More than any other American city, Washington is caked with layer upon layer of ideas that never made it off the boards. For every building, iconic or otherwise, there are dozens of unsuccessful attempts.
That archaeology of failure is created by two opposing forces.
On the one hand, the city’s tremendous symbolism as the seat of American government generates all sorts of ideas, whether solicited through design competitions for public buildings or arising from some private sector visionary or nonprofit interest group who figured their brainchild would carry more weight if it were built in the nation’s capital. And the planned nature of the city attracts schemes for grand layouts, using the street grid itself as a form of monumental art.
On the other hand, because of overlapping jurisdictions, empowered neighborhood groups, and the great import a project carries when it becomes part of Pierre L’Enfant’s plan—with all the political pressures that entails—it’s a lot harder to get anything built in Washington. Park landscape designs can take years; monuments and federal buildings can take decades. With a cumbersome approval process that sometimes eats up all a project’s money before construction even begins, it’s a wonder anything gets built at all.
That confluence of factors has provided fertile ground for what may well be the buzziest museum opening of the year in D.C., with 700 visitors in its first weekend. The National Building Museum’s “Unbuilt Washington” exhibit is a compact, but carefully curated, tour through the discarded plans for our most important government edifices, as well as the wacko independent proposals that never materialized. What is now the Washington Hilton at Connecticut Avenue and Columbia Road NW, for example, could have been a soaring Masonic temple, or a massive mixed-use complex designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Meridian Hill Park might have become a sprawling executive mansion for the president, or a new French Embassy.
Seeing the conceptual surroundings of what eventually got implemented, we’re reminded once again of the conservatism that results from the cumulative effect of design that has to please lots of people and real estate pressures that make daring deeds difficult to pull off. Willis Polk, the architect responsible for the quote often attributed to Union Station mastermind Daniel Burnham, may have been right to say that “small plans have not the power to stir men’s minds.” But more often than not, they have the staying power to become reality, while the big plans simply tease our thoughts.
Any good collection of alternative histories will have a few proposals that elicit sighs of relief: “Thank goodness our predecessors put the kibosh on that!”
Early on, a puritanical sensibility toned down some of the more absurdly grandiose proposals for federal buildings, setting a precedent for simple elegance relative to European capitals. “There was a sense that a lot of the grand imperial schemes that were out there were un-American, were inappropriate,” says the exhibit’s curator Martin Moeller, who combed through some 2,000 designs to put together the collection.
Other trashed proposals would have just been bad urban design. Most famously, citizen protests killed a highway through Dupont Circle and Brookland, and a design by the President’s Council on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1964 stopped after its first product, the J. Edgar Hoover Federal Bureau of Investigation Building, proved to be shockingly ugly.
Yet more ideas just seem out of place. It turns out Washington might not be the best town for a marine hotel with tanks full of dolphins meant, according to the book Capital Drawings, to serve “the combined purposes of a Marriott, Sea World, Woods Hole, Aspen, Esalen, Main Chance Spa, and the holodeck of the starship Enterprise.” If cities have comparative advantages, that one might have fared better in Atlantic City.
But a few of the exhibit’s displays made me ache with sadness for what could have been. Andrew Jackson Downing’s 1851 plan for a naturally landscaped National Mall, much more like Manhattan’s Central Park than the featureless expanse that exists today, was deemed too expensive and abandoned. A bridge over the Washington Channel by prolific Southwest Washington architect Chloethiel Woodard Smith, envisioned as a modern Ponte Vecchio, never attracted financing in the first place.
Perhaps the most difficult projects to implement are those that would right the planning wrongs of the past—although several books have shown the historic buildings destroyed without a second thought before preservation laws came into effect, we still seem unable to amend urban forms that are as indestructible in our mental landscapes as they are in the physical. One proposal would have created more pedestrian space on lower Connecticut Avenue modeled on Barcelona’s pedestrian-friendly Ramblas. Another would have junked the Whitehurst Freeway and reconnected Georgetown with its waterfront. A third series of “architectural interventions” would mend the gash of the Southwest Freeway by decking it over to create a walkway with glass windows onto the rushing cars below.
Instead, we make small fixes that allow us to live with these mistakes—like a beautiful new park for Georgetown, even if it’s cut off from the main commercial district by an elevated highway—and the more holistic remedies fade away.
The city’s official planning bodies still have the capacity to think big. The National Capital Planning Commission’s Monumental Core Framework Plan, recently honored by the American Society of Landscape Architects, includes images of futuristic buildings and aquarium on the Anacostia River complete with a gigantic globe in the middle of the river. The long-range vision for South Capitol Street imagines a green avenue with civic space that seems impossible in comparison to the lifeless thoroughfare that exists today.
It’s becoming increasingly obvious, though, that we may lack the capacity to accomplish those kinds of projects. Land is harder to assemble now, labor is more expensive, and federal funding can just disappear—like it nearly has for the remainder of the Department of Homeland Security consolidation at St. Elizabeths.
Even design contests, long used to solicit the best and most innovative ideas, are constrained by what came before. A recent competition for the park south of the White House was hamstrung by security requirements and the desire to maintain the existing Ellipse—a far cry from the kind of blank slate that gives birth to the most creative ideas. Another competition in the works for three sites along the National Mall, proctored by the National Park Service, emphasizes respect for the historic landscape, and pragmatic ways for visitors to circulate around the existing memorials, rather than design innovation.
To Julian Hunt of Hunt Laudi Studio, responsible for two of the plans in the exhibition, excessive reverence for history stands in the way of progress.
“The example of the wide expressive range of architectural work in Barcelona compared to the narrow range here, restricted by the dominance of the historic preservation narrative, has stagnated the debate about the future of this city and confirmed a cultural failure of imagination,” Hunt says. “Historic preservation has a valid place in the debate, but here it has killed off all other species of discourse. We’re fighting to expand the envelope of debate.”
Put another way, the city’s federal leaders are concerned with maintaining what they once tried to make into the “greatest capital city in the world.” Its local leaders, more and more, talk about creating a “global city,” which means something different now, and sets a higher bar.
If the federal government lacks the ability to make great design happen, we can only hope it at least has the capacity to let great design happen. Projects like Arena Stage and developer P.N. Hoffman’s comprehensive vision for the Southwest waterfront are very hopeful indications. The next test will be projects like the Dupont Underground, where an arts coalition—including Hunt—wants to create a linear subterranean avenue of shops and restaurants with striking above-ground entrances that could reshape “historic” National Park Service-owned parcels, and Akridge’s Burnham Place, where a massive new mixed-use complex above the railroad tracks will reshape how we view Union Station.
“Unbuilt Washington” is an excellent lesson in how projects die—and now, a place today’s generation of visionary builders don’t want their plans to end up.
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