The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Design Competition, 1980-81

By Paul D Spreiregen, FAIA

[Originally published in the print journal of cultural criticism DCENTER, November 2007]:

Like all stories, the design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a confluence of events, people, ideas, and places. The events were both fortuitous and planned. All of the people involved were highly dedicated: many were extraordinary. Some of the ideas are a treasure. And the place, on our National Mall, has become virtually hallowed.

Foremost among the people was Jan Scruggs, a decorated Vietnam veteran who, after the war, studied post-traumatic stress disorder. It was he who conceived the idea of a memorial, not to the war but to its veterans. He established the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund as the instrument for creating the memorial. The establishment of the VVMF attracted other veterans, some highly capable West Point and Naval Academy graduates. Scruggs petitioned Congress for a memorial on the Mall in 1979. Legislation to authorize it was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in July 1980. I was contacted and asked to serve as competition professional adviser that same month.

My interest in competitions began in architectural school, where it’s integral to architectural education. Following school, during a year and a half abroad, mostly in Italy and Sweden, my interest developed into the realization that frequent and well-managed design competitions are a vital source for advancing creative design ideas. They are its exploratory test grounds. As important, they heighten both the public’s interest in design and elevate public expectations of design. I also became interested in contemporary memorials due to several particularly effective WW II related memorials in Italy – the Ardeatine Caves near Rome and the Monument to the Deported in Milan. My interest in competitions would have remained only that had I not, in 1966, become Director of Architecture and Design Programs at the then newly established National Endowment for the Arts, where I tried to promote their improvement and wider use in the US. That eventually resulted in the book Design Competitions (1978) and, subsequently, the Handbook on Competitions (1981) for the American Institute of Architects. Scruggs called the AIA for professional help and they suggested me. Although the idea of a memorial to our Vietnam Veterans was most deserving, there was little reason for optimism. The attitude concerning memorials in Washington was not encouraging, on competitions less. An effort to create a memorial to Franklin Delano Rooselvelt (FDR) through a design competition had failed badly in the late 1950s. In the 1930s a design competition for a new Smithsonian museum had also come to nothing. Other then recent memorials in Washington included the Iwo Jima Memorial, celebrating the raising of the US flag on Mount Suribachi, and the John F Kennedy gravesite and memorial in Arlington National Cemetery. Neither were the results of design competitions.

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1. The first prize design for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington DC, designed by Pederson and Tilney.

2. The memorial for the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor, designed by Alfred Preis.

3. The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St Louis, designed by Eero Saarinen.

4. Eero Saarinen’s competition drawing for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.

The original effort for the Franklin D Roosevelt memorial was another story. It had both strikes – a memorial and a competition. The failure of that effort was still fresh in memory in 1980 when we began our work.

Notwithstanding my personal hesitation, there had In fact been several recent and highly successful contemporary American memorial efforts, procured through open design competition, well known and appreciated by the general public – but not in Washington. One was the Battleship Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, designed through competition by a WW II Austrian refugee, Alfred Preis. Arguably one of the finest of all American twentieth century memorials is the Gateway Arch in St Louis (the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial), designed by Eero Saarinen. It was the product of a very well run design competition held in the late 1940s.

These and others were evidence of the difficulty in making memorials in official Washington, especially through a design competition. The failures and the difficulties were due in part because they had not effectively involved the three Federal agencies that had the responsibility for approving public design: the Commission of Fine Arts, the National Capital Planning Commission, and the National Park Service. I had worked with all three, knew their staffs and understood their roles and responsibilities. I wouldn’t repeat any previous oversights. An equally sobering condition was that the American public wanted to forget Vietnam; the veterans couldn’t. We couldn’t expect easy going.

The techniques of a design competition can be represented by four of the documents from the Vietnam Memorial competition. The process has, first, to be fully planned. It’s like launching a rocket. Everything has to be fully thought out before the “start button” is pressed. The start button is a public announcement, which included an announcement poster that went to every design school in the country. There were also announcements in the professional press, journals and newsletters. That was followed by the first of two booklets, one describing the competition process in detail – sponsor, location, schedule, competition rules, evaluation jury, prizes, commitment with the competition winner, and registration forms. This booklet was sent to anyone who inquired about the competition. Those who then registered received the second booklet — the memorial design program. That was, mainly, a description of the site — photos of the site and its surroundings, and detailed site plans. The fourth document was a question-and-answer compilation issued half way through the three-month design phase of the competition.

I’ll make a short detour to the sources of the competition technique we used. If you asked an architectural buff to characterize the predominant and official architecture of Washington he or she would likely refer to it as “Beaux Arts style” In France, where the Institute of Fine Arts was founded centuries ago (l’Academie des Beaux Arts), and which included a school of architecture (l’Ecole d’Architecture) the term “Beaux Arts Style” has no meaning. They’d speak of Greek or Roman neoclassicism of a certain period. But in the US, because many of our architects studied at the Ecole from about the 1870s until the depression, and they learned from a long established system that utilized neoclassic architectural motifs, and for other reasons as well, “Beaux Arts” became an identifying style. Regretfully. There was much more to it.

The Ecole is also remembered for its extraordinary students drawings. But they too have to be understood for what they were – exercises in developing a student’s understanding and facility by studying the most refined architecture of the western world. But the Greek and Roman classics were by no means all that they explored. Students also made drawings illustrating the construction of a building – what we call working or construction drawings. They also made designs for sites and climates far from the Mediterranean, even as far as Alaska, and so as different in architectural expression as climate. Such exercises were far from neoclassic in motif. The Ecole was much more than a copybook of styles.

More than anything the Ecole was an school for learning how to design real and complex buildings. In the course of the nineteenth century France evolved into a Republic, and the Ecole’s students learned architecture by exploring how to provide its many new types of public buildings – schools, hospitals, and courthouses were typical subjects. Representative example designs accommodated many complex functions into a coherent form. The designs were depicted in plan, elevation, and cross section. The students rarely did perspectives. Drawings consisting of the three-part plan-section-elevation depiction system had to be analyzed by the viewer for all their implications – appearance, function, structure, circulation, constructability, spatial hierarchy and emphasis, light, ventilation, etc. Unlike perspective renderings, whose purpose is more to persuade if not allure, the purpose of this depiction is to inform. The corollary to this kind of depiction is that it requires expert and experienced eyes to evaluate. This is the heart of the design competition system, including the need for expert eyes, then and now.

This depiction system persisted after the demise of the Ecole in the 1960s and continues in practice through the present. Not surprising, then, are Eero Saarinen’s original competition drawings for the St Louis Gateway arch – plan, section, and elevation – the same technique as used in the Ecole. Saarinien included a widely published perspective, but that was an accompaniment. It did not stand independently.

Returning to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, its site was a small open and quite inconsequential corner of the Mall, an area just west of an artificial pond called Constitution Gardens. Looking into the site, its character was that of a quiet tree-lined meadow. Every site has its special personality. The character of this site was less the result of what one saw looking into it as much as it was looking from it — looking out. From the interior of the site one could see, principally, a striking view of the Washington Monument to the east. To the west was a view of the Lincoln Memorial. Lesser vistas were of the Capitol Dome and some other landmarks. But the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial were the main vistas. They gave the site its special value.

The competition was announced in the fall of 1980, drawing 5,200 inquiries, a very assuring response. By December 29, the close of registration, 2,600 registered to submit designs. Still very good. By the submission deadline three months later, the end of March 1981, we received 1,432 designs, a record held only until the World Trade Center 9/11 memorial competition. Most of the submissions arrived by mail, some by van, some by VW “bug” and some were delivered in a Rolls , Royce. The competitors were from all walks of life.

The designs were received and processed in a large mail-order warehouse east of Washington. The designs were unwrapped, number-coded, photographed for the record, and prepared for display for hanging nearby. The warehouse space had been donated, an example of the support the VVMF experienced throughout the competition process. To display the designs for the selection jury we obtained the use of Hangar #3 at Andrews AFB, thanks to the Commander of Andrews, another example of support. The hangar had an interior unobstructed area of over an acre. We needed all of it. And the security was no small help. We had to be prepared for possible anti-war protests. But none occurred.

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5. The meadow site of the memorial.

6. Hangar #3 at Andrews AFB, in suburban Maryland, about twenty miles from the center of Washington DC.

7. The plan for hanging the 1,432 designs. The rows were 10′ wide. Note the jurors’ lounge and the two small jet airplanes. The small court was for the final jurors’ deliberations as well as for the public display of the finalists.

We drafted a plan for displaying all 1,432 submissions, a linear mile and a third of design panels. I had examined all the designs for rules compliance and to grade them very roughly into four categories – “highly promising”, “possible”, “unlikely”, and “ineligible”. Of course the jury knew nothing of this and remained unaware of it. The exhibit arrangement was such that jurors would pass from one category to another without being prejudiced. The grading was done to gauge how much time the jury would need, and the arrangement to facilitate repositioning the designs as the selection and elimination process proceeded. The finalists would end up being examined in a small court integral to the main display.

The selection jury included two landscape architects, Hideo Sasaki and Garret Eckbo; two architects, Pietro Belluschi and Harry Weese; three sculptors, Costantino Nivola, Richard Hunt, and James Rosati; and one design journalist, Grady Clay. All were highly seasoned and accomplished professionals. All were widely respected. Many had worked together, some in Washington. They were also most collegial people who would deliberate intensely but never argue or posture. Though some were veterans none were Vietnam veterans. That was intentional.

The jurors started by visiting the site together. They then went out to the hangar at Andrews, discussed the program, and went into the hangar to see all 1,432 designs — individually. Each juror saw all the designs. I had calculated that It was possible to see all of them in a minimum of 3-1/2 hours. The eldest juror, Pietro Belluschi, took a full day. By the end of the first afternoon one of the jurors, Harry Weese, came back to our impromptu conference room in the hangar and told me, “Paul, there are two designs out there that could do it”. One was to become the winning design.

