Washington’s Monument Problem

A federal agency wants artists and designers to submit their ideas for a temporary installation commemorating Earth Day in Washington, D.C.‘s downtown—which means, in a city overloaded with granite busts, something original might actually appear for once.

Solemn, granite, blah blah blah. King deserves better. Alves Family on Flickr

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Last week, a federal agency in charge of planning for the Washington, D.C. metro area put out a call for artists and designers to propose their own commemorative addition to the monument-filled city.

The National Capital Planning Commission would like to see a temporary installation liven up a semicircular plaza known as the Ariel Rios Hemicycle, located near the National Mall in a not-quite-pedestrian-friendly area filled with wide streets and looming government office buildings. With the Environmental Protection Agency headquartered just a few doors down, the display is supposed to pay tribute to Earth Day, while also bringing attention to a large but woefully underused public space in the District’s downtown.

A noble gesture, certainly. And the fact that the commission is seeking talent from all over—and not just within the region, replete as it is with planners and architects—bodes well for whatever the project will ultimately look like.

In a city recognized mostly for its marble and granite tributes to history, D.C. has in recent years had a hard time with regards to new monuments. Two high-profile projects—one now completed and the other still in the works—have generated unusual levels of criticism, most of it justifiable.

Famed architect Frank Gehry unveiled his design for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial two years ago. Huge, anonymous and forbearing, the plan calls for 80-foot-tall columns strung together by tapestries depicting scenes from the late President’s life. Some critics have deemed the $100 million project “ghastly” and even Eisenhower’s surviving family members voiced displeasure about the design. It is slated to open in 2015.

Over by Mall’s western end, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, which opened last August, generated a storm of controversy after it was revealed that quotes from a famous 1968 King speech would be shortened to fit on the statue. It didn’t do wonders for context or nuance (poet Maya Angelou quipped that the abridged text made King “look like an arrogant twit“) and Secretary of the Interior Kenneth Salazar eventually agreed to have it changed.

But the MLK memorial, designed by sculptor Lei Yixin, is still little more than another solemn granite bust in a town full of solemn granite busts. Not to knock the neoclassical style, but the architectural hegemony among D.C.’s most visible areas can get monotonous—and therefore, lose its emotional effect—even amidst the awe that a 19-foot-tall Abraham Lincoln can inspire. The three monuments that strive to do anything remotely different—the jarring Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the lesser-known Korean War Veterans Memorial and the kinda-hidden tribute to Franklin Roosevelt—are relatively small in size (though not in resonance) and distinguish themselves only through layout. Otherwise, we have rusticated columns and domes dominating the skyline.

Which explains why giving artists and designers the freedom to try whatever want with a sizeable public space is such a good idea. Maybe a newcomer won’t have the same reluctance to deviate from the austere style that has dominated D.C.’s commemorative spaces for centuries. Maybe a newcomer will try something refreshing for a change, however temporary.

The deadline for submissions is March 1.

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Tags: washington dcbuilt environment

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