Greater Greater Washington

Public Spaces


Istanbul shows that the Mall can be a vibrant urban space

It's no secret that DC's National Mall is home to dozens of priceless monuments and museums. But why, when it comes to planning, do we seem to treat the Mall itself like it's an ancient artifact to be admired, but not used?


Photo by Ago 70 on Flickr.

This year, I spent my Turkey Day in Istanbul. I stayed a little over a week, but I don't think it took me more than a few hours of sightseeing to recognize how very different this metropolis is from Washington. One of the most notable differences I came across is how Turks conceive of and plan around their national monuments.

While DC fights to keep the National Mall a memorial unto itself, even Istanbul's oldest neighborhoods (2,000+ years of use) integrate historical treasures and modern establishments with great success.

In the world of cities, Istanbul is nothing short of a heavyweight. With an estimated population of over 14 million residents (as high as 17 million by some counts) and about 2,500 years worth of history under its belt, the metropolis is one the most impressive and diverse in the world.

Today, the megacity calls Turkey its home and it is, at least in legal terms, a secular community. Since its humble beginnings around 600 BC, however, Istanbul has played host to a number of empires, religions and cultures.

With so much history and so much civilization to account for, I expected to find a city that kept is cultural treasures under lock-and-key. But one walk through Old Townthe most ancient part of the metropolis, and the home to vast majority of Istanbul's sites, including the Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palaceproved my assumptions entirely wrong.


Photo by David Alpert.

Instead, what I found was a bustling neighborhood that played host to a myriad of restaurants, shops, park areas, bike share stations, street vendors, locals, and tourists. And, it just happened to include one of the Seven Wonders of the World and a slew of other notable historical sites. No big deal.


Photo by David Alpert.

As I snacked on a kebab at the edge of the 1,600 year old Hippodrome of Constantinople, I couldn't help but wonder how different the area would be if the US National Park Service were in charge.

Here's my best guess.

If we were to judge by the state of affairs on the Mall today, that would be it for the cafés and most of the street vendors. No more private art galleries and no more fruit stands. Few locals and fewer hotels. Bike share stations? Probably not. And, definitely no kebabs.

Last year, I volunteered regularly for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as a Visitor Services representative. It was a fantastic opportunity to interact with tourists visiting the museum, and often our capital, and sometimes a city of any kind, for the first time.

It was my job to answer their questions and point them in the right direction. Most of the time, I really enjoyed the work. There were only two questions I dreaded: 1) "Can you recommend a few good restaurants nearby?" and 2) "Where can I buy some sunscreen (or band aids or a calling card or a pair of socks or a pack of cigarettes)?"

These are reasonable questions with no reasonable answers. I hated being the bearer of bad news, especially when visitors with a laudable moral consciousness were concerned. Unfortunately, the reality isand wasthat aside from the USHMM café, there are no restaurants near the museum, and the closest convenience store is a hike, as well.

Instead of leaving the look-but-don't-touch policing to the multitude of museums that flank the Mall, the National Park Service enforces a set of policies that turn the entire space into an immaculately preserved dead zone.

Of course, to be fair, the locked-down, mile-long strip of federal buildings surrounding the area doesn't help matters any when it comes to creating a friendly, mixed-use space. But, at the very least, these structures are inaccessible to the public for reasons of security, and they are places of work. The Mall, on the other hand, is a place of recreation, and I pick on it, because there are no legitimate obstacles to opening it up for classy, organic, well-planned commercial development.

If the National Park Service ever considers the idea, Istanbul's Old Town is a perfect case study for how things may go right. While every monument, mosque, obelisk, and museum has its own space, the areas in between are filled with modern conveniences, such as restaurants, shops, and street vendors.

Istanbul has gone through many transformations, but the most beloved and impressive structures remain respected and intact, even after all these years. Indeed, perhaps it is because of its age, rather than in spite of it, that the city has done such a great job of integrating the old with the new. If nothing has undone the Hagia Sophia yet, it's unlikely that a hookah bar and a couple of carpet stores will suddenly get the job done.

Our Mall and the monuments on it are much, much younger, but we can learn from older cities and use their experience to our advantage. We ought to be confident in the fact that our national treasures are impressive, inspiring and important. And we shouldn't tiptoe around them just to make sure no one forgets it.