Each juror, working individually, noted any design that appeared plausible. By the middle of the second day 232 designs were noted by individual jurors. Then the jury went through the exhibit together, pausing to discuss each design that had been noted. Through intense discussion they cut the field to 90, then 39. The final decision was made by early afternoon of the fourth day, Thursday. Grady Clay and I composed a report and explanation to the sponsor for the next day, Friday noon, May 1, 1980. There were about thirty people, VVMF staff and volunteers. The presentation was based on Clay’s notes, all comments made by the jurors during their deliberations. Our presentation took 25 minutes. When we finished there was a brief silence, perhaps a matter of seconds. Jan Scruggs was the first to comment. All were hanging on his reaction. He stood up, paused, and said, “Well. I like it.” The response of the others was to leap to their feet and clap and cheer and hug each other. They got it.

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8. (left to right): Architect Harry Weese, Sculptor Richard Hunt, Landscape Architect Garret Eckbo, Sculptor Constantino Novola, Sculptor James Rosati, Writer Grady Clay, Landscape Architect Hideo Sasaki, Architect Pietro Bellusch, Professional Adviser Paul Spreiregen

The jury deliberations were the most thorough and probing discussion I’ve ever experienced on any design, and I’ve participated in many. For example, Harry Weese made several sketches showing how the design could be constructed. Weese’s sketches showed a concrete retaining wall supporting a finished stone face, a drainage system, and a small “stumbling curb” on the high ground above and behind the wall. That was to prevent people from inadvertently walking over the edge. These were two points among many.

Maya Lin’s two panels showed, as required, a plan, a section and an elevation — plus supplementary drawings and a written explanation. All were a fully convincing concept. Only a jury with the eyes, knowledge, and wisdom of the eight would ever have recommended let alone taken such a design seriously.

One of Lin’s sketches nearly said it all. It is the one that shows the view of the Washington Monument, looking along the east wall of the Vietnam Memorial. It confirmed what her plan-section-elevation-drawings proposed. If you can imagine the other 1,431 designs, all representing the spectrum of design thinking in the early 1980s, the height of “post modernism” with all its affectations, you might then ask yourself if you would have made the same selection. If Lin is to be lauded for her idea, the jury is as much to be lauded for its perspicacity. I sometimes wonder had Lin then had greater graphic abilities could she have been as clear? She may have been preoccupied with drawing to the detriment of thinking. Her drawings served as a means, not an end. And I sometimes wonder, equally, if any lay jury, even a jury with a few non-professionals among the professionals, would have come to the same recommendation. Experience suggests not. An adequate design probably. But a work of this quality? Again, I think not.

The only specific requirement of the designs was that the names of the nearly 58,000 dead or missing veterans of the war had to be displayed. Lin proposed that the names were to be chronological, by order of death, not alphabetical. The names would commence at the apex joint of the two memorial walls and conclude at the joint base full circle. They would disappear into the ground to the east, then resume at the west.

She also showed how the overall design form derived from the utilization of the two principal vistas. The second place design also used the key vistas very well, but it was not as direct as Lin’s. It was more elaborate, while offering nothing more. In the final deliberations one juror commented, “This is how we might do it if it were for WWII.” Its designers were two recent Russian immigrants. In the third place design the use of the vistas was good but not optimal. The vistas were to the Washington Monument and the less visible Capital dome, not the more immediate and more visible Lincoln Memorial. Again, a juror commented, “This is how me might have done it for WWI. The design we’re coming to is a design for our times” So they arrived at their final decision.

What were the roots of Lin’s design? The primary influence was the design for a memorial in Thiepval, about eighty miles northwest of Paris, to thousands of British soldiers missing in action in the WWI Battle of the Somme. It was the work of the notable British architect Edwin Lutyens, and was a major departure from the glorifying memorials of his time. Lutyens was a master of irony. He was revolted at the slaughter of WWI. The Thiepval memorial, at first sight seeming to be a traditional and glorifying arch of triumph is transformed to become, instead, the jaws of death. It has no flags flapping in the wind. Real flags would be a token of life. Flags are carved in stone. They, too, are dead. From inside its arches the vistas are only the killing fields, the landscape of death. The arch surfaces are covered not with the expected reverential motifs but rather the thousands and thousands of names of the dead. Only that.

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9. The second place design, by Marvin Krosinsky and Victor Ochakovsky, two then recent Russian immigrants to the US.

10. The third place design, by Joseph E Brown, Sheila A Brady, Douglas Hays, Michael Vergaon, and Frederick Hart.

11. The WW I memorial to British soldiers whose bodies were never recovered from the Battle of the Somme, in Thiepval France, design by Edward Lutyens and dedicated in 1931.

How did Thiepval influence Lin? There had been an exhibit of the British WWI memorials in Scotland a few years prior to the Vietnam competition. One of its curators, Gavin Stamp, was invited to lecture at Yale by architects Anne McCallum and Andrus Burr. Burr was the instructor of Maya Lin’s studio class, and assigned the Vietnam Memorial as one of four class projects. Lin learned about Thiepval at a lecture by Vincent Scully, a popular architectural historian then at Yale. Scully had learned of Thiepval from Stamp, and was subsequently credited for introducing it. Lin transformed Lutyens’ irony into a pun. There’s also a memorial at Yale, an arch in a main library, with the names of Yale alumni who died in WWI. But Lutyens’ corrupted icon was the main source of Lin’s inspiration – with some coaching.

Burr had assigned four studio projects for his undergraduate studio class, including the Vietnam Memorial. Lin did three of the four projects, including the Vietnam Memorial. Her first design for the memorial was a twisted human figure, something akin to the Zadkin memorial in Rotterdam. Burr asked her to go beyond that. With the irony of Thiepval in mind she then did a pun on the “domino theory” – gravestone slabs falling into a pit-grave or coffin- the domino theory gone awry. At a class review she was advised to delete the slabs, just have the gash-like grave. The gash wall became the projecting corner of a coffin sinking into the ground. It was also suggested that she put the names on the coffin surfaces, starting at the corner of the coffin and disappearing into the ground. Lin took all of this and, quite privately and well after her studio class was concluded, drew it up and submitted it in the competition. She had listened and learned particularly well.

The jury had made their decision on Friday May 1, 1981. In planning the press conference and public announcement, scheduled for Wednesday May 6, five days after the sponsor accepted the design from the jury – it was obvious that Lin’s drawings would be insufficient. Think newspaper photographs. So even before she was brought down (kidnapped might be more accurate) from New Haven we started making two explanatory models, using Harry Weese’s Washington office staff. We knew, too, that the story would be not just the design, but the designer as well.

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12. Lin’s illustration of the view from the memorial to the Washington Monument.

13. The 30×40″ submitted by Maya Lin. Each panel was to be have a vertical format. The required illustrations were a site plan, and the memorial design in plan, elevation and section. A one-page written statement and other illustrations were at the designer’s option.

14. Model of Lin’s design, one of two built over the weekend of May 1 and 2, 1981, by Steven Steinheimer and Suman Sorg, staff architects at the Washington Office of Harry Weese. The model was needed for a press conference scheduled for May 6, Lin’s drawings being insufficient in themselves for the public announcement.

The controversy that ensued has been well related by others, especially Jan Scruggs and his co-author, Joel Swerdlow, in their book “To Heal a Nation”. Fortunately, I was not directly involved in the controversy, though I remained close to Scruggs, Doubek and the VVMF My role had ended with the conclusion of the competition. The controversy got rather vicious. To my deep regret that controversy became another slur against competitions, even though controversy can and does occur as often with commissioned work. When a problem arises the competition process gets blamed; the commission process doesn’t. Remarkably, the memorial was built despite the controversy, and dedicated a mere eighteen months after the design was presented. Permission to build the memorial was granted by the Secretary of the Interior when the VVMF agreed to add a flag and, of greater impact, a statue group representing Vietnam soldiers on patrol. This compromise was reached through negotiations with the CFA, NCPC, and NPS. Their procedures can be credited with protecting the design from, at worst, complete dismissal.

On the weekend after the public announcement we had an open house exhibit at Andrews. All 1,432 designs were displayed. The hangar was packed full for two full days. The memorial dedication took place on Nov 11, 1982 — only twenty-nine months after competition planning began. That was the first of two dedications, the second being two years later for the soldier sculptures. It is interesting to note that then President Ronald Reagan did not attend the first dedication. Vietnam was still too politically sensitive an issue. But he attended the second, for the statue. The memorial had succeeded in surmounting the divisive scars of the war. Its creation had far surpassed Jan Scrugg’s original hopes. It had become an act of tribute and reconciliation. Almost immediately it became an American icon.

When I visit it now I recall some of the juror’s remarks that journalist Grady Clay noted during the deliberations, the remarks that we used to present the design to the sponsors on that Friday in May, 1981:

“I see something horizontal, not vertical.” “Memorials that rely on symbols don’t work for a diverse culture.” “Polished black granite is a mirror – you see a name, yourself, and the world behind you simultaneously – three entities become conjoined into one. ” “In a city of white memorials rising this will be a dark memorial receding.” “Most people won’t understand the design until its built and they experience it.” “Most of the memorial is already there. It’s the site.” “The design is like a Chinese vase – you bring to it what you are able to bring, you take away what you are able to take away.” “A great work of art doesn’t tell you what to think, it makes you think.” “You always experience a great work of art in different ways.” That was the confluence, a story told here only in general outline, and looking back almost a quarter century. But the larger explanation for how this memorial came to be may simply be that all those special stars that make great art were in the right position.

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15. The Public display of the finalist designs at Hangar #3 at Andrews AFB, May 9-10, 1981.

16. The view the Washington Monument.

17. View from the memorial to the Lincoln Memorial.


State of Exception

By Julian Hunt

[Originally Published in Urban Land, August 2008]

Some 700 tiny parcels of unusable public land in Washington, D.C., currently are under the administration of the National Park Service. These small urban parcels could be returned to the District of Columbia, which could convert a number of these parcels into small neighborhood parks.

In the public mind, the National Park Service (NPS) is steward of the sublime, charged with preserving America’s landscapes. Behind the words of the legislation that created the NPS in 1916, the unspoken mission was to protect what little remained of the primordial forest. The etymological origins of the word “forest” might be traced from the Latin foris “outside”, perhaps, in the sense of a place outside or beyond human influence or administration. Nothing of the Earth now remains in its primordial state of wilderness outside human ownership or exploitation, except by degree. There is no place that has not been mapped, cataloged, photographed, and brought within a legal framework. What is “outside” has disappeared.

