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Is the Nation’s Capital a Design Capital?

by Jeff Potter, FAIA, 2012 President

Washington, D.C. a design capital? No, that must be a typo: New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago—now you’re talking design with a big “D.”

Yet, when you think about it (and I’ve been doing a lot of that lately), our nation’s capital can stake a claim at least as strong as any American city.

Washington was conceived by architects (think Jefferson and Thornton); restored by architects after the City’s public buildings were destroyed by the British (think Latrobe). Washington was a defiant symbol that spoke to the world that the great experiment in democracy would endure. Of course, I’m talking about the completion of the Capitol dome by Thomas Ustick Walter (one of the AIA’s original founders) under the direct orders of Lincoln. The President specifically diverted scarce war materials to make sure that even in the darkest days of the Union cause, work on the great dome would continue, a symbol for all to see.

Yes, the City’s allegiance to an architecture that on the surface is Neo-Classical or, depending on your point of view, conservative drives too many architects over the edge, as if the appearance of things were the sole or most important way of understanding buildings and the spaces in between. But on your next trip to Washington, walk through John Russell Pope’s great West Building of the National Gallery: the brilliant circulation, the arrangement of the galleries, the craftsmanship, the play of natural light, the spaces for relaxation and contemplation. Altogether, not a bad way to display art and orchestrate a viewer’s engagement, which, after all, may be more important than the particular shape of the box it comes in.

However, the real claim to Washington being a design capital is not any single building. It’s below one’s feet—L’Enfant’s great design. Rather than a preoccupation with edifice, his focus was squarely on something architects are increasingly rediscovering—the art and science of place-making and the shaping of community.

In hindsight it’s incredible that this irascible French transplant imagined a city of a quarter of a million citizens at a time when this nation’s largest city had 40,000 residents. That’s design greatness…no, genius! Parks, streets scaled according to their function, and sidewalks that even after highway engineers have done their worst are still ample pedestrian thoroughfares. Perhaps most amazing are the great open-air rooms that accommodate democracy’s pageant: the AIDS quilt on the Mall; the Solar Decathlon, the Million Man March, the Taste of Washington, Movies on the Mall, the Inaugural Parade, Marion Anderson hymning America and Martin Luther King laying out his Dream for this nation’s children.

Some of this can be done in other cities. But Washington was specifically designed to do all of it. As the nation’s urban parks and plazas are increasingly being privatized, the open spaces of Washington still belong to the people.

And the people in turn are passionate about Washington. When the push for the Interstate system threatened to tear apart the city, citizens stopped the worst of it and diverted funding to mass transit. When “urban removal” was slated to erase entire neighborhoods, much was saved, though much was lost. When the city’s leading politicians and media advocated paving over Georgetown’s C&O Canal, Supreme Court Justice Douglas led citizens on a walk along the length of the historic canal, preserving it for future generations.

Next May, when architects from all over the world come to Washington, look beyond the feverish politics that tend to define this city in the eyes of the nation. Follow your feet to discover the energy in neighborhoods across the city bursting with new life thanks to the legacy of the men and women who dreamed, built, and shaped Washington. Then, the inseparable relationship between design and a vibrant democracy will become clear.

Jeff Potter, FAIA

 

Jeff Potter, FAIA, 2012 President

 

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