It's nice to think that we can preserve every last square inch of our capital for our grandchildren's grandchildren just as it exists today, but it's neither smart nor sustainable.

Plus, if my grandchildren's grandchildren are anything like me, I'm sure they'll be much more interested in enjoying a beer at a Mall-side café with a clear view of Mr. Lincoln than running back and forth across a pristine, treeless lawn in search of Advil and SPF 6,000 sunscreen. Maybe they'll dig kebabs, too.

Ksenia Kaladiouk lives in Southeast DC, where she spends her time writing, sketching, running, taking photos, scheming and studying the flying trapeze. She is particularly interested in the history of urban development, education, the effects of space on the rise and fall of cultural and commercial institutions, and vice versa. 

Comments

Add a comment »

This year, I spent my Turkey Day in Istanbul.

Isn't every day Turkey Day in Istanbul? ;)

by cminus on Nov 30, 2011 11:33 am • linkreport

Just out of curiosity, where on the mall would you like to see these amenities be located?

by drbubbles on Nov 30, 2011 11:33 am • linkreport

I was in Istanbul recently and personally found the Sultanahmet area very tourist-trap like. The restaurants and vendors were way overpriced compared to the rest of the city and the food was very mediocre compared to what's available a short tram ride away in Taksim. The vendors in that area are basically the Istanbul equivalent of the half smoke trucks on the Mall in terms of quality and authenticity. (And I'm pretty sure one of the places just off the Hippodrome gave me food poisoning.)

But I agree, Sultanahmet certainly has a vitality that is totally lacking in DC's tourist center. I have to give them props for keeping the place free of annoying touts that often ruin the experience in a lot of other developing-country cities.

by Phil on Nov 30, 2011 11:43 am • linkreport

I couldn't agree more. I think a lot of it is cultural, where by we like our zoning becasue it gives the appearance of order, which Northern European cultures aspire to above all else. I think we could have our cake and eat it to like the many lovely parks in Paris and Madrid, where semi-temporary kiosks of all kinds cater to the public. While there are some, it's hardly enough to satisfy.
The other main problem is the Beaux-Artification of the Mall during the MacMillan days. As much as I like those white wedding cakes marching down the mall, it makes it nearly impossible to get more mixed use beyone the kiosk solution. The only other solution would be to disperse the various government agencies behind the southern edge of museums to other metro accesible sites. Then (a dream of mine) demo those modernist monstricities from the 60's and 70's in favor of a dense 8-10 story mixed use neighborhood. This would go a long way to enliven the mall during off hours and give more incentive to develope a kiosk culture. The zoning officials will never allow it though.

by Thayer-D on Nov 30, 2011 12:18 pm • linkreport

I have not been in Istanbul, but I think DC is run differently than most other cities (with a long history). I think it's mainly that DC is relatively young. The city hasn't had to make hard choices yet.

In Rome, they have a road going straight over the old fora. Overground wired streetcars ride next to the Colosseum and the St John Lateran. The Louvre Palace in Paris has been given a massive modernization including the glass pyramid.

For some reason, DC can still be treated as a museum where things can not be touched. I think this is partly due to the weird governmental construction here. The Feds ignore their capital, the city council ignores the fact that the city is the capital of the US, and the NPS operates like the Mall is Yellowstone and there is no city surrounding it.

Brussels, the capital of the EU, Belgium, Flanders and the Brussels capital region, has the same problem. Too many distracted governments to keep it pretty.

I wonder how things are going in Mexico City and Brasilia, which are in a similar situation as DC, organization-wise.

by Jasper on Nov 30, 2011 12:37 pm • linkreport

I agree that what is in Sultanahmet is more inviting than what we have on the National Mall. Thank you for writing about it. The post brought back many great memories of my trip there about a year ago. I wish there were more cafes and amenities of substance beyond fast-food/hot dogs along the Mall. As Phil notes above, Sultanahmet is a very touristy area (There is a Best Western about 200 meters from the mosque).