The real estate portfolio of the National Park System contains not only properties of the most iconic beauty and historic significance, but also a small and growing collection of curiously unclassifiable miscellany, the odd donation, and unwanted properties shunted into the back files of the NPS. This last classification includes properties held in public trust from well before the foundation of the National Park Service, with a particular concentration in the District of Columbia. Some of the oldest federal lands delineated by French architect Pierre L’Enfant’s plan back in 1791 for the layout of Washington ended up in the NPS portfolio in 1933 after a long succession of transfers.

Located beyond the National Mall, which stretches two miles from the U.S. Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, these miscellaneous properties in the District of Columbia are particularly distinctive because of their urban setting and arrangement. Urban parks within the National Park Service portfolio do exist, most notably the 75,000-acre (30,352-ha) Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco and the Gateway National Recreation Area outside New York City, but they are still characterized and used largely as natural landscapes.

Excluding the National Mall; Rock Creek Park, the 12-mile-long (19-km) urban green area that bisects Washington; and a ring of old Civil War fortifications, the District portfolio is made up of a constellation of circles and squares that mark the junctions of important diagonal avenues of the L’Enfant Plan, inspired by the urban squares of Paris. In his role in the design of the District of Columbia, statesman/architect/naturalist Thomas Jefferson left some enigmatic notes that suggest he was doubtful of the utility of the diagonal avenues as he was of the competence of L’Enfant himself. The few extant sketches in Jefferson’s hand, snippets of an urban DNA for the design of the city of Washington, reveal a preference for orthagonality as Jefferson had previously shown in the Land Ordinance of 1785, which established the basis for the Public Land Survey System- the one-square-mile grid laid out over the continent.

The contradictions involved in implementing an urban plan based on the French Enlightenment and driven by concentrated royal power- in a land that was little more than an enormous wilderness- by a fledgling and decentralized federal government has bedeviled the urban history of the District of Columbia. The subsequent subdivision of the ten-squaremile federal district, after L’Enfant’s dismissal, was managed by three appointed federal commissioners who arbitrarily deviated from many aspects of the L’Enfant Plan. It could be argued that their careless misapplication of the plan resulted in the many tiny triangular fragments left over from the unresolved intersections of L’Enfant’s diagonal avenues with the orthogonal street grid. However, it has been rare to find a building with a well-resolved corner on any of these diagonal streets, suggesting a general lack of interest in the necessary design effort and funds to resolve these unusual geometries.


Whatever their origin, nearly 140 years later, hundreds of these tiny fragments of unusable public land fell under the administration of the National Park Service. Today, they constitute some 700 tiny parcels of little more than concrete traffic peninsulas and islands. Lady Bird Johnson, who initiated the 1965 Highway Beautification Act, may have had these eyesores in mind. For a period of time, some effort was made to maintain these sites. However that effort eventually seemed to wane and has been long forgotten, leaving the triangles to revert to their natural state of neglect and ruin.

While the administrative procedures for large parcels of parkland are defined by the 2006 NPS management policies in reasonable detail, a more specific policy for small urban parks is nonexistent. In a chapter devoted to neighborhood parks in her seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs noted that parks by themselves do not make a neighborhood, but that the neighborhood makes the park. The NPS mission to preserve and protect was never intended to cover the administration of very small urban parcels, which require detailed knowledge, attention, and understanding of surrounding neighborhoods at a level that a large bureaucracy, such as the National Park Service, is unable to render.


The particular case of the fragmentary constellation of tiny parks in the District of Columbia is further clouded by the anomalous status of the District as the only jurisdiction in the United States without a vote in Congress, leaving the District in a peculiar state of exception with regard to its relationship with the federal government. Where the management of the urban parks of New York and San Francisco can be overseen by citizen activism and the constituent services of an elected local member of Congress bringing attention to a jurisdictional matter, the responsibility for the parks in the District is diffused and without the critical feedback mechanism of the vote. Historically, Congress as a body is responsible for the administration of the District, but constituent interests lie elsewhere. This diffusion of responsibility is obscured by a deployment of independent and uncoordinated federal oversight commissions, planning bodies, and preservation boards.

Dupont Circle, the most famous and popular of the L’Enfant circles, is populated with splintered benches, and isolated by a traffic plan that makes crossing to the park an exercise in jaywalking.

Thomas Circle marks the transition to downtown from the residential neighborhoods just to the north. A circle badly disfigured by traffic engineers in the 1960s, it was recently renovated to an unsubstantiated historic form that makes no acknowledgement of the vitality of the changing neighborhood. Fake historic aluminum picket fences; standard issue concrete walkways; a new archipelago of traffic islands that provide no aid, shelter, or thought of the pedestrian; an incoherent array of light poles to illuminate traffic; and a lonely equestrian statue of the Rock of Chickamauga.

Reservation 149 (the smallest properties are designated by number; “reservation” refers to the old military designation that has since developed an entirely different meaning), a dilapidated triangular park near Dupont Circle was recently the object of neighborhood attention. A new sophisticated design, to be paid for by private money, that acknowledged the presence of both the popular spontaneity of the Dupont Circle Farmers’ Market and the iconic design of the Dupont Metro entrance, was summarily rejected by the NPS Special Assistant for Partnerships. The design was arbitrarily replaced by an insipid revival from records of a 1929 plan, a period when neither the Metro nor the farmers’ market existed, and the immediate urban environs were entirely different from those of today. This offers a stark contrast to a similar traffic island recently renovated in Manhattan at 14th Street and 9th Avenue.

There are legions more of small urban parcels that document a dysfunctional stewardship that has allowed an administrative state of exception to reign over the District of Columbia. Without political influence to defend its interests, the District of Columbia stands 51st in a line of 50 states for funding responsive to its needs. Who would want to administer some 700 triangular fragments of mostly useless real estate that now function as little more than traffic islands? These lands do not contain magnificent stands of Sequoias, virgin Hemlocks, glacial melt water, salmon runs, or any endangered species except a form of extremely rare habitat- open space in the nation’s capital- the connective tissue that supports public life.

Despite internal resistance from the National Park Service to transferring any kind of property from its stewardship, and specific resistance to transferring any property that might be associated with the L’Enfant Plan, the long history of the upkeep and maintenance of the triangle parks shows one of negligence. Ultimately, the 700 or so triangle parks do not belong in the NPS portfolio. They should, instead, be returned in their entirety to the District. A precedent for this transfer is the recent Federal and District of Columbia Government Real Property Act of 2006, which transferred a discrete set of properties for the development of the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative and could be regarded as a first step in a sequence of transfers.

Before such a transfer of properties can be justified, however, the District of Columbia government must provide a coherent management plan for their development and integration into their specific neighborhoods. The recent deployment of neighborhood “design charrettes” by the D.C. Office of Planning represents an improvement, but it is insufficient to render coherent designs.

A more successful model was developed in Spain during the transition to democracy after the Franco years. In the intense public debate over the meaning and deployment of a new democracy, a model of urban renovation was devised that allowed neighborhoods to define their needs while creating a method to introduce the necessary expert opinion into public discussion.

A form of parliamentarian democracy, which brought bottom-up neighborhood design charrettes to frame the problem, as well as a professional response in the form of architectural competitions, produced an impressive variety of proposals for public discussion. The effect was to deepen public understanding of the critical character and possibilities of public space, in stark contrast to the aimless drift so evident in the management of public space in the District.

This method was particularly successful in Barcelona, Spain, which renovated tiny neighborhood parks, known as “hard” parks for their use of stone paving. The widespread architectural competitions had the additional effect of stimulating the growth of a whole generation of innovative architects, who have since led the city to international recognition.

The District could follow this model at the small scale of the triangle parks and at minimal financial risk. To do so would provide the District of Columbia with the potential to put itself back on the map as a place of architectural innovation- free of bureaucratic stultification.

Building Meaning Telling

By David Simpson

[Editor’s Note: Originally published in the journal of cultural criticism DCENTER, I commissioned this essay after having read the author’s “Naming the Dead” in the London Review of Books, not realizing the time and effort it would take to bring this our first issue to publication. Despite the essay’s somewhat dated perspective, it remains a beautifully illuminating essay that early on revealed the abject position of the architects and their discredit. Where Libeskind had revealed the hot bolt of guilt in German consciousness in his Jewish Museum Berlin, Simpson reveals him as a useful idiot savant in the machinations of a culture enclosing an enormous fraud. An extended version of this essay appears in Simpson’s new book, 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration.]

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1. Second Division Memorial on Constitution Avenue, Darrow Montgomery

In August 1951 Heidegger gave a lecture responding to the postwar German housing crisis: some 3.5 million homes destroyed, leaving about 7 million people homeless in the Heimat. Philosopher to the core, he argued that the perceived problem was not the only problem, or even the real problem: “What if man’s homelessness consisted in this, that man does not even think of the real plight of dwelling as the plight?” Mortals, he supposed, “must ever search anew for the nature of dwelling” which “does not lie merely in a lack of houses”[1] One suspects that this message meant little to those with no roof over their heads, though it might have eased the consciences of those more comfortably accommodated: the problem, after all, is not about bricks and mortar. With the subsequent emergence of postwar prosperity, however, the message can seem a little darker, as it bids us ponder the limits of successful reconstruction and its indifference to the ultimate quality of life and being. If the problem is not just the lack of houses, then a full supply will not solve it.

Heidegger called his lecture Building Dwelling Thinking. I am cribbing and amending it here to address a topic that seems to me both to reflect and to threaten our own state of metaphysical and political health: the rebuilding of the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan. Heidegger’s apparently dogged indifference to the plight of those actually homeless may be impossible to fully justify, but it has at least the consequence of opening up a gap between the immediately obvious and the implicit or possible, between the now of an intense historical present, with its seemingly irresistible demands and obligatory genuflections, and an indefinite historical future, a passage of time of the sort that any major building expects to pass through. Such a building will, barring disasters, stand firm among strange faces and other minds. Its coming into being also draws selectively upon the traditions of the past. The buildings that go up and across the WTC site are especially recollective in that they will be inevitably memorial, founded in death and in remembrance. What questions should we be asking of the Libeskind project as it gets under way, and as it particularizes and focuses the manifold vested interests involved in the passage from concept to built space? Herder long ago wrote that “the better Gothic architecture is most easily explicable from the constitution of the cities, and the spirit of the times. For as men live and think, so they build and inhabit”[2] But building is not the same as inhabiting, as dwelling. The rush to construction in lower Manhattan is already proving a fraught and much-debated process, with all sorts of interests and options kicking in and modifying the original plans. In this frenzy of discussion and compromise in which the first Libeskind design assumes the status of an original or Gesamtkunstwerk from which all other possibilities are imaged as some sort of fall or failure of artistic integrity, we still risk forgetting what Baudrillard has called “the basic question for architecture, which architects never formulate: is it normal to build and construct? In fact it is not, and we should preserve the absolutely problematical character of the undertaking”[3] .

