Sunday, July 20, 2008

L'Enfant's city.

In European Affairs, Ken Ringle's review of a new biography of Pierre L'Enfant talks about how his original plan for the capital city has been realized.
In the end, stung by interference from the dollar-hungry commissioners and landowners, L’Enfant walked away from the building of Washington. He felt particularly betrayed when, after numerous delays in providing a version of his plan suitable for engraving, the authorities went forward with land sales on the basis of a bastardized version of his plan engraved with another surveyor’s name. He ended his days a sad, hermitlike guest of indulgent Virginia estate-owners, forever petitioning Congress for compensation.

Washington, D.C. would stumble along as a glorified sheep-walk augmented by a few grand federal buildings until the Civil War, when the city experienced an explosion of population largely related to a 19th-century military-industrial complex centered on the nation’s capital. The city’s sewers were piped, its streets paved in the 1870s. But it was not until 1900 when L’Enfant’s name and vision were resurrected by architect Frederick Law Olmstead, the leading landscape architect of the post-Civil War period. He revived the idea of making Washington a place of beauty. His attention gave impetus to L’Enfant’s notion of a national Mall – the great central place in Washington that remains today the world’s largest planned urban open space, symbolizing the American psyche and destiny of perpetual becoming. This concept, contrasting with the European tradition of monuments celebrating past triumphs, has become increasingly blurred in recent decades as this tabula rasa has been encroached on with modern “memorials” of questionable aesthetic merit. (Even the acclaimed Vietnam Memorial, a starkly harrowing trench, had to be dumbed down with literalistic figures representing the four armed services.)

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