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Taking the Wrong View
Three Projects on or Near the Mall Could Reshape More Than the Vistas

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial Visitors Center

If the Peace Institute is a relatively dignified case of architectural compromise, the Vietnam Veterans visitors center, which will be in its front yard, diagonally across the intersection of 23rd and Constitution, is riven with so many unfortunate compromises it's hard to see how an effective building can be constructed in the location chosen for it. The legislation that authorized the museum also included a change to the law governing the creation of new structures on the Mall -- and a declaration that the "great cross-axis of the Mall" is "a substantially completed work of civic art." So Washington got a long overdue statement on the sanctity of the Mall's open space and an unfortunate new project at the same time, a perversity of the legislative process rather like a homeowner who develops a passionate taste for conservationism the moment the paint is dry on his secluded new vacation home.

The 2003 authorizing legislation also requires the visitors center be placed underground, that it not disturb sightlines on the Mall or encroach on the memorial itself. But if advocates for the Mall were under the impression that it would be all but invisible, they were disabused of that assumption when architects for the Polshek Partnership gave an informational briefing to the NCPC.

"You are certainly going to see something," said Joseph Fleischer, one of the architects passing around three preliminary models of the structure.

All three designs include a long, inclined entrance ramp and a central courtyard designed to bring light into the subterranean structure and allow space for venting its heating and cooling system. Both will eat up open space and impede pedestrian traffic.

The architects of Polshek are also proposing the possibility of re-landscaping the entire site, adding what may be a seven-foot embankment. All of which raises important questions about the meaning of "underground" in the original legislation. A sunken courtyard may be "below grade" but it certainly isn't "underground" if there's no ground above it. And raising the landscape to better situate the building and its entranceway is a dubious interpretation of the authorizing legislation.

Throughout that meeting, architect James Polshek insisted that his firm would follow "the spirit of the law," which leaves open the possibility that they won't follow the letter of it. But the spirit of any law is open to interpretation, and the manifest willingness to fudge the legally mandated design criteria so early in the process is a disturbing sign of where things are going with this building. Unfortunately, the NCPC's own 2006 guidelines for the project could be interpreted to give Polshek some wiggle room on many of these critical issues.

Even worse, initial presentations of the exhibits slated for the visitors center are more than a little troubling. Designed by Ralph Applebaum Associates, a firm that specializes in museum and educational projects, the proposed substance of the visitors center feels very insubstantial. Electronic media walls will show pictures of the war dead, and give some cursory information about them. Broad themes of military service -- "loyalty, duty, respect, service, honor, integrity, courage" -- will give structure to the design. But this general homage to the military, which will include images of the fallen from other wars besides the Vietnam conflict, sounds like a lot of vitiated feel-good blather rather than anything particular to the very controversial war that divided the country a generation ago.

Which does a grave and insulting disservice to Maya Lin's memorial. The virtues of that structure -- its austere elegance, its compelling reticence on the war itself, its refusal to glorify or demean its subject matter -- lie in everything it doesn't say. But ever since Lin's design was made public in 1981, it has been subjected to efforts to subvert its integrity, to make explicit things that were meant to be abstract, and to give the memorial a traditional "viewpoint" on the subject of war. Jan C. Scruggs, the head of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, which is pushing the new visitors center, once showed such indifference to Lin's design that he was willing to compromise on even its most fundamental elements.

"My personal position was, put it above ground, make it white," he told The Post in 1982, after some veterans began arguing for a more traditional memorial. "I'm here to build a monument, not put a Rembrandt on the Mall."

Unfortunately that same cavalier attitude to good design lives on in the reckless pursuit of the new visitors center. When Lin's memorial was finished, the nation did, in fact, get something very like a Rembrandt on the Mall, and like a Rembrandt, it is self-sufficient and needs no further elaboration in a visitors center. The very idea of building a visitors center sets a damaging precedent for future expansionism. Which is not to say that there shouldn't be a museum or visitors center devoted to the Vietnam War, just not in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial and certainly not on the Mall.

Old Naval Observatory

There is probably no better place to watch the developments on this corner of the Mall than the hill on which the Old Naval Observatory is sited. For almost 50 years beginning in 1844, the elegantly proportioned observatory served the Navy as a site for astronomical research and a repository for charts and instruments. The two moons of Mars were discovered there in 1877. After the Naval Observatory moved farther northwest to the site that is now home to the vice president, the hill above the Kennedy Center hosted a hospital. The hospital buildings, begun in 1904, were designed by Ernest Flagg, who also designed the Corcoran Gallery.

The Peace Institute received its allotment from land (formerly a parking lot) that belonged to the Naval complex. And it is this hill, with exceptional views, easy access to the State Department and indeed, the whole of downtown, that will eventually host the headquarters for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Given the federal government's propensity for onerous security barriers, and given the particular sensitivity of the work done by the office for national intelligence, there is a fear that this site will become forever inaccessible to the public and that some of its historic buildings, especially the ones built by Flagg, might be neglected or demolished.

Although the Washington planning community isn't certain that the land transfer is definite, a spokesman for the intelligence directorate is clear on the matter.

"We will be taking that site; it's just a matter of when and what we do with it," says Trey Brown. The Navy says the transfer should be complete by September 2011, at which point the intelligence czar would inherit responsibility for the historic structures. Brown says the director's office understands the historic importance of the Naval Observatory building, but that it's too early to talk about what will happen to other structures on the hill, many of them more than 100 years old. The campus would likely provide office space for about 1,000 employees, but the work done by the office is primarily policy oriented, as opposed to the kind of data collection that might require the hill to be covered with forests of satellite dishes and communications towers.

Jan K. Herman, a historian with the Navy who is also the curator of the old observatory, isn't convinced by the government's assurances about the historic buildings he currently tends. Herman says that despite claims that there are no plans yet for how the hill will be used, he has seen an artist's rendering of its national intelligence reconfiguration -- which includes removal of some, and perhaps all, of Flagg's buildings.

"Someone is not telling you the truth," says Herman.

The transfer comes as the Department of Homeland Security is exploring a radical transformation of the old St. Elizabeths Hospital west campus, once a mental hospital on high ground across the Anacostia River. Like the St. Elizabeths site, the Naval Observatory hilltop is prime real estate blessed (or cursed, depending on your perspective) with extraordinary historic structures and phenomenal old trees. It has the feel of an isolated campus within the larger bustle of the city.

Long volumes have been written on the symbolism of Washington's urban topography. But not enough, perhaps, has been said about its landscape of irony, the way in which buildings also contradict one another, and send unintended messages. The Peace Institute will be built in the shadow of a new fortress of security and on land taken from the Navy; we remember our war dead not on hilltops with liberating views but in the shallows of what was once swampland; we build memorials and then fill them with strategic forgetfulness about the very thing they memorialize.

Right now, the landscape that lies on the northwest corner of our national Mall is mostly quiet. It will soon be a construction zone. And what gets built there may capture more about the complexity of our politics of public space than any of us would like to acknowledge.

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