There will of course be many questions. I shall explore only one: what happens when an “architect” (individual or collective, ontological or virtual), this architect, tells us what a building means, and tries to short circuit any discussion of “the absolutely problematical character” of the project? Libeskind has told us, lavishly and in spades, what his design is intended to mean, and I am not the first to find those meanings coercive and reductive, and perhaps also shamelessly opportunistic, whether or not they are sincere, and whatever sincerity means. The potential for metaphysical defeat in the guise of architectural victory has from the first been considerable, because this site is under pressure to embody both commemoration and rehabilitation, each of which inevitably undermines the other. Beyond mere rehabilitation, moreover, there is the more strident call for triumphalism, for an economic and patriotic display of national and local energy that can pass muster as embodying the spirit of America and, inevitably, of capitalist democracy itself. (The World War Two Memorial in Washington has aroused very similar concerns, which I will later discuss). Far from resisting or questioning these pressures, Libeskind has so far seemed to welcome and to exploit them. Much of the New York skyline took form as triumphalism and celebration, indeed as advertisement: the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building were not expected to register moral or historical complexity as part of their program. The WTC site is different. It cannot, given the pressures it responds to, expect to satisfy either as a mere memorial or as an icon of economic and cultural suprematism. Many who died were not American citizens, but they cannot in their diversity be easily produced as heroic citizens of the world, representatives of a united world consciousness or universal human condition. They died as employees of global capital in a place telling of its dedication to trade and profit. What architectural signifiers can encompass or finesse this condition? And how can the celebration or projection of economic revival be made to fit with a recognition of the dignity and horror of their deaths and the historical implications of the disaster?

The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation (LMDC) has of course deferred the specification of the “memorial(s) within the memorial” to the next phase- another competition after the first competition. But Daniel Libeskind, the architect of the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the War Museum in Salford, has already and inevitably made his mark as the “entrepreneur of commemoration”[4] Herbert Muschamp has famously taken issue with the project’s aspiration toward a pre-Enlightenment religiosity and primitive cosmology cobbled together with a sentimental incarnation of the official American way of life; and Hal Foster has wondered whether we are in for a new WTC: the World Trauma Center.[5]

But the trauma comes with the triumphal- a conjunction Foster aptly identifies with the German Right after 1918. The triumphalism is first of all rhetorical, a matter of Libeskind’s commitment to language. His project does not merely tell, it shouts. The dominating glass shard not only visually mimics the arm of Lady Liberty just across the water, it has also to be 1776 feet high: “Life’s Victorious Skyline” The project subsists by an orgy of nomination: the “Park of Heroes” the “Wedge of Light”, the “Garden of the World”, “Memory’s Eternal Foundation”. Perhaps some of Libeskind’s coercive and inevitably pastiche coinages will not make it past the prospectus stage. Is it likely that even the most zealous tour guide could keep a straight face as he shepherds his charges to a place proclaiming itself “The Heart and the Soul: Memory Foundations. Revealing the Heroic Foundations of Democracy for All to See”? Alas it is all too likely. One might think that any democracy requiring this sort of browbeating in the name of architecture must be in deep trouble. Here I agree completely with Herbert Muschamp, who finds it “contrary for a place dedicated to democracy to start telling people what to think”[6] Libeskind’s soporific doublets are all too coincident . with the ideological shorthand of the months after 9/11 – giving us for example the “axis of evil” and the “coalition of the willing” – which seem to have numbed so many of us into accepting the case for militant aggression against an Iraqi regime purportedly associated with the WTC attack but never proven to have had anything to do with it. Whether or not Libeskind’s buildings end up with these flagrantly ideological mantras perpetuated on their walls and inscribed on their maps- and there is every chance that they will- the political work of the project is being performed before a single foundation has been poured.

In the last analysis all architecture makes some or other political statement, and the purest abstractions can be chased down to a circumscribed space wherein they are seen to be telling us something. In an identitarian age like our own, where every aesthetic statement is inspected as the projection of somebody’s special self or view of the world, these attributions are more pervasive than ever. In the face of this no one should wish to reinvent, in the mode of nostalgia for something that never was, a belief in the liberating functions of pure form and texture. But it would be worth making the effort, while admitting that it may never convince, because what we are seeing is much scarier: the projection of agreed meanings, assuming the sort of consensus that can only come from totalitarian control or- perhaps the same thing- from a society which really does endorse and tolerate a limited series of significations and values. Anything built on this site would from the start have had only a very limited chance of generating non-coercive messages: the very occasion of its origin would have made its significations heavily predetermined and overdescribed. Libeskind’s slogans have added massively to this predicament. These buildings will demand of us that we “concentrate” that we never assimilate them to a habitual life, that we never forget that they mean and what they mean. They are not for dwelling, but for dwelling upon, though only within very narrow and prescriptive limits.

Concentration, of course, is a privileged term, most often the sign of a worthwhile activity that we all ought to cultivate in the face of the anomie and superficial gratification of modern life. Memorials are and perhaps should be sites of concentration: I will return to this later. But Walter Benjamin gave us a different reading of concentration, one very pertinent to the present inquiry. In his great essay of 1936, “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility”, written in an effort to publicize alternatives to the Fascist subsumption of art and ideology, Benjamin called into question the privileging of “contemplative immersion” or “concentration” as the yardstick of aesthetic response.[7] The rapt attention demanded of the public before the things designated as “art” is an instrument of class society, a “breeding ground for asocial behavior” (p. 119), as well as a force of negative subjectification. The observer becomes absorbed in the object, taken out of the stream of experience, prone to select out only special items as worthy of attention (fetishism), and committed to a judgmental disconnection between the aesthetic and the ordinary. By these means, the subject attributes to itself (and simultaneously denies to others) depth and seriousness, a spiritual identity that can only work to evade the demands of an immediate and material environment. The space opened to depth and seriousness by concentration may also be the space of ideology at its most potent. To stop the course of one’s daily life before the shrine of a meaningful aesthetic experience is to open oneself to a reinforcement of the very social divisions that have built up the shrine to the art object in the first place.

Against this Benjamin argued for a positive estimate of the quality of “distraction” (Zerstreuung, Ablenkung), the very attitude critiqued by Modernist theory in its contempt for mass culture. Not concentrating, being distracted, still stands for many of us as the sign of a superficial response to life. For Modernists and late Modernists it is in the inattentive moments, the moments of distraction, that ideology does its dirty work. For them, concentration is the mechanism of critique. We need to be persuaded to deep attention if we are to get beyond the corrupted world of habits and appearances. Benjamin proposes the opposite: that it is only in the more superficial moments of distraction that we can assimilate art as part of ordinary life, a tool for living and living with, a familiar item that is not set aside for fetishistic contemplation but is simply “there” for us all, all of the time. Architecture is the most important example of the art of distraction. It is a permanent element in human life because “the human need for shelter is permanent” (p. 120). Buildings are for use as well as objects to look at- the habitual and material function always trumps the independence and sufficiency of the gaze. “Casual noticing” displaces “attentive observation” (p. 120) as buildings subsist through time: what first was new and striking becomes simply part of life.[8]

It follows, then, that buildings that tell us what they mean, or scream at us, are seeking not only to resist the passage of time and the accrual of uncontrolled associations, but are also resisting ever being received in a state of distraction, ever becoming habitually taken for granted in the way that Benjamin finally specifies as being in the proper spirit of the masses and of a democratic culture. (Adorno for one was famously grumpy about this argument, though he misunderstood the concept of distraction, imagining it as something that in a communist society people would no longer need.[9] Memorials, of course, seem to require concentration and specification. Without the names of the dead and some account of the occasion of their death they cannot subsist through time as memorials. The memorial component of the Manhattan site will have to resist, as far as possible, being taken for granted. This being the case, could one not argue that the function of the other elements of the site- the tower, the plazas, the functional spaces- ought to be as free as possible of prefigured significations? One could I suppose receive Libeskind’s strident declarations of meaning, which resist any inclination we might have to a state of Benjaminian distraction, as an unwitting expression of the postmodern-neocapitalist world-power ethos that can only honestly subsist as an aggregate of slogans so coercive as to seem self-undermining. But we do not live in an age of irony, least of all in relation to 9/11 and to the war culture it has been deployed to sustain.

We cannot then sit back and expect anyone to read Libeskind’s buildings against themselves, so that the grand torch of liberty becomes parodic rather than simply affirmative. As I write, the next round of competition is upon us: the committee judging the design submissions for the memorial proper (or will it be memorials?) is already doing its work. What, we should ask, is the relation of memorial architecture to nomination, to the telling of meaning? What lessons can be learned from, say, Franco’s Valley of the Fallen or Lutyens’s Thiepval or Lin’s Vietnam Memorial? What options are open to the winners of the current competition and what constraints does the larger scheme of the site itself place upon them? The Irish Hunger Memorial, with its native grasses, soils and stone, is not faring too well in the harsh New York winters. What pitfalls and possibilities can we imagine facing those chosen to embody the complex instinctual and ideological feelings and demands at work around the prospect of a memorial to the dead of 9/11?

The materials made available by the LMDC set forth the limits within which the competitors must frame their designs. First, they must “recognize each individual who was a victim of the attacks” of September 11, 2001 (in New York, Washington and in the Pennsylvania plane crash) and of February 26, 1993 (the WTC bombing that killed six people).[10] There must be a place for housing the “unidentified remains” of those who died; a space for contemplation; and an acknowledgment of those who aided in “rescue, recovery and healing” The whole must be a statement of “enduring and universal symbolism” that is “distinct from other memorial structures” and that will “convey historic authenticity”. Covering letters from politicians and LMDC administrators add in injunctions that the values of “liberty and democracy… must be given physical expression” that , the memorial will not only honor the dead but “reaffirm life itself” (and the “universal ideal” of American freedom) and “celebrate the values that endure, drawing inspiration from its setting in the cradle of American democracy”.