However, I don't believe this write-up is a fair comparison to Washington, DC. The post lightly touched on some of the issues DC faces that Istanbul doesn't in that there are a lot of federal buildings near the National Mall. Sultanahmet is not surrounded by corporate and commercial building that need security. It sits more in a neighborhood type environment more akin to Dupont Circle, but with a larger central area. It is not a swath that crosses 2-3 kilometers across the city. Additionally, the capital of Turkey is in Ankara so those federal buildings and some great museums are located hundreds of miles away. My wife and I didn't enjoy Ankara nearly as much as Istanbul. The two cities were different like a New York and Washington.

Istanbul plays a similar roll in Turkey that NYC or Chicago does here in the States in that it is a very important cultural and business center, but the federal government operates elsewhere.

Ultimately, I would love to see DC's neighborhoods continue in the trajectory of some of the European cities with small cafes, shoulder to shoulder buildings, and pedestrian scale development. That is part of what makes Taksim and Istiklal Avenue such a great area to explore. If DC, or any city in the US, could figure out how to recreate this street I would definitely make my way there.

by Rob P. III on Nov 30, 2011 12:37 pm • linkreport

@Thayer

I can think of numerous obstacles to the redevelopment of SW north of the freeway as a dense, mixed use area, but I'm not sure that 'zoning officials' are one of them.

by Alex B. on Nov 30, 2011 12:38 pm • linkreport

@Thayer:

You might actually see your dream come true (at least somewhat):

http://southwestquadrant.blogspot.com/2011/08/sw-ecodistrict-meeting-recap-belated.html

by Steven Yates on Nov 30, 2011 12:49 pm • linkreport

@ Rob P III: Did you read anything about Istanbul when you were there? Straight from Wiki:
Istanbul has served as the capital of the Roman Empire (330–395), the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire (395–1204 and 1261–1453), the Latin Empire (1204–1261), and the Ottoman Empire (1453–1922).

Istanbul has been a capital for about 1700 years of its life.

by Jasper on Nov 30, 2011 12:54 pm • linkreport

I'd love to see specifically fruit & local food stands on the gravel path of the mall during non-special event times. Perhaps a requirement that all the vehicles be pedal-driven or some other permutation of small scale, and have vendor permits allotted on a rotating basis to keep the diversity high. Portland and other cities already have pedi-coffee carts & beer carts, Fruit stands and Ice-cream vending has historically been done with tricycles. It could feel very old-timey, which seems important for NPS.

by Will on Nov 30, 2011 12:59 pm • linkreport

Well put, I noticed the same thing when I was in London last year. Parliament was far more accessible and integrated with the surrounding city (not prefect btw) than the US Capitol is.

But I wouldn't blame it all on NPS. They certainly don't help matters much, but the Mall is barren and sterile due to deliberate zoning and planning decisions to keep the museums and monuments in "splendid isolation", as part of the Federal Triangle planning documents put it. Fed Traingle and SW near the mall were once vibrant, if often unsavory, neighborhoods. Now they're government building wastelands. That's the Federal government's fault, not specifically the Park Service's.

by Tim Krepp on Nov 30, 2011 1:04 pm • linkreport

for the most part I agree w/ Thayer- who is always very thoughtful and rational in his great comments. However- I take issue w/ the "Beauxartsification"- as I know- and much of this is from my own family- that the Mall and the city in general was not made into a "look and don't touch" place until the rise of the modernist interventions after WW2- and especially the sterilizations of much of the old city in DC by mis-giuded and downright fascistic modernist reconstructions. DC once had the feel of a "real city" because we WERE [ and still ARE to a large degree] a REAL CITY. I also blame a lot of the city government for over taxation of small businesses - the destrction of the mom & pop businesses took place in the neighborhoods as well as in the touristed areas like the Mall. As it stands now- the only businesses that can survive are high volume restaurants, bars and chain stores. Just about all of the locally born businesses I can recall as a kid have gone or have moved to the suburbs. Yes- the government MUST get over their fascistic sterility policy and allow businesses to thrive and the city government [ controlled by those who live in Mitchelville] need to STOP treating any and every business and citizen as a potential shake down opportunity for over zealous taxation. If you do not believe me, you can see that just yesterday- DC- yet again- made Forbe's list as the WORST "state" in the USA for business opportunity or friendliness. We need more vendors on our Mall- and we also need a revival of the neighborhood mom & pop stores in the neighborhoods- and this city once had THOUSANDS of these kinds of businesses. Now we are "too good" to allow messy commerce and that kind of unsightly activity to go on. It has to be super controlled and super regulated..what a sham. That under imaginative Sprawl Mart loving mayor of ours, Vincent Grey, should be ashamed of himself. He is part of the problem- we need new imaginative and younger leadership and city government less tied to PG county role models and cultural norms.

