Below is an essay I published in Public Discourse last month. It is an adaptation of the June 1, 2012 testimony I delivered before the U.S. House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands on “The Future of the National Mall.” (C-SPAN video here.)
We Must Preserve the Founders’ Classical Vision for Our Nation’s Capital
By Justin Shubow
January 17, 2003
The plan of our nation’s capital and the architecture of its core buildings and monuments must carry on the classical vision the Founders intended as the physical manifestation of America’s form of government and political ideals.
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The National Mall and surrounding Monumental Core is arguably the greatest work of civic art in the modern era. To preserve and protect this man-made masterpiece, the National Civic Art Society, of which I am president and chairman, recently produced the documentary film “Washington: The Classical City,” which may be watched on our website, www.civicart.org.
To envision the future of the Mall, we must first understand its past. The Mall as we know it is just slightly over 100 years old. Yet it appears to have been there forever. It is hard to imagine, but at the turn of the twentieth century there was no breathtaking vista from the Capitol building to the Potomac, no graceful boulevard of trees and paths lined with noble edifices, but instead a shabby rambling park, anchored at one end by a soot-spewing train station and at the other by a malarial swamp. Abutting its grounds were flophouses and squalor.
This was hardly the vision for the city that President George Washington had in mind when he directed Pierre L’Enfant to create a master plan for a new capital worthy of a new republic: a grand scheme of radiating streets and avenues whose geometrical arrangement symbolically focuses on the Capitol, the White House, and the Washington Monument.
To this day, these are the landmarks by which we orient ourselves spatially and spiritually. Harmonious, luminous, and orderly, the urbanism of the L’Enfant plan and the architecture of its most important structures were to be classical in design, the physical manifestation of our form of government and political aspirations. This conscious decision linked the city to the ideals of republican Rome and democratic Athens, as well as to the Age of Reason later called the Enlightenment.
The classical tradition is time-honored and timeless. In a letter to L’Enfant, Thomas Jefferson expressed his wish for a capitol designed after “one of the models of antiquity, which have had the approbation of thousands of years.”
To be clear, the founding generation no more slavishly imitated other societies’ architecture than the founders imitated other forms of government when they drafted the Constitution. Instead, they sought and created an unmistakably American idiom. Who would confuse the White House or the Capitol for a building in a foreign country?
The founders intentionally situated their day and age within the two-millennia-long tradition of classicism. They recognized its dignity, its aspiration to beauty, its harmony with the natural world and human perception, and its capability of expressing hierarchy and meaning to the citizens it serves. They were founders and framers not just in government but in architecture. They understood the wisdom of the past and adapted and improved on it. Why should we be any different today?
Alas, by 1900 the L’Enfant plan for our national capital was largely forgotten. It had been compromised by commercial pressure and aesthetic confusion. Thankfully, in 1901 Congress created the famous Senate Park Commission led by Senator James McMillan of Michigan. Serving on the McMillan Commission were some of the greatest architects, landscape designers, and sculptors of their time, all of whom worked within the classical tradition.
Influenced by the City Beautiful Movement, they not only revived the L’Enfant Plan; they perfected it. Among their achievements, they extended the main axis of the Mall to the Lincoln Memorial site. They also cleared trees and leveled the ground to create one of the greatest man-made vistas in the world. It is transfixing. Empty space in and of itself is made electric, with the Washington Monument as the lightning rod. There is no official rule that the American people must congregate there for our most historic events and communal gatherings, but they do so nonetheless. They are drawn in by the Mall’s power, which is welcoming and uplifting, not oppressive or inhumane. It is a vista of optimism and promise.
The McMillan Plan created a symbol and place of national unity, one that even today stands as the embodiment of our collective ideals. The classical L’Enfant and McMillan Plans, together with such masterpieces as the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, have endowed us with the eternal capital of an eternal republic.
Yet beginning after the First World War, some avant-garde architects and theorists wished to replace the eternal with the putative “spirit of the times.” Beholden to an ideology that rejected the past, an ideology that had become fashionable in a crumbling Europe, they asserted that classicism had become passé; it was a death-mask that no longer could express the soul of America. They saw themselves as the vanguard ushering in a Modern Era, the inevitable next stage in the progressive evolution of mankind.
To these individuals, buildings such as the Capitol were musty piles that stank of ideas and ideals whose time had passed. Indeed, these architectural radicals opposed the designs for the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. Frank Lloyd Wright called the Lincoln Memorial the “most asinine miscarriage of building materials that ever happened.” Joseph Hudnut, the influential dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, proclaimed the National Gallery of Art a “pink marble whorehouse.” After World War II, the avant-gardist hegemony was complete.
This total rejection of our national heritage caused the Mall to be vandalized by the Hirshhorn Museum, which resembles an alien spacecraft or gun turret looming over the public. This elitist movement gave us the urban-planning disaster of L’Enfant Plaza, as well as the brutalist FBI Headquarters, which looks like the Ministry of Fear. Do the citizens who visit these buildings, and the government employees who work in them, take the same pride in these structures as they do in the National Archives or the Federal Triangle?
Today we find ourselves in a predicament like that of the McMillan Commission: the guiding classical vision for the city and its Monumental Core has once again been forgotten, ignored, and violated by accretions of discordant art and architecture.
Sadly, the National Park Service and other agencies charged with preserving the Mall have been neglecting their mission. If any district deserves the stringent protections of a national landmark, it is the Mall as created by the L’Enfant and McMillan Plans. Yet when the Park Service recently approved the design of the planned National Memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower—a deconstructionist eyesore that clashes with our greatest presidential memorials—it did not even bother to consider the design’s cultural and historical impact on the Mall and other protected sites in the area. Stylistic harmony, dignity, and perhaps even beauty are of no concern to them. It is as if the Park Service did not care whether an invasive weed was to be planted in a National Forest of evergreens.
Not only are the National Park Service and others not preserving what must be preserved, they are acting to preserve what is unworthy of preservation. Although it is difficult for us to imagine, in the process of approving the Eisenhower Memorial, the National Park Service, the General Services Administration, and other agencies lavished praise on the adjacent Department of Education Building, which they are now seeking to place on the National Register of Historic Places (a PDF of the eligibility form is available here).
Can one imagine a more sterile, soulless building? It conjures thoughts not of education but of faceless bureaucracy, with all the character and warmth of a computer punch card. Who would miss it if it were demolished? The aesthetic and cultural confusion demonstrated by these sorts of agency decisions is astounding.
The good news is that there is a solution; the future is rooted in the past. What we need is a plan for Washington, DC that carries on the vision set by our founders and their architects: a McMillan Plan for our time that would preserve and extend the best of our capital city into a third century.
It was none other than President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who made sure that the magnificent Jefferson Memorial was built over the objections of out-of-touch elites. He explicitly paralleled the importance of continuity of tradition in architecture to that in government:
[T]he principles of harmony and of necessity require that the building of a new structure shall blend with the essential lines of the old. It is this combination of the old and the new that marks orderly peaceful progress, not only in buildings but in building government itself . . . .
Today Washington sorely needs that sort of statesmanship—the cultural confidence to stand up to architects who think they know better than the American people. We believe that the vision of today’s leaders can equal that of our founders, and that offers hope for the future of our capital.