The memorial competition, in other words, has already prescribed the messages that the winner must project, and they are eerily coincident with the ones governing the selection of the Libeskind design and with Libeskind’s own pronouncements about it. There is the same tension between commemoration and celebration, the same bizarre insistence that the disaster and its implications are at once global and specifically national (“American” values are also “universal”), the same demand that remembering the dead be conjoined with the evocation of an upbeat future. If this were not already an impossibly tall order, then there is the insistence on the memorial’s originality and on its inclusion of something of the “historical” record, a signifier of the real. Memorials, however, have a habit of looking like each other, not least because they subsist in a visual culture of conventionalized forms that allow for their identification as memorials in the first place. This language can be modified and even used against itself, refreshing the more tired conventions by subtle shifts of the sort Maya Lin effected in her Vietnam Memorial. There the tradition of naming the dead that had featured on more than a century of commemorative architecture (countless war memorials, most famously Thiepval, built by Lutyens on the site of one of the bloodiest sectors of the Somme battlefield) is not only taken underground (where Lutyens and thousands of village stonemasons had gone upward and therefore transcendental even when avoiding orthodox Christian iconography) but arrayed on a semi-reflective surface that confronts the beholder with his or her own historical presence and thence with the attendant complexities of self-identification (survival and complicity among them). Lin had to respond to a mandate against making any political statement about the Vietnam War, which was (and indeed remains) a very divisive component of the national culture, indeed so divisive as to call into question what the “nation” is and who gets to be included in it and to benefit from it. Although her memorial is now widely recognized as a masterpiece, we should not forget that it was immensely controversial in its beginnings, that it was funded by public contributions (much money coming from veterans themselves), that there are two other Vietnam memorials competing for space and attention at the same site, and that it continues to evolve through time as a place for reckoning with the memory and afterlife of the Vietnam War, evident in the thousands of items left at the wall, and in its centrality to the POW-MIA movement whose ongoing energy signifies at the very least a radical cynicism about the priorities of those for whose benefit the “nation” is organized.[11]

Everything surrounding the coming into being of Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial was, in other words, congenial to ambiguity and uncertainty- about the rights and wrongs of the war itself, about the class distinctions governing who fought and died in it (the names of the dead are listed without military rank), about the treatment of the survivors. Her minimalist architecture proved to be the perfect medium for the debate to continue, and it is still continuing, refueled by the decade of controversy surrounding the afterlives of the veterans of the Gulf War of 1991. It is this, among other things, that the WTC project threatens to efface or displace. The New York site (though not the Pentagon site) projects itself as a national and even global project, and one based on events where the enemy is wholly the other, the foreign element which is completely outside and beyond America, even as (we are told) its agents are everywhere and likely to strike again without notice. What thus seems likely to be forgotten is the history of violence within America and between Americans that cannot be commemorated wholeheartedly as a “national” memory, because it remains too divisive. At Gettysburg, only the Union soldiers were at first buried in the graveyard. The Confederate dead were interred some miles away in a place of their own. Gettysburg generated the phrase “sacred grounds” used there , in 1863 (Hass, p. 47), which has become once again familiar (even hackneyed) but this time purified of any allusion to domestic conflict. The Indian removals and exterminations, the traumas of slavery, the history of anti-labor violence and the more recent events known as Vietnam, Waco, and Oklahoma City all now similarly stand to be subsumed within a memorial gesture that can finally call itself national. Just as Al-Qaeda has given us a monolithic international enemy whose exact identity can be specified opportunistically by the government of the day, so it has given us also the chance to memorialize ourselves together as Americans against the external forces of evil.

The reinvention of America by way of the WTC site as a nation more sinned against than sinning seems inevitable. Pearl Harbor achieved something of that, but the Day of Infamy was immediately caught up in the events of a global war that made exponentially greater demands upon the national imagination. Moreover the Pearl Harbor Memorial, when it eventually came about (only in 1962) was practically devoid of jingoism: it is a masterpiece of meditative intensity that worthily ranks with Maya Lin’s work in Washington. It looks down, not up. We can, I suppose, hope for something like this to come out of the current competition, but even if it were to do so it would have to compete against and in some critical sense refute the ambient environment created by Libeskind’s buildings. Predicting this would be betting against the odds, not only because of the prescribed terms of reference already published, but also because of the remarkably coherent aesthetic tradition that we might call the “terrorist cluster”, the series of memorials already in place and now even more firmly unified by the negatively charismatic circulation of 9/11 as the summum of previous events. A reading of James Young’s now classic The Texture of Memory makes clear that the late 20th century efflorescence of Holocaust memorials has produced a subculture of motifs alluding to one another as well as the events they signify: broken gravestones, railway lines, emaciated figures. In the case of a “career” memorialist like Avi Shamir, the duplication of elements is even more marked.[12] This tendency of itself leads to the prospect and project of a postmodern “counter-memorial” commemorative vocabulary richly evident in the controversies about the Berlin Holocaust memorial also written about by Young, who is a member of the LMDC panel of judges.[13] The WTC project seems however already to have preempted most of the options for a deconstructive architecture: irony, skepticism and above all self-implication are unlikely to be welcome here. The more probable result will be a design that inscribes itself within the terrorism cluster whose precursor is the Oklahoma City National Memorial, and whose companionable form is the Pentagon Memorial also dedicated to the dead of 9/11.

The Oklahoma City National Memorial at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was inaugurated by President Clinton on April 19, 2000, five years to the day after the bomb that took 168 lives. The interest in punctilious time is also imaged in the archways inscribed with the minutes before and after the attack (9:01, 9:03)- a similar idea reappears in Libeskind’s now controversial “wedge of light” motif in New York. The “footprint” of the Murrah Building is preserved, covered with grass. 168 empty chairs commemorate the dead, who are also remembered in biographies in the museum. So too are the survivors whose “stories” are separately recorded. Personal items are preserved in the museum (one per victim), along with all the objects left at the site or sent in the mail by visitors and sympathizers, including many hats and T-shirts (this is a habit instigated or at least made famous by the Vietnam Memorial[14]. This too is “sacred ground” and here, too, occurred “events that changed the world” and require a “universal symbol”. Here, too, the commitment to celebration is apparent in the attention paid to the heroism and selflessness of the rescue effort and to the nation-wide and proto-global responses of ordinary people.

It will be difficult for the WTC memorial site to avoid both comparison with and allusion to Oklahoma City, and indeed a pattern is already in place that assimilates a whole series of “terrorist” events to one another in some imagined transhistorical continuum. The special exhibit at the Murrah site (which will travel to the 9/11 sites starting in September 2003) stages “A Shared Experience”. And the Terrorism Institute also created on the site publishes a website originating at the Dealey Plaza Museum in Dallas and bringing together Ford’s Theater, Dealey Plaza, the Lorraine Motel, Pearl Harbor, Oklahoma City and 9/11. Recall here also the alacrity with which Netanyahu and other right-wing Israelis identified their own cause with that of the victims of 9/11: Mount Herzl in Jerusalem also has a wall inscribed with the names of the victims of terrorism, which just happened to appear as a photograph “illustrating” the problems with the Middle East peace process in The New York Times, May 7, 2003, p. A3. These assimilations index both repression and expression. The effort to conjure up a coherent and sinister national experience of terrorism of course glosses over the enormous differences between these events and their relative scarcity in a still highly “secure” nation state, though it can readily be used to justify a paranoid view of history. At the same time putting these events together cannot but serve as a reminder that, with the exception of Pearl Harbor (hardly terrorism, however aggressively some are now redefining it that way), all of these other horrors were perpetrated by Americans upon themselves (unless, of course, you think that Lee Harvey Oswald was in the pay of the Russians). It is then a short step to recall not only the enormous precedence of the Waco massacre in the mind of Timothy McVeigh, but all the other unrecorded brutalities and accidents that mark our history, including the unforgettable but strangely now displaced history of human carnage (supposedly 600,000 dead) that marked the course of the American Civil War.

Oklahoma City, then, is at once an aesthetic precursor (and therefore a challenge to the idea of originality) and a political liability for those who seek to use the 9/11 site as an instance of the degree to which America’s enemy has finally been proved to be other than itself: Al-Qaeda has produced the Arab protagonists that so many had at first assumed to be responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing. But the fact that the WTC was not destroyed by Americans has opened up the floor to the sort of boosterism of which Libeskind has been accused (quite justly, in my view) and which threatens to overpower the memorial project itself (the memorial within the memorial) with another litany of upbeat paeans to liberty and democracy. The Pentagon Memorial (where the “light benches” also echo the Oklahoma City Memorial) cannot be that, for all its limitations in the eyes of critics, because it is implacably subservient to a building needing no introduction and redolent with ideological and historical associations. Moreover, the decision to base the memorial design on the exact flight path of the highjacked airplane heading into the building has opened up an interesting dialectic affecting what the memorial is telling and meaning. The likely first response is to see it as imaging an attack from outside on the national fortress, now rebuilt so as to seem as if nothing has happened. But can we also now imagine the sublimation and transmigration of souls through those same walls, against the historical narrative, from inside to outside, somehow reversing the sequence of victim and aggressor and the direction of violence, a reversal also at least imaginable because of the carefully age-graded sequencing of the light benches dedicated to the victims- After all, if the traditionally impregnable walls of the Pentagon have been breached once, in such an unexpected way, why not let the fancy roam and imagine other transformations? The play of light and water then comments ironically and powerfully upon the dour givenness and intractable signification of the building itself. This way of seeing might not be intended or widely received, but it does at least suggest an unresolved solution to the definition and imagination of victimhood that the memorial design, however inadvertently, opens up.

