Let's Not Neglect the National Mall

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, December 6, 2008

With attention focused on the opening of the immense, $621 million Capitol Visitor Center on the east side of the U.S. Capitol Building, let's not forget the National Mall to the west. Shouldn't we also be investing to enhance America's most nationally significant public space?

The 580,000-square-foot Capitol Visitor Center expresses the anxieties and the will of members of Congress. Its creation was motivated by desires for better security and management of visitors, as well as for additional interior spaces serving visitors and lawmakers. Built underground, it required a radical makeover of the romantically composed landscape between the Capitol Building and First Street.

But in fact the National Mall is a much more important landscape, not because of its size and location, but rather because of its history, its meaning and, not incidentally, the diverse purposes it serves.

Although attention is being paid to the National Mall by designers, scholars, civic organizations and government agencies, its future remains uncertain, partly because of funding limitations. But in the minds of many, uncertainty also stems from lack of a comprehensive, unified vision for the Mall.

To this end, members of Congress and the president-elect would do well to read a new book, "The National Mall: Rethinking Washington's Monumental Core," published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. Edited by sociologist Nathan Glazer and architectural historian Cynthia R. Field, the book's collection of essays by a number of Mall-savvy authors fully explores the Mall's past, present and potential future, identifying problems and opportunities.

The book describes and illustrates the Mall's design evolution, starting with Pierre L'Enfant's original conception for an axial open space stretching west from the Capitol toward the Potomac River. It tracks the disparate ideas that hurt the Mall landscape in the 19th century; the 1902 McMillan Commission Plan that expanded the Mall and established a baroque sense of order and monumental grandeur; and 20th-century Mall development, marked by temporary intrusions as well as the proliferation of museums and memorials.

Several essays talk about the Mall as "the nation's gathering place," a venue able to accommodate ceremony and celebration, recreation, entertainment, exhibition and political expression. The Mall can host the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the AIDS quilt, baseball games, July 4 fireworks and a quarter million protesting citizens.

Thus the Mall is truly multifunctional, at once a sacred space and a utilitarian one. While imbued with geometric order and spatial clarity as envisioned by both L'Enfant and the McMillan Commission, the Mall close-up often looks scruffy and ill kempt.

Individual museums flank and frame the Mall, but most are architecturally autonomous buildings that say little to each other. They reflect the episodic quality of the Mall and are, in all respects, tangential to it. Fortunately the Capitol, White House, Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial and Washington Monument anchor the Mall, recall its symbolic idea and provide historic narrative.

Congress has declared the Mall complete. Yet the Mall will probably always be a work in progress, susceptible to periodic improvisation and policy shifts. It has been shaped more by pragmatic considerations than by an overarching, coherent plan that is visionary and enduring.

Of course, plans exist. The Mall is federal property overseen primarily by the U.S. Park Service, the National Capital Planning Commission and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. These agencies have drafted a "National Capital Framework Plan" that essentially preserves the Mall in its present form while extending its "commemorative landscape" into the city. The planning premise is that, for centuries to come, museums and memorials will continue to be built, but not on or adjacent to the nation's gathering space.

Meanwhile, other federal entities have interests and say-so concerning the Mall's development: the Smithsonian Institution, the National Gallery of Art, the Architect of the Capitol and the General Services Administration. And what about the interests of the District's government and citizens?

Yet the question remains: What should the historic Mall itself become?

One of the book's contributors, Judy Scott Feldman, founder and chairman of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, believes that this question cannot be answered as long as fragmented oversight and ad hoc decision-making persist.

Asking "who's in charge of the Mall?," she proposes a McMillan-type congressional commission to be solely responsible for the Mall. It would bring forth a new, visionary plan for the Mall proper, even addressing more mundane issues: parking, restrooms, food service, maintenance of walks and vegetation, storm water drainage, lighting and security.

Most important, such a vision would enunciate the Mall's symbolic and cultural significance, setting forth how the Mall should be composed physically, how it should be used and managed, how it should relate to the surrounding city and what messages it should convey to the nation's citizens and to the world.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company