland had suggested that the strip be dedicated to residents’ vegetable gardens.
The Mall is nearly full. Even looking past our political impasse, the space to build isn’t there. Fortunately, an emerging crop of American designers is used to working under difficult circumstances. Adaptive, sustainable design belongs on the Mall because the Mall serves as a record of the times — from the faux Norman-style revivalist Smithsonian Castle to the poured-concrete brutalist-designed Hirshhorn. And as a nation built on a living Constitution, we should not hold a memorial, even one that honors George Washington, too sacred for future generations to monkey with.
The illuminated monument will continue to dazzle spectators after sundown for six months or so. But even after its cracks are repaired, we should leave it as is: enmeshed by brackets and cross-braces, wrapped up like a sword in its sheath. Let’s make it last. What if we agree to take down the scaffolding when Congress can pass a bipartisan bill declaring it finished? Then we’d know that some national healing had taken place.
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