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2. Path Concept, Pentagon Memorial Project

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3. Bench Concept, Pentagon Memorial Project

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4. Bench Detail, Pentagon Memorial Project

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5. Night Concept, Pentagon Memorial Project

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6. Night Concept, Pentagon Memorial Project

Such openness is not however the pattern in the recent history of war memorials in Washington, evident in the Korean War Memorial’s heroic, more than life-size figures (dedicated in 1995), and in the controversies over what is widely felt to be a hopelessly reactionary design for the World War Two Memorial (which has been called both Napoleonic and Fascist)- a design moreover being built smack in the middle of the historically and politically important public space that is the Mall, suggests that we are on a collective triumphalist trajectory along which Libeskind’s buildings will be very much at home. The National Coalition to Save our Mall has lost the fight over the World War Two memorial, and it is notable that in its effort to stop the project it was compelled to resort to a language almost as triumphalist as the opposition in casting the Mall as “our monument to democracy” and “the premier democratic public space in the nation, and indeed the world”[15] . But these are words, not things, and there is a world of difference in leaving space for future possible uses and closing it off in ways that cannot be changed and that prevent future possibilities.[16] In the WTC site plan, the civic itself has become monumental; with the World War Two Memorial, the memorial may have become monumental at the expense of the civic. It remains to be seen what space is left in lower Manhattan for memorial, and what kind of memory it carries. Buildings that tell are always restrictive. When the stories they tell are simplistic, the prospects for serious memorial are to say the least bleak. The now lamented Twin Towers had in fact a rather complex and conflicted iconographic and ideological personality, brilliantly summarized by Baudrillard as including the punch card, the digital graph, countability, the end of originality and singularity (there were two identical towers), monopoly (replication, not competition), the black box (impenetrability), the figure of globalization itself.[17] What is to come in lower Manhattan does not promise such brave complexity and unwitting honesty. Whether we end up with the Museum at the Edge of Hope or the Museum of Freedom or some similar coinage does not much matter. It seems to be all a matter of the telling.

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7. Inauguration of the Thiepval Memorial, August 2nd, 1932

8. Thiepval Plan

9. Thiepval Monument to the Missing

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10. Libeskind Sketch: WTC Memory Foundation

11. World Trade Center Site: September 23, 2001

12. Libeskind Sketch: WTC Matrix

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13. Libeskind Sketch: WTC Wedge of Light

14. Libeskind Sketch: WTC Culture and Heart

15. Libeskind Sketch: WTC Life Victorious/ Skyline


[1] Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), p. 161.

[2] Johann Gottfried von Herder, Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind, ed. Frank E. Manuel (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1968), p. 394.

[3] Jean Baudrillard, In the Spirit of Terrorism and Requiem for the Twin Towers, trans. Chris Turner (London and New York: Verso, 2002), p.51.

[4] Martin Filler’s phrase, cited by Christopher Hawthorne, “Living with our Mistake” Slate, February 25, 2003.

[5] Herbert Muschamp, “Balancing Reason and Emotion in Twin Tower Void”, New York Times, February 6, 2003; Hal Foster, “In New York” London Review of Books, 20 March, 2003.

[6] “Ground Zero Rethought, with Judgment Deferred”, New York Times, September 18, 2003, p.C13.7 Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 3, 1935-38, eds. Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings (Cambridge and London: Belknap Press, Harvard University, 2002), p. 119.

[8] All the more so in the twentieth century which has, for Benjamin, “put an end to dwelling (Wohnen) in the old sense” by means of “its porosity and transparency, its tendency toward the well-lit and airy”. See The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1999), p. 221.

[9] Letter of 18 March 1936, in Ernst Bloch, Georg Lukacs, Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Aesthetics and Politics (London: Verso, 1977), p. 123.

[10] The mission statement and guidelines are available at

[11] For a fine account of all of this, see Kristin Ann Haas, Carried to the Wall: American Memory and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1998).

[12] James E. Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993), p. 301.

[13] James E. Young, At Memory’s Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000).

[14] Details of the Murrah Building memorial are taken from

[15] First Annual State of the Mall Report, October 14, 2002, available at

[16] Ellsworth Kelly’s fantasy of “a large green mound” on the site of “Ground Zero” makes a not dissimilar statement: see Herbert Muschamp, “One Vision: A Hill of Green at Ground Zero” New York Times, September 11, 2003, p. B1.

[17] The Spirit of Terrorism, pp. 42-46.

Water Bordering

By Julian Hunt


Ankle deep where the waters of the Anacostia and the Potomac meet, gaze south toward the Chesapeake and imagine the primeval landscape, the impenetrable forests, the limitless shoals of shad and beds of oysters. Block out the heavy backwash of the presidential helicopters banking overhead towards Bolling Air Force Base on the stripped eastern bank. Block out the intense noise from National Airport skimming over Hains Point from the far western bank. Having worked yourself around the security fence that inexplicably ended in weeds and bushwhacked through the overgrown and abandoned back yard of the hulking Coast Guard Building, you’re lucky not to have triggered a “force protection” response from nearby Ft. McNair.

Buzzard Point, so named for the buzzards attracted by the collection of fish kill and drift in the eddies of the mixing waters, has the most dramatic view of any in the metropolitan sprawl of the capital. A typically rolling, still wooded landscape shrouds any long perspective in the intimacy of leaves. Lacking the natural vistas of dramatic heights, this is the only site where the hubris of human ambition might be scaled by the simple magnitude of the landscape. But the last time anyone paid any attention to Buzzard Point was during the first twitch of Empire when the forgotten L’Enfant Plan of 1791 was revived under the McKinley Administration when the McMillan Plan of 1902, on paper, drew a grand avenue radiating south from the Capital building.

Curiously, this revival included disinterring the corpse of the designer of the plan from a pauper’s grave in Bladensburg, Maryland. Re-interred in 1909, under the name of Pierre L’Enfant, and exalted in Arlington Cemetery in the shadow of the Custis-Lee mansion, the modest tomb takes the curious form of an Empire map table with a splendid view (from Virginia) of the District across the river. The ancient practice of corpse appropriation thus allowed the name of Pierre L’Enfant entry into the American pantheon as a useful adornment to the creation of a foundation myth that the layout of the city was all so skillfully planned and divinely inspired. Attention flagged, however, wars intervened, and money was diverted before the work of the McMillan Plan was completed. The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts established in 1910 and charged with implementing the McMillan Plan never seemed very concerned with implementing the plan past the Anacostia River. The Mall filled-up with temporary military structures during the Second World War. South Capitol Street never went anywhere anyway and turned away over a bridge toward the far Anacostia neighborhoods and the Maryland suburbs beyond. By the late fifties the infrastructure of interstate highways rendered the symbolic gestures of the McMillan Plan obsolete.


Guy Debord, author of the “Society of the Spectacle” and prominent member of the Situationist International, an avantgarde group active in Paris between 1957 and 1972, is usually credited with the invention of psychogeography as a means to critique conventional ways of observing the modern city. The Situationists developed the idea of the randomly motivated walk, the “dérive” or drift, and “reverie” or “contemplation” as , an update of the nineteenth-century figure of the flaneur. The pedestrian of Housmann’s transformed Paris who wandered, idled, and watched, became a critical observer of new forms of urban fauna. Walter Benjamin, however, noted the gradual assimilation of the flaneur into specific functions within the new configuration from which new social forms emerged by the end of the 19th century: the journalist, the detective, and the female shopper. The Situationists revival of walking as an intellectual activity opened a new literary form which such writers as V.S. Naipal, W.G. Sebald, and Iain Sinclair have exploited for their observations of modern European cities and societies. Shouldn’t Washington merit similar scrutiny? Unfold a map of Washington, DC. Note that the dominant graphic figure is drawn by the convergence of the two rivers. Antique reproduction maps of the city occupy our peripheral vision. On the walls of dental clinics, conservative restaurants, behind lawyers’ desks, these maps indicate an anxiety for establishment yet, at the same time, subvert by the suggestive figure of a female anatomy: left and right fallopian tubes, swampy fecundity. At the convergence, a slight indentation where St. James Creek once flowed, overlay a sectional drawing of the opening of the uterus. The Capital Building, lies exactly north, like a fetus in the womb. This randomly motivated walk begins when a guard, somnambulant in his booth, suddenly notices a burr-covered figure emerging from the weeds that enclose Buzzard point. His homeland security training kicks-in, right-hand on holstered pistol, government-issue uniform, the guard demands a driver’s license, a now common gesture of official etiquette, before politely telling me to leave without apology or explanation. Some procurement officer must have done the paperwork that landed the Coast Guard Building here: toilet seats, architects: the same paperwork. Abuse of power comes in many forms, from thoughtless neglect and failure of imagination that result in such physical ruin as a natural landscape tortured by ugly buildings and concrete, to the physical abuse that approaches torture in the ruin of thought and the imagination necessary for empathy. Designed for somewhere else, this hulk of a container takes no notice of its locale, no acknowledgement of anything beyond the skin of the facade. A siting error has chamfered one corner of the building that was too close to the lot boundary. You can imagine the money made in change orders. Nor could the procurement official read the site plan well enough to understand the enormous quantities of water that converge, on the one side, from the lowlands of tidewater Maryland and, on the other, from the hinterlands of the Allegheny mountains. Dumpsters converge there now, blown trash leafing the trees. But if you stand there you can sense the presence of the Leviathan, the entire apparatus of government at your back, and before you the whole expanse of continental waters flow down to the bay and then to the sea.

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1. Aerial Photo, Potomac and Anacostia Rivers

An incipient uterine peninsula, Buzzard Point ends where P Street draws the north edge of an area where the “rule of law” might be imposed as a matter of nation building, simple urban decorum. A recent mayor was apprehended here outside an unregistered strip club with powder on his upper lip (or was it a small white rock in an envelope) and escaped everything except ridicule, and later a seat on the city council. George Pelecanos used this zone as a background setting to the culminating scene of his crime novel “Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go”. Failed states and corrupt societies occupy much attention at high levels of government, mere blocks away, but there are also these localized failed states of mind, these zones of abandonment and lawlessness. Here where L’Enfant’s rational street grid encounters the complex geometry of low-surveillance, tidal wash, spring flood, the way loam melts into water is a detail beyond the understanding of abstract policy designers. These are the administrative lacunae where “a few bad apples” are left to their own devices, where anything can happen, where human behavior under conditions of stress expresses itself in unpredictable ways, outside the borders of any recognized jurisdiction. In the shadow of the hill nearby, Representatives sell a curious form of democracy, not unlike the way Coke was sold a century ago, as a patent medicine, a feel-good, cure-all elixir with the slightly narcotic flavor of chamber of commerce money for all. These lots of breeding vegetation, which occupy the vacant center of the city, are subject now to the speculative forces unleashed by the alignments of public investment and private landed interests. The transvestite clubs are closing down to make way for the new baseball stadium.


