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

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 11, 2010; E01

It was about as close to a flash of genuine hostility as you'll ever see at the National Capital Planning Commission, the oversight group that must sign off on major architectural and design changes in and around the District. The National Park Service's representative to the April 1 meeting was irked by Judy Scott Feldman, who heads the National Coalition to Save Our Mall. At issue was the placement of an ugly (and apparently permanent) pumping station on the Mall, a service building that would help clean up the brackish waters of the long reflecting pools that run between the Lincoln and World War II memorials. Feldman wants it moved to what she thinks is a more discreet location, but the Park Service believes there is no better place for it than in the trees just north of Independence Avenue, near where the Park Service stables its horses.

More interesting than the details of the argument, however, was the appeal of both parties to Holy Writ: the 1901 McMillan Plan, which laid out the basic lines of the current Mall. Feldman argued that the Park Service "dismisses" the importance of the McMillan Plan, while the Park Service's Peter May rather testily responded that the agency knows and honors the plan very much, thank you.

The McMillan Plan was the product of the City Beautiful movement, which reshaped urban land all across America at the beginning of the last century. Named for Sen. James McMillan, who commissioned the report, the plan called for opening up grand axial vistas on the Mall, defining its edges, building the great temples of government and culture that line its north and south sides, and generally reorienting the city of Washington around what is still known today as the "monumental core." The drawings produced by the McMillan visionaries -- which included legendary figures such as Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., Charles McKim, Daniel Burnham -- were so gorgeous that they have inspired decades of city planners ever since, and still grace the walls of the various planning and oversight groups that govern the design of Washington.

Even the name of the hallowed document -- the McMillan Plan -- is still intoned with reverence, as if the syllables can conjure the spirit of all that is True, Good and Beautiful. In Washington, honoring the McMillan Plan, even at the cost of making the city more livable, more humane and more modern, is one of the most pervasive and least examined pieties of planning.

But read Kirk Savage's excellent 2009 book, "Monument Wars," which goes into detail about the making and implementation of the plan, and you may find yourself liberated from slavish worship of its particulars. Savage resurrects a forgotten history of the Mall, its once diverse landscape of parks and public pleasure grounds, a beloved tapestry of old trees and curving paths that was uprooted to create a grand, empty, rigid public space connecting symbolic nodal points of memory and government.

Savage reminds us that creative destruction always causes pain somewhere, and in the case of the Mall, the harm was mainly to the well-being and good humor of Washingtonians, who used the 19th-century Mall for carriage rides, strolls and shaded relaxation, and who didn't much relish the huge, open, often hot and aesthetically arid greensward that replaced a valued civic amenity.

L'Enfant's vision

The creation of the Mall was no less contentious than the exchange between Feldman and the Park Service -- and it was a conflict that dragged on for decades. We tend to think of the Mall now as an inviolable landscape that has been in place as long as there's been a Washington, but it is a relatively new space, and one that is still in a state of flux. Savage argues that the McMillan planners wanted the public to believe that their radical plan for reshaping the Mall was merely an effort to return to Pierre L'Enfant's original vision. That wasn't true -- L'Enfant envisioned a much more modest and urban grand avenue, not an epic, empty vista that celebrated the imperial splendor of the republic -- but it was great propaganda, and it has become the cherished historical understanding ever since. It makes the Mall, a very 20th-century conceptualization of public space, seem older and more hallowed.

So tampering with it shouldn't automatically be considered blasphemy. And yet it seems every plan to save the Mall -- which is looking tattered and worn -- begins with the assumption that the McMillan space is sacred. "Rehabilitate as a historic landscape for more sustainable civic use . . . " reads one of the Park Service's "Major Concepts" in a National Mall Plan released last November. Which is to say, fix it up a little, but don't tamper with the basic open plain of the existing layout.

But what if we could free ourselves from reflexive worship of the McMillan Plan? We might create a better city, more sustainable, more green, more inviting and more historically resonant. Here's a proposal, a "Major Concept" that might happily supplant all the other major proposals in all the major plans currently being considered.

The Mall: Unbuild it.

Keep what's best of the McMillan Plan, but pay homage to the 19th-century Mall as well. Rather than bicker over what new structures can be added to the space, focus on removing existing monuments and memorials as they reach the end of their useful life span. Plant trees in the open space that fronts the Smithsonian Castle, and allow a more forested greening of the Mall to gradually fill in the areas where generations of tourists and protesters have trampled the poor grass into submission.

As Savage and other authors demonstrate, the meaning of memorials has changed, from honoring heroic figures to creating spaces for healing. But healing is a process, and it should be a finite one. As the last veterans of a particular war pass on, that war's memorial should be retired. It should be respectfully dismantled, and perhaps re-erected elsewhere if there's demand for it. But the unbuilding of the World War II and Korean War memorials wouldn't just make room for forestation, they could be important public spectacles: the last stage in the healing of war's wounds.

A rebirth for protest

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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