July 21, 2010

Washington Monument Grounds Competition, Why Bother?

The vision for Monument Gardens from the McMillan plan by Daniel Burnham, Charles McKim, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens Commision of Fine Arts

Last week a coalition of Washington DC planners announced the National Ideas Competition for the Washington Monument Grounds. The announcement of this open design competition to redesign the grounds surrounding the Washington Monument, has prompted a lot of response from commenters on Greater Greater Washington and elsewhere, but I simply ask, will it be worth the bother? I am apathetic about this competition for two reasons, one based on my knowledge of the current state of architecture, and second because there already is a great plan for the site.

I’m afraid this competition, like the recent Eisenhower competition, and African American Museum competition, will be an exercise in playing with a stacked deck, stacked only for the modernist. The Competition states that a jury of “respected Americans who are leaders and creative thinkers in the fields of history, design, civics education, art, and science” will be judging the multitude of entries to whittle the competition down to twenty-five semi-finalists and then five finalists that the public will be allowed to vote on.

Will this be the vision for the Washington Monument as well?
Eisenhower Memorial proposal by Frank Gehry

While having the appearance of public input, the jury will have complete discretion to choose which entries will make it to the finals. The steering committee appears to have not a single prominent classical architect involved, leaving me with the distinct feeling that the result will be another confused and ridiculous modernist accretion to our beautiful, classical, city. The shame is that the professionals and academics running this competition will claim to have chosen what the people want, but will undoubtedly chose what they want, ignoring how poll after poll have proven the public’s love of the classical.

The biggest reason however is that the grounds of the Washington Monument already have a tremendous, beautiful and amazing plan, just one that has not been realized. In the 1901 McMillan Plan’s re-envisioning of the original L’Enfant layout of Washington DC, the Monument was to be centerpiece of the Mall, terraced fountains and railings and a large triumphal stairway descending towards gardens and parterres beautifying the center of the city. Not only is it part of the original plan that so many architects and planners profess to have a reverence for, but moreover it’s simply the best solution to the problem.

In 1900, the Monument Grounds were not so different from what we see today, described by many then as now as a wasteland of open space. The plan developed by Daniel Burnham, Charles McKim and Augustus Saint-Gaudens well researched and planned to be the symbolic heart of a great nation and everything from the width of the Mall, the spacing of the trees and the heights of the buildings along it was considered so to create a unifying, beautiful and magnificent effect.

One of the pavilions of the Monument Gardens from the McMillan Plan, which would have provided shade and visual interest for those strolling the grounds. - from the Commission of Fine Arts

This part of the mall is the keystone to the entire plan, one that not finishing leaves the entire work much the poorer, like not painting the nose of the Mona Lisa. To instead propose an alternative plan of modernist architecture hatched in the halls of architectural academia would be to deface this magnificent work of art with a monstrous carbuncle.

Finish the Plan, don’t destroy it.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

The only problem with the McMillan plan in my view is that it is too formal. For the monument grounds, I think something more Victorian with lots of trees and winding paths with statuary, fountains, and stone gazebos, like you pictured would be more appropriate. The park could become like Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, which is the most inviting park I have ever visited.

Anonymous said...

Luxembourg Gardens has formal and informal elements that combine for a wonderful whole. It's got a formal fountain, a band stand, under the trees where people were enjoying a military band play, ponies for the kiddies, a carousel. All under the trees. It was crowded with people, yet was spacious. It looked like no one ever really designed it. It just happened over the centuries.

SAMUEL J. LIMA said...

While I love the McMillan plan's solution for the Washington Monument (or WaMo, as I like to call it) and would be beside myself (in a good way) if it were built that way, I would like to think that there are many solutions which would work just as well (give several good classical architects a program and you'll get several good, and varied, designs).
That said, I do share your pessimism that a chaotic, unbefitting, individualistic, and abhorrent scheme will be chosen. There are very few architects today capable of making something as powerful and refined as the McMillan solution (which even subtly addresses the fact that the WaMo is not centered by placing a pool where the cross axis with the White House and Jefferson Memorial lays), and while I would like to see those who are capable attempt this competition, the deck is automatically stacked against a classical entry (even in D.C.!) because of who will likely be on the jury, and it may not be worth the effort.

Anonymous said...

Gehry's proposal looks as if it were being demolished.

Douglas A. Willinger said...

"...the deck is automatically stacked against a classical entry (even in D.C.!) because of who will likely be on the jury, and it may not be worth the effort."

Indeed!

http://wwwtripwithinthebeltway.blogspot.com/2008/02/extending-legacy-with-grand-arc.html

Thomas1313 said...

As a national symbol, wouldn't be more accurate to do a more classical style that will endure for centuries? What has been proposed is nice, but will probably be destroyed in a hundred years because it will become obsolete and out of date. The reference to ancient Greece, Roman republic and the City Beautiful movement should be respected.

Thomas1313 said...

As a national symbol, wouldn't be more accurate to do a more classical style that will endure for centuries? What has been proposed is nice, but will probably be destroyed in a hundred years because it will become obsolete and out of date. The reference to ancient Greece, Roman republic and the City Beautiful movement should be respected.

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