Stadium plan or not, the  peninsula of Buzzard Point has been vertically divided into an industrial zone on the east, and an enclosed military one on the west where Ft. Lesley J. McNair fronts the stagnant calm of the Washington Channel. The old arsenal, site of the hanging of the Lincoln assassination conspirators, is walled off and vigilantly guarded. Having failed to protect the Capital from the British in 1812, who came up the Potomac in wooden boats, today it seems to protect the privileges of a few generals with (16 at last observation from Hains Point) prime waterfront mansions. It remains a mystery why this critical waterfront cannot be part of the military’s base realignments.

At a public conference, where the mayor unveiled development plans for the Anacostia waterfront, a casual seating arrangement sat me next to the spokeswoman for Ft. McNair, who suggested not asking too much about something so important that it could not be named. Something large, buried and very secret came to mind, a cold-war relic, a hell-mouth reopened, or just a bunker to protect the congressional rump during a national emergency, force protection, a remaining mystery.

South Capitol Street, the southern leg of the great North-South axis, the cardo maximus of L’Enfant’s imagination, somehow bends onto the rusting Fredrick Douglas Memorial Bridge, contravening any suggestion of conventional axial termination within an Enlightenment sensibility. The actual axis line slides under the bridge into the mud of the Anacostia River at the site of a gravel yard with barge access, more in keeping with out-of-sight economic necessity and free-market industrial sensibilities.

Water Street SE, a short, dusty, two-block fragment of a long promenade L’Enfant had drawn and planned for the waterfronts of both the Potomac and the Anacostia, fronted the gravel yard. The original commissioners, charged with the execution of the 1791 Plan, had to deal with the resistance of private owners of river lowgrounds. These owners vigorously refused to cede land to form the Water Street promenade, which would cut off their access to potential wharfing facilities, effectively leaving the city without a public promenade on the water. In the end, little business came up the river that wasn’t head off by Alexandria downriver or diverted upriver to Georgetown. An extant 1790 sketch by Jefferson (p. 32), a mysterious doodle for the capital overlaying the pre-existing settlement Carrolsburg more or less where the gravel pit lies today, probably occupied a very brief moment of his attention, and is now preserved as an archival snippet of urban DNA at the Library of Congress.

Roughly a mile north, off the old lowgrounds and up what used to be Jenkins Hill, the apsial crossing under the dome of the Capital building of the two regulating axes has its origins in the deep well of the past. The foundation of Roman cities was accompanied by religious ceremony and a rich variety of auguries: the reading of entrails, the interpretation of the flight of birds, the movement of stray animals, the pattern of clouds, thunder and lightning. Looking up at the sky now, we Stadium plan or not, the must divine the illnesses of migrating birds, the banking of helicopters, the drone of observation aircraft. In sampling the polluted waters of the Anacostia, we must read the meaning of strangely deformed fish, anticipate the arrival of water-griffins and snakeheads from China.

Google down a satellite map over the Capital dome and note the radiating lines smudged by topography and inattentive administration. North Capitol Street radiates from the dome in a straight line about three miles before the axis kinks around the Soldier’s and Airmen’s Home, Rock Creek Cemetery, the totemic mounds of what remain of the civil war forts, Totten and Slocum, and then absently angles off axis only to peter out in a low-rent neighborhood where the cache of the street name has no meaning. This northeast edge of the District, a part of the Tacoma Park neighborhood drifted over the District line, is faintly defined by Eastern Avenue, its arbitrary character expressed as a straight line which stubbornly ignores the lay of the ground as it rises and falls. Abrupt road cuts leave houses on one side perched high above their opposite neighbors clinging to the lip of the broken sidewalk. Eastern Avenue is an unnatural street without commercial activity except that which takes perpendicular advantage of adjacent political districts with separate police jurisdictions.

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2. Tomb of Pierre L’Enfant

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3. Beach Debris at Buzzard Point


The decumanus maximus of L’Enfant’s imagination was more completely realized than the cardo maximus by the fortuitous intervention of that twitch of Empire, the McMillan Plan of 1902. The great east-west axis is appropriately bounded by a Greek temple (Lincoln Memorial) and a Roman stadium (RFK). Between them: the Mall, the Capital building (depixilated in Google so as to avoid detection), the slightly misplaced monument to Washington, a mute stele rising abruptly out of the grass with an inscrutably tiny door, and the grossly rhetorical and hugely out of place WWII Memorial (Why J. Carter Brown was convinced of the appropriateness of this as the “last” great monument in the constellation of monuments that represent the founding principals of the nation deserves more serious scrutiny).

East of RFK Stadium, the McMillan Plan never quite got around to extending the axis across the Anacostia, nor did the alignment exactly correspond to the easternmost corner of the ten-mile square, although the 1901 Plan did dredge the upper Anacostia marshes into a well-defined canal as part of an antimalarial campaign. East Capital Street bifurcates around the stadium, jumps the Anacostia and tails away, similarly ignoring the lay of the ground, riding up and over a topography of old ravines tamed by the requirements of a weakening axis, a final long hill that was for years breasted by the notorious housing block East Capitol Dwellings (where Marvin Gaye grew up) just behind the crest that must have had spectacular views from its broken windows. The new low-density HOPE VI financed replacement housing, Capitol Gateway Estates, look like little more than a Potemkin Village of some image of middle-class suburban ideal.

The easternmost corner of the District is marked by a surveyor’s stone dated 1792 in another trashy weed lot of breeding poison ivy a few blocks off the misaligned intersection of East Capital Street with Southern Avenue. Neighborhood kids must regard the little monument as a useless relic in a dumping area or a stone that fell from the sky or a vaguely religious site long forgotten. The boundary stone in ancient Roman culture did have religious significance and all the associated ceremony. Andrew Ellicott and Benjamin Banneker, of myth, the act unrecorded, must have found themselves in a trackless land grant. Working the angles divined by Congress, they must have set the heavy, ungainly boundary stones from a wagon. The interpretations were made elsewhere, the spot unrecognizable and now as lost as it was then.

The perpendicular cuts through the woods point exactly northwest and southeast. This lower section of Eastern Avenue looking back to the Anacostia has same disregard for topography, bounded by modest homes on either side, nearly unchanged since they were built half a century ago, those types of homes with successive permitless additions, an empty thoroughfare having forgotten its reason long ago.

The hill bottoms out in an industrial section, but before having to deal with the Anacostia and the bother and expense of a bridge. Kenilworth Avenue conveniently provides an excuse to sever this section of Eastern Avenue from its extension on the other side of the Anacostia where it bifurcates Takoma Park. The marshland below extends to the banks of the river. Once owned by a maimed Civil War veteran, W. B. Shaw, employed for a time at the Pension Building, he fell into the business of cultivating water lilies on his near worthless marshland. His descendents resisted the efforts of the McMillan Plan to dredge the marsh and seem to have extracted, as an agreement, the conversion of the property into two parklands. One, is Kenilworth Park (700 acres), the other the rarely-visited Aquatic Gardens (14 acres). Both of these departmental properties of the National Park Service are down-listed into the status of an unfunded mandate and cut adrift for “volunteer” maintenance.

At the Aquatic Gardens any hierarchy among the buildings that might indicate the original Shaw family house is lost, and the diminutive information center, classic brown “National Park” is open but empty. Desiccated exhibits of native plants , populate a narrative of marsh restoration, the undoing of a turn-of-the-century McMillan Plan anti-malarial campaign. Obediently walking the designated path, bush-hogged to keep the weeds down, the designated markers and information plaques have been vandalized by local fauna. The first view is of a swath of splintered trunks, broken half-way up, entire canopies thrown down and reduced to tangles of grown-over branches at ground level which open great holes to the sky. At the end of the path you can see one of the efforts of marsh restoration was to punch holes in the stone walls that were constructed to constrict the waters to a canal-like perfection. The resulting mud flats now attract birds and theoretically should filter the oily run-off from suburban Maryland parking lots, and cleanse the notoriously fetid backwater.


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4. RFK Stadium

Now, run down the axis by lining up the center line of RFK Stadium, the Capital, and the Lincoln Memorial (the stele of the Washington Monument is slightly off set), and see where you end up on the other western extreme: a couple of immature trees on the banks of the Virginia side of the Potomac below the tip of Roosevelt Island, near Arlington Cemetery, at the 17 milepost of the Mt. Vernon Bike trail, and within hearing of the Roosevelt 66/50 Bridge: The edge of suburban Virginia.

The high buildings of Roslyn, Virginia just to the north affront the dignified background view of the Lincoln Memorial such that 25 years ago an informal agreement mediated by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts limited the height of the buildings. Today the agreement seems undone with immanent development of even higher structures. A new Memorandum of Understanding has been written to give an appearance of a negotiated agreement between equals but it is little more than a grudging acknowledgement of economic realities. Height limitations in the District force developmental pressure upward exactly at the jurisdictional borders. Roslyn occupies the closest and most valuable nestle of unregulated ground where the views are a sought after commodity.

The view from this spot is delightful. It embraces the picturesque banks of the Potomac, a portion of the city, and an expanse of water, of which the bridge terminates the view. Numerous vessels ply backwards and forwards to animate the scene. Directing the eye over a corner of the garden, we perceive the sails only, as if by enchantment, gliding through the trees.

— David Baillie Warden, A Chronological and Statistical Description of the District of Columbia, Paris, 1816, pp. 137138

I could not find the spot on the island ridge where the ruins of the summerhouse should have been. Photographs shot in the 1930’s reveal an almost Mayan-like ruin, grown-over in roots and jungle. Summer home of General John Mason, the 90 acre island was owned by the Mason family for generations. Earliest records refer to the island as “My Lord’s Island” and then , after 1680 as “Barbadoes” After 1717, when the Mason family acquired the property, the island was commonly referred to as “Mason’s Island” John Mason renamed it “Analostan Island” and built the house and gardens during the 1790’s. A prominent social life developed on the island, which was now cultivated in orchards and “had an able English gardener in charge of the estate for many years”. In 1798, Louis Phillipe, Duc d’Orleans, who would be the last king of France, politely wrote of his visit that “he had never seen a more elegant entertainment”. In 1805 a causeway was built from the south shore in response to the silting up of the Georgetown harbor on the opposite bank. The thought was that by forcing the flow of the Potomac into a more restricted channel, the river would naturally scour a channel for ships. Instead a stagnant backwater developed behind the causeway that diminished the summer pleasure of the island (with clouds of mosquitoes no doubt). By 1833 financial problems forced Mason to sell the island and for the next century it suffered a succession of owners, commercial cultivation, dance halls, and gradual abandonment.

