Taking the Wrong View
Sunday, June 24, 2007
From the Lincoln Memorial, looking north, you survey some of the most hallowed ground in the nation's capital. Where once there was mud and river, there are now calm, grassy acres of low-lying ground between the memorial and Constitution Avenue. Beyond, rising above these flatlands, is a hilltop acropolis of old buildings, including one of the most distinguished and little-visited historical treasures in the city: the Old Naval Observatory, where Lincoln is said to have sought communion with the stars during the dark days of the Civil War.
All of this is about to change, and radically. On June 7, plans to build a home for the United States Institute of Peace, at 23rd Street and Constitution Avenue NW, were given final approval. Ground will be broken this autumn for a new building designed by Moshe Safdie. On the Mall, if Congress doesn't come to its senses and reverse course, plans will move forward to build a huge new underground visitors center for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. And on the hill overlooking it all, property that was once owned by the Navy is slated to be transferred to the new office of the director of national intelligence, with little certainty that historic buildings will be preserved or that the old observatory, built in the 1840s, will ever again hear the footfalls of anyone without top national security clearance.
None of this happened secretly. But it's in the nature of Washington bureaucracy that these changes will take most Washingtonians and most Americans by surprise. Who knew that the U.S. government had chartered a Peace Institute? And that this behind-the-scenes player in the world of diplomacy and conflict resolution is highly regarded enough in political circles that a prestigious Mall location has been earmarked as its headquarters?
And was America paying attention, in 2003, when the Vietnam Veterans visitors center was approved? It was in the opening months of the Iraq war, when everything was going swimmingly, when there was a rush of patriotic fervor and the president addressed the nation under a banner that announced "Mission Accomplished," when the authorizing legislation began its trip through Congress. Proponents of the underground project are now pushing it through the approval process. If Congress doesn't revisit the issue, it's possible that acres of pristine land in the very shadow of the Lincoln Memorial will be torn up, to make room for a subterranean audiovisual museum that undoes much of what Maya Lin, the designer of Vietnam Memorial, got right more than 20 years ago.
And then there's BRAC, the acronym for the Pentagon's Base Realignment and Closure process, an ongoing effort to consolidate military sites that is often so opaque that members of important planning commissions in Washington don't know what changes lie ahead in the federal real estate business.
But change is coming. And when it comes, one of the most highly prized pieces of Washington land, with views of the Kennedy Center, the Mall and the Potomac River, will become a fortress for the nation's top spooks.
Not all of these changes are necessarily destructive, though some of them have preservationists, advocates for the Mall and even some government officials groaning. But they are profound changes, and strangely enough, they all have something to do with this city's landscape of War and Peace.
U.S. Peace Institute
The project farthest along is the U.S. Institute of Peace. The entity was chartered by Congress during the Cold War under the administration of Ronald Reagan. Its duties range from symbolic (it sponsors a student essay contest) to research, observation of the United Nations, and ad hoc responsibilities that come from Congress or other branches of the government. Perhaps its most prominent activity, in recent years, was the creation of the Iraq Study Group -- the bipartisan panel that made lots of mostly disregarded recommendations about how to turn around the Iraq war debacle -- at the behest of Congress in 2006. In 2004, Congress appropriated $100 million to fund a permanent headquarters building; the Institute has also raised at least $15 million in private funds.
Moshe Safdie, the Somerville, Mass.-based architect who is also responsible for the strange, fortresslike federal building rising at the intersection of New York and Florida avenues NE -- commuters heading to Baltimore will recognize its distinctive, round fencelike arcade -- was engaged to design the Peace Institute. The result is a better-than-average structure, divided into three masses linked by two large, glass-covered atriums. It will house offices, a library, meeting rooms and a public education center, all kept hermetically apart in that strange way that Washington manages to be both open to the public and obsessive about hierarchy and privilege. A port-cochere (a covered automobile entrance) will allow private entry for VIPs, who will also have access to a garden and a patio perfect for watching the Fourth of July fireworks. The larger of the two atriums, which will be open to the public, will feature spectacular views of the Lincoln Memorial and is likely to be prime cocktail-party real estate.
But the design's most distinctive feature is its curving roof, which seems to drape over the front of the building like a bird's drooping wing. Its profile will be easily seen from Memorial Bridge, and visible through the trees (at least according to computer simulations) from the Mall and the Vietnam Memorial. At night, it will be lit, which has the National Park Service, which manages the Lincoln Memorial, a bit nervous. To ease the approval process, Safdie's office has done nighttime illumination simulations, showing what the structure may look like from the Virginia side of the river -- a graceful, glowing curve rising above the trees between the brightly lit mass of the Kennedy Center and the glowing stone box of the Lincoln Memorial.
If it were not for the roof, the building would be unexceptional, just another exercise in boxy architecture pierced by deadening rows of identical rectangular windows. Even with the roof, there is something a little Dulles-tech-corridor about the structure. It is, perhaps, because the roof structure is so thin, and feels a little tacked-on, as if a dull building were wearing a floppy sun hat. Or perhaps it lacks gravitas because the dove-wing shape is essentially a literal sign, advertising the structure underneath it: It is to the Peace Institute what a giant, plastic hamburger is to a fast food joint.
Safdie's structure is a marked departure from the mostly neoclassical buildings that it will join on the north side of Constitution Avenue. (At the National Capital Planning Commission meeting that gave the final approval, a Park Service representative lamented, "This building will be a foreign object in the landscape of classical architecture of this city.") It has neither the oppressive sterility of the worst of the Mall's architecture on Independence Avenue (the Energy Department's wretched Forrestal Building, which blocks views of the Smithsonian from Banneker Park Circle) nor the bold, sculptural confidence of the Hirshhorn's circular museum. The Peace Institute is a compromise building, and the paradox of compromise in contemporary architecture is that it precludes both the spectacular failure or spectacular success that moves the art form forward.