by w on Nov 30, 2011 1:10 pm • linkreport

I'm really rather fatalistic about the state of the National Mall and many parts of DC in general. It, like St. Peterburg, Brasilia, and Canberra, were intended as capitals created ex nihilo, rather than capitals integrated into a pre-existing city (like Constantinople was under Constantine and then by the Ottomans, and much like Paris and Rome are). Combine that with the fact that residents of DC were intended to be few and limited to government workers and their support staff along with a hostility to the idea of the city being sullied with the act of commercial activity, and there's really not much that can or will be done here.

Want a city where the museums, sites, and memorials integrated cleanly and seamlessly into an urban environment? You have dozens of cities all around the world for that.

The mistake is not that the National Mall is so sterile. The mistake is that we located the Smithsonian museums and so many of our memorials in DC to begin with: they should have been built in actual cities where people are welcome.

by JustMe on Nov 30, 2011 1:14 pm • linkreport

@w

It's not about modernism.

Just look at both the north and south side of the mall. On the north, you have the single-use, monolithic super-block scale Federal Triangle, complete with the grand classical architecture. On the south side, you have the mostly single-use modernism.

Same concept, different styles.

by Alex B. on Nov 30, 2011 1:14 pm • linkreport

@Jasper

Yes I completely agree Istanbul has been a capital for 1700 years and that important designation allowed it to develop the wonderful treasures it now has. However, it is not currently the capital so it doesn't have umpteen buildings that serve active federal functions like Ankara or Washington DC. It is in a different, but still important, role now.

It is because Istanbul was the capital that we have all of the wonderful buildings and artifacts now. It is also part of the reason why we are able to access some of the sites, such as Topkapi Palace (Ottoman empire's White House), with so much freedom. Sultanahmet would be a different place if Topkapi Palace was still the seat of power.

I believe that because they don't need to worry about all the federal buildings and security it's allowed the area to develop into a vibrant neighborhood with valuable national and international treasures.

That is what makes it hard to make an apples to apples comparison to the National Mall. However, I would love to see more of the streetlife and and trams that are common in Istanbul here in DC and the United States.

by Rob P. III on Nov 30, 2011 1:15 pm • linkreport

If the reason that the Mall has few restaurants and no places to buy sunscreen is due to the Feds/NPS, what's the reason why NYC's Central Park has even fewer restaurants and no places to buy sunscreen? Is it not a problem in Central Park because the park is surrounded by mixed use development?

What about Vondelpark in Amsterdam? The only restaurant I've noticed there is the teahouse.

I'm a little skeptical about adding commercialism to the Mall when I haven't seen it work in places like NYC and Amsterdam. I don't think the Mall should become the kind of open air bazaar you typically find at developing world monuments. For example, there's nothing worse than trekking to the Taj Mahal only to be harassed by all manner of vendors, tour guides, and others trying to make a buck off tourists.