In 1931 the Roosevelt Memorial Association bought the property and commissioned what is today widely regarded as a dreadful monument to our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt. Completed in 1967, and genuinely not worth the wait, it is another one of those scarcely visited National Parks. The circular space of the monument actually occupies a relatively small portion of the island, where a stiff sculpture of Theodore Roosevelt, one hand raised in heroic style, the other beckoning, recalls simultaneously a recently deposed Middle Eastern dictator and a gesture of bribery, except that he appears to be orating harmlessly at the trees. The raised gesture should have been recognized by 1967. Four monumental stone tablets similarly orate strenuously on NATURE, MANHOOD, YOUTH, and THE STATE to the trees. That Frederick law Olmstead, Jr. was the landscape architect suggests either a very insignificant project or one that has been allowed to disappear into the weeds. The unforgivable intellectual laziness that allowed the rest of the park to return to a state-of-nature is insufficient cover for simple neglect. The sad proof is here, inadequate funding, and the political reality that, without a vote, the District is always last on the list. While there is some charm in walking the pathways, the constant wall of white noise from the Roosevelt 66/50 bridge on one side and the George Washington Parkway on the other, tends to render the effort to distinguish birdsong a quaint endeavor, not to mention the thunder of incoming planes banking down that twisted trajectory into National Airport and the Doppler menace of military helicopters ranging through their tight flight paths just above the branches.

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5.  Analostan Island from Map of the City of Washington, Robert King

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6. Ruins of General John Mason House, Analostan or Roosevelt Island

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7. Bronze statue of Theodore Roosevelt by Paul Manship

“Conservation means development as much as it does protection”. Thus reads the tablet on NATURE. Congressman Dick Pombo, 11th District of California, should probably have made some reference to Roosevelt’s words before working up the 2005 Draft Reconciliation Bill, Subtitle C, Section 6307, which would have sold Roosevelt Island among another fifteen parcels in the National Park System for the “purposes of commercial and residential development.”

There is potential in the idea, but suspicion in where the House Resources Committee got it. The reaction to an image of “strip malls and [new urbanist] townhouses” (probably not that unlike the Capitol Gateway Estates) was as predictable as it was effective in stripping the language from the bill. That the pressure to include it from the bill likely came from landed interests in adjacent Roslyn speaks of a genuine worry of intention. Perhaps strip development was the limit of their imagination.

A more enlightened proposal should take the “le de la Cité” in Paris as a model, or Venice, or even the artificial islands in Miami. Why, in the center of such a growing conurbation as the tri-state metropolitan area, should density be so restricted that it only reinforces growth into exurbia? A better objective would include this parcel in the package of federal land holdings that should be ceded back to the District government, which in turn should hold an international architectural competition for urbanization of the island. Tax revenues on the 90 acres could contribute significantly to the city treasury as it could contribute to the population of the District. A portion of the island could remain as an urban park with sufficient funds to adequately maintain it. The Roosevelt sculpture could be shipped to the Adirondacks and left gesturing at the mountains.


At the far northwest corner of the District, the ragged edge of the tilted frame, where the Potomac once penetrated the geometric perfection of the 10-mile square, the border is unmarked. The waters flow regardless of jurisdiction, the landscape disregards such enlightenment rationality. At The C&O Canal Lock #5, just outside the limit, the National Park Service has installed a standard-issue information kiosk with a worn red sticker “you are here” adhered to a sun-shot fiberglass map. No indication of where you are relative to anything other that the immediate mandate of the park, not even an indication of where the District line is. At the bottom edge, a new sticker of a slightly different standard blandly requests information on any suspicious activities and displays a District number like an antigen.

Earlier in the day a heavy motorcade of armored black limousines fronted by police bikes and followed by black SUVs with machine guns casually pointed at sidewalk gapers. A flashing white ambulance followed like a pathetic hanger on. The number is posted everywhere but it is understood who gets the real protection, the layered defenses, the bounded enclave, the force protection.

Almost exactly across the river is the Fort Marcy Park, where Vince Foster was found dead on July 20, 1993, and provoked right-wing paranoid speculations about a vast left-wing conspiracy centered in the travel office of the Clinton White House. A bit further north Mir Aimal Kansi killed two and wounded three CIA employees outside CIA Headquarters on 25 January 1993. The brown and green landscape of steep, wooded ravines is indifferent, undifferentiated and unmarked by these intimately human events that generated silent reverberations that are still echoing in the thickets of law, language, and response. The Three Mile Northwest Boundary stone has been lost somewhere in these woods.

Earlier manifestations of the autoimmune response include one of the interlocking wheels of paranoia that surround the Kennedy assassination. On 12 October 1964, Mary Pinchot Meyer was shot dead as she walked along the Chesapeake and Ohio towpath in Georgetown. A favored mistress of JFK, former wife of a high official at the CIA, her diaries were of particular interest and have also generated a cottage industry of endless paranoid speculation. Even on the patrician side of a well-ordered Washington, the suspicion lies just beneath the surface of a hidden order or a ragged edge to the law where boundaries are unmarked and jurisdictions unclear, where given the right circumstances and timing things can be done outside the law as necessity might require, necessitas legem non habet.


Just down the embankment where Mary Pinchot Meyer was photographed awkwardly crumpled under the professional gaze of a set of assembled detectives and policemen, find the floodplain site of the proposed new Georgetown Boathouse. The University committee charged with task of selecting an architect probably thought it had made a clever choice in Stephen Muse who had been chairman of the Georgetown Historic District Board and was understood to have the necessary depth of experience to skillfully manage the shoals of a complex approval process.

The siting of the building is intended to transform the mental image of the University to a romantic presence in the American landscape akin to Thomas Eakin’s paintings of boaters on the Schulykill, while keeping the Gothic spire of the Jesuit institution in the background, on the crest of the wooded bluffs. The design is predictably 19th century Philadelphia boathouse and loathsomely, even panderingly, conventional. But despite the vociferous opposition to the new boathouse upstream, the Washington Canoe Club which occupies the only genuine boathouse, a picturesque barn settled on unstable foundations, cannot legitimately argue against the presence of Georgetown University on the water, given their own privileged status established a century ago. The legal barricades, the environmental impact studies, the appeals to varying supervisory institutions are well-established legal stratagems of delay and obfuscation grounded in little more than an instinctive resistance to change and simple philistinism. The pandering design, popularly derided as the “bloathouse”, just added to the insult.

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8. The murder scene on the towpath

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9. Thee Sisters Bridge. Proposal by Harry Wesse and Associates

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10. University of Washington, Coaches Boat House, Seattle Campus. By Miller Hull Partnership

That Georgetown University, an institution with deep roots in the permanent national bureaucracy, should propose such a pastiche speaks of an intellectual blindness, institutional cowardice, and a contempt for public opinion that would not allow a more daring and intellectually vigorous design. Were they unaware of the University of Washington’s award winning boathouse by the Miller and Hull Partnership done in 1993? That this inward-turning parochial atmosphere also represents the cultural milieu of the capital city in general may partially explain why no architect has ever emerged from the metropolitan region to international, let alone national, reputation. The preconditions for that emergence, elusive and difficult to define, have never converged and leave a twisting doubt of the capacity of the national elite to understand the world outside their familiar boundaries.

This is a place where the rules are deeply opaque, a Chinatown in need of a Robert Towne script to decode the errors of interpretation in an urban topography which rises to such political heights that every local debate can be expanded in the way that failed relationships are unable to resist resorting to the heavy guns, and every appeal is made to ever more exclusive and shadowy privilege or background historic echo.

The foundation model for such civic resistance is undoubtedly the postwar highway engineering proposals for the District that would have made the Big Dig in Boston look like a routine exercise in civic renovation. The large-scale mobilization and industrialization that World War II had routinized and entrained into the national bureaucracy was unable to respond to the tiny voice of resistance that Jane Jacob’s represented in her writings. However, the legacy of that movement in the genetic code of civic conduct and the now dominant narrative of the historic preservation movement has not provided a viable alternative of its own that deals with the realities of large scale economics. The cult of the matron saint of preservation is little more than empty philistinism now and a more sophisticated critique is desperately required. The remnants of the highway system that the movement managed to stymie, the shrapnel of a social explosion in the city, may be a more damaging consequence than if the highway system had been completed as planned.

The Three Sisters Bridge would have vaulted the river where Spout Run now ends on the south bank of the Potomac, and I-266 would have (as planned by Harry Wesse Associates, designers of the Metro) breasted the north bank where the new boathouse is sited. If not demolished for being in the way, the picturesque Washington Canoe Club barn would have met the same fate as the Fish Market lost under the enormous concrete pylons of I-395. M Street in Georgetown (in a parallel universe) might have, by now, become a pedestrian space rather than the weekend SUV/Hummer choked parking lot of visiting suburbanites it is now.

But most astonishingly the plan for I-266 was for a tunnel that would have begun at that now desolate expanse at the west end of K Street and would have passed under the State Department, the Federal Reserve, the White House, and all of downtown maneuvering deep and hidden under building foundations, secret below-grade passageways, and the then simultaneous excavations for the metro to emerge into the equally desolate expanse where New York Avenue and Florida Avenue cross, and the railroad lines behind Union Station gather under the hill that contains Mt. Olivet cemetery. It would only have taken a slight modification of that original plan by Harry Wesse and Associates to have moved the entrance to the tunnel further back to the Three Sisters Bridge to have preserved the Washington Canoe Club. The money was there, then.

I-266 might have obliterated the neglected ruins of the Aqueduct bridge at the end of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Park. The remaining stone arch span serves as a threshold between the park and a state of nature and Georgetown and the refinements of wealth and power. What biker hasn’t stopped to rest on the broken stones that overhang the river and take in the view of the key ridge and the Roslyn skyline despite the fence put up by National Park Service maintenance crews? A little well designed cafe might be just the thing for a thirsty, tired and burr-covered walker.