Monday, September 11, 2006

Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic Blasts Ill-Planned Overdevelopment Of National Capital's Once Grand National Mall

"At a regularly scheduled monthly meeting in the dead of summer, Washington's National Capital Planning Commission pulled out its biggest, baddest rubber stamp. In front of commissioners was a cockamamie plan to construct a museum adjacent to the Lincoln Memorial, underground beneath a parcel now occupied by a pair of bucolic softball fields. After hearing testimony from three citizens, all opposed, the NCPC gave a speedy thumbs-up to this latest incursion on the National Mall.

In one fell swoop, three things were accomplished. The incremental ruin of the Mall -America's greatest 20th century work of civic landscape art - was pushed into overdrive. Significant damage was assured for the adjacent Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a modern design masterpiece. And, last but hardly least, the NCPC tacitly announced its own obsolescence as a serious "planning" agency.

Three for the price of one. Who ever expected such efficiency from Washington?

Certainly not sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, architects Daniel Burnham and Charles McKim, or landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. They designed the Mall a century ago to symbolize America's founding principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The mess would likely stun them....

The 25,000-square-foot, $100-million museum that the NCPC rubber-stamped Aug. 3 is the euphemistically named Vietnam Veterans Memorial Visitor Center. Championed by groups long distraught by the sober refinement of Maya Lin's abstract design for the 1982 Vietnam Veterans Memorial, it is envisioned as a place to provide patriotic uplift and educational context for the Southeast Asian conflict.

If you didn't think the magnificent memorial required explanation, you are not alone.

If you don't get the aim of adding patriotic uplift to a memorial whose selection committee actually specified that the winning design should not exalt the war, join the crowd.

If you wonder why that event warrants its own Mall museum - alone among American armed conflicts between the War of 1812 and Desert Storm - I cannot give you an answer....

Building a permanent ideological battleground a few hundred yards from the dignified memorial is deplorable. Approval of this project, however, signals something every American ought to know and consider.

The National Mall is a modern representation of the landscape of republican democracy, and it is reverting to its 19th century Gilded Age condition - a fouled field where the malarial winds of opportunism blow. With the stately civic space converted into a political tract, the National Mall is doomed."

Christopher Knight "CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK: The continued mauling of the National Mall" Los Angeles Times September 9, 2006

via The National Coalition To Save Our Mall.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens's mysteriously poignant memorial to the wife of author Henry Adams, reputed to be modelled after classical images of the Buddha. The original funereal memorial is located in the historic Rock Creek Cemetery, in Washington, D.C., north of the Capitol Hill grounds, which were themselves designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., the designer of Central Park in New York City and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco; and which are fairly close-by to the summer home of Abraham Lincoln, which has recently begun to be restored for public visiting by the U.S. National Park Service.

A copy of the Augustus Saint-Gaudens's Adams Memorial is also on view on the second floor of the stunningly beautiful, newly reopened National Portrait Gallery/National Museum of American Art, whose restored historically-public grand building is now a worthy national sister to the Washington Mall's grand National Gallery of Art; which was a gift to the nation from industrialist and banker Paul Mellon. The National Portrait Gallery/National Museum of American Art is also fulfilling its civic function as America's grandest and historically most important building in the Nation's Capital, after the Capital Building and the White House, by remaining open until 7 PM in the evenings throughout the year.

The historic street south of the Gallery/Museum (F Street, NW) was symbolically renamed, this summer, Walt Whitman Way, in honor of the great American poet who served as a nurse to wounded American soldiers housed at the grand American Civic building during the American Civil War. Nearby are the newly restored historic offices of Clara Barton, who founded the American Red Cross and whose offices worked for decades to locate American soldiers 'missing in action' after the American Civil War.

Photo credit: With thanks.


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