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The McMillan Plan stands in the way of a better Mall for Washington

A rebirth for protest

In the 19th century, what we know as the National Mall was a very different landscape, messy and chaotic in some places, but with its own charms, too.

Most plans for the Mall fixate on its role as a stage for public protest. And that was indeed an important function throughout the last century, from the 1939 Easter Sunday concert Marian Anderson gave on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to the civil rights and antiwar protests of the 1960s. Allowing trees to encroach on the grass would make it difficult for massive crowds of protesters to gather.

But the Mall has, in many ways, meant the death of meaningful protest. Large political gatherings have become ritualized, and they are absorbed by the Mall in a way that diminishes their potential political impact. The knee-jerk need to gather in great numbers on the Mall results, at most, in a photo op, the political equivalent of staging the family in front of the Cinderella Castle at Disney World. It has forced diverse political-interest groups to compete for a prized body count that puts their cause on the media's top 10 list of major marches. But this also commodifies protest, and it rewards wealthy and connected interest groups that have the institutional infrastructure to muster huge crowds.

Forcing crowds to go elsewhere, to use cellphone technology and flash-mob techniques, could move political protest closer to the real halls of power, and free up the Mall as a site for more environmentally friendly and sustainable natural growth.

Retire the war memorials

Unbuilding the Mall needn't be taken to extremes. The major memorials have, by long service, earned a right to permanence. But the proliferation of war memorials, and the astonishingly destructive plan to add an unnecessary "visitors center" near the entirely self-sufficient Vietnam Veterans Memorial, has led to a cycle of land grabs and authoritarian overbuilding, the most egregious example of which is the World War II Memorial. At some point, the removal of all these individual memorials, and the reorientation of memorialization to a single site for war remembrance -- perhaps a grove or a garden -- would be a more natural and sustainable vision for a 21st-century Mall.

These ideas are not on anyone's agenda at the moment. But they aren't new. As Savage points out in a remarkable passage on early-19th-century plans to memorialize George Washington, there has always been a less-is-more contingent in the annals of memorial building. "Was the memory of the great man to be perpetuated by a heap of large, inanimate objects?" asked congressman John Nicholas of Virginia in 1800. He, like others before and after, called for a more minimal, more abstract approach: a plain tablet over Washington's grave "on which every man could write what his heart dictated."

So let's have done with genuflecting to the McMillan Plan, which laid out not a plain or simple landscape, but an immensely theatrical and imperial one. Allow trees to reclaim it, replant the old Smithsonian Pleasure Grounds, which were destroyed to make way for the grand view, and allow something green to encroach on the arid plaza of the Grant Memorial, at the base of the Capitol. Slowly unbuild the landscape and allow it to be reconsecrated by an idea that will be vital, terrifying and essential to the next century: the need for green places.

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