by Falls Church on Nov 30, 2011 1:32 pm • linkreport

Akex B- I beg to differ- as much of the Mall and the city was extremely vibrant and dynamic prior to the destruction of the commercial areas of downtown after the 68 riots- and also the SW clearances. many many small houses and businesses can be seen in the old photographs- and you can see that most the regions popualtion lived in the city. this are was aslo not far from the port areas- also thriving areas - with real fishing boats and real ocean going ships . DC was a different place prior to 1960. I can even recall as a kid going downtown- this was also before 68- and seeing the crowds of walkers shopping after Thanksgiving- and also going to see ships come up to the navy yard- like destroyers or even submarines. few people here now know of this about DC- they see it as a sort of mausoleum- empty but beautiful in an empty sort of way. For cripes sake- there were all manner of houses and businesses right up to the foot of Capitol Hill across from the national gallery- now it is just a storage yard for the AOC. We have lost much. We could get some it back- but it is going to take people with imagination and a very open mind. And most of these people are going to want to build crappy and badly thought out MODERNIST buildings that will sap the life out of any location- as they have done with so much of old DC. Just the other day- my GF and I saw the east wing of the national gallery - almost stripped of its white stone- and the brick under it looked SO MUCH BETTER- the modernists have taken all of the color and soul out of the city. They have wrecked our beautiful Cluss masterpieces and have imposed a white and dour looking metropolis upon us that was not here before. At least the Baeux arts period valued good art and craftsmanship- with garbage like the kennedy center and the east wing we have real decay of the mind and spirit. Give us back some character- and some COLOR..

by w on Nov 30, 2011 1:35 pm • linkreport

what's the reason why NYC's Central Park has even fewer restaurants and no places to buy sunscreen? Is it not a problem in Central Park because the park is surrounded by mixed use development?

Not only is Central Park surrounded by mixed-use development, but there are also amenities inside the park of the sort you wouldn't find in the national mall. But in addition, the interior of Central Park is more akin to Rock Creek park than the National Mall. In the outer perimeter Central Park, no one complains that they can't find food and amenities near the museums.

by JustMe on Nov 30, 2011 1:42 pm • linkreport

"I'm a little skeptical about adding commercialism to the Mall when I haven't seen it work in places like NYC and Amsterdam. I don't think the Mall should become the kind of open air bazaar you typically find at developing world monuments. For example, there's nothing worse than trekking to the Taj Mahal only to be harassed by all manner of vendors, tour guides, and others trying to make a buck off tourists."

I've been to major tourist attractions in India and this part of Istanbul is nothing like that. Vendors take the soft sell approach, and there are tourist police that ride around on Segways and chase off the touts. It's entertaining to watch.

by Phil on Nov 30, 2011 1:44 pm • linkreport

@w

I'm not saying the city didn't change after the 60s, don't twist my words.

My point is that the only difference between SW and the Federal Triangle is in style. You attack the modernism of SW, but fail to acknowledge that the Federal Triangle also involved bulldozing acres of existing urban fabric, and the end result is just as sterile and segregated in use.

by Alex B. on Nov 30, 2011 1:54 pm • linkreport

more food trucks!

by wd on Nov 30, 2011 2:22 pm • linkreport

The beauty of The Mall is in its simplicity. It wasn't until 1969 when President & Mrs. Nixon made a priority of clearing the Mall of the last vestiges of 'temporary' WWII buildings that it become such a beautiful open space. in those days there were, seemingly, far more folks playing softball, throwing frisbees, footballs, etc. But, if my humble opinion anyway, the last thing The Mall needs is development. It's a gorgeous space inviting to all but the most cynical. For those who live here and for reasons unknown feel it should be developed...perhaps it's worth remembering this is the Nation's Capital and we share 'our space' with our countrymen and women and international guests. Let's keep it clean, open and restore its lawns to beauty.

by Pelham1861 on Nov 30, 2011 2:48 pm • linkreport

This happened today at Topkapi palace. http://news.yahoo.com/gunman-wounds-2-near-istanbuls-topkapi-palace-092954573.html

by thump on Nov 30, 2011 2:53 pm • linkreport

@ Alex B.
There's much more difference than "style" between the modernism of SW office buildings of the 60's and 70's and the Federal Triangle. I agree that they both aren't mixed use, but the Federal Triangle buildings respect the street wall, provide human scale, and give the passerby so much more to enjoy. Multiple variations on a metal or concrete and glass grid will never compare to the sculpture, engravings, and the way sunlight enlivens the stone facades of the Federal Triangle. I can live with some urban monoculture, like the Capitol Hill Complex of buildings or the Tuileries complex in the heart of Paris, but give me something beautiful to look at while I stroll those extra few blocks to a restaurant.

I wasn't arguing for breaking up the buildings on the Mall with an Eric Colbert special, just thought of allowing more kiosks and vendors as the original poster was described, while advocating for a dense residential neighborhood up against the southern side. Speaking of which, thanks Mr. Yates for reminding me that there's a plan which does that.

Bulldozing large swaths of fabric has always been traumatic, but what replaces them is the main point. Compare what Baron Von Hausman did in Paris to what Robert Moses did in the Bronx. When are we going to stoop to the level of non-architects/proffesionals who want decoration? Why are so many architects still stuck on this anti-decoration schtick when we decorate ourselves for a night on the town, or decorate our houses for the holidays? I know the answer, but it's a sad testiment that in our modern world many architectural schools continue to promote this schizophrenia.

by Thayer-D on Nov 30, 2011 3:00 pm • linkreport

I agree with a lot of your comments on this blog, Alex B- but I will NEVER uphold modernism. Modernism has destroyed the fabric of the city- and other cities- and has spawned ugly cookie cutter suburbs and non places all over the land.
yes- we need more food trucks, we need vendors, we need some mixed use projects in and around the Mall, we need CABI stations- and I for one would love to see a dedicated Mall streetcar system that would take people to all of the different monumental sites. As for development- I believe that too much of the Mall is empty- we don't need less development- we need MORE sculpture,monuments, fountains, places for people to breathe , sit awhile , have a bier or wine, and take it all in. let's get rid of the alcohol ban and these last vestiges of puritanism- allow bier gardens and wine gardens and a few open air restaurants. what not have alitte more of the bazzar on the Mall? What is wrong with this? We have wonderful art museums- why not a tax free gallery district- let's say- around the old beat up and abandoned school south of the freeway ? Why not have a sort of fair area- with kids rides - a sort of amusement park like Copenhagen's tivoli? Why is this bad? Why are people so goddamned stuffy about FUN ? We should be CELEBRATING our heritage not mourning it. So much could be done but no one with imagination is or has stepped up to the plate.

by w on Nov 30, 2011 3:09 pm • linkreport

@Thayer

I love the architecture of the Federal Triangle myself. I do think it's urbanism is better and more human-scaled than SW, but I think a case still can be made for that to fall under the realm of 'style.' The Fed Triangle and Federal SW have more in common than a cursory glance reveals, that's my fundamental point.

I, also, can live with some monoculture. But the Capitol complex might be worthy of that, what are essentially just office buildings for the IRS, EPA, Dept of Commerce, etc. isn't the most city-friendly approach. That kind of function doesn't need the baroque gestures.

Back to the main point, both of those areas do a disservice to the National Mall by adding extra space between the city and the park, and by failing to activate those spaces as well as they could be activated.

by Alex B. on Nov 30, 2011 3:10 pm • linkreport

what Thayer says about architects lack of artistry is excellent- one would think that most of these modernist "architects" were never artists- they are so hung up on engineering- and all the while- they are building post and lintel structures with zero engineering complexity in them at all. There is a world of mathematics in the construction of a simple dome that no Mies building could ever approach. Why is Fine Art that is integral to a building's structure not allowed anymore? We have the skilled sculptors and painters...why not use them [us]????we certainly live in a bleak and boring time insofar as the flowering of the arts is concerned. It is a time that is stifling and BORING- and people have forgotten how to have fun- and how to make FUN places and destinations. Much of the modernist vision of post WW2 DC is mournful, and solemn to the point of sickness and unhealthy obsession. As a society- I think in many other ways we have moved beyond this and we need to have a little more primal enjoyment and hedonism in our existences. Modernism- Kstreet and crystal city is anal retentiveness to the maximum- no fun and no color, no ornament and play. Tuck in your stomach stick out your chest, and take it up the wazoo. This is what a lot of post WW2 modernism is.. In a word- GARBAGE.

by w on Nov 30, 2011 3:20 pm • linkreport

the federal triangle has gorgeous sculptures and public murals for the interiors- and parts of it work beautifully from an urbanist standpoint- for instance- the collonades around the federal triangle Metro station- they are not only beautiful- they provide cover in bad weather which none of the modernist buildings provide- except for the MLK Library's outside area. So much of the federal triagle is well done from an art standpoint that in my opinion it should be compared with rockefeller Center in NYC [ made at the same time] and as a sort of national art monument. In the USA we had no natural acropoli, so we had to make them up. What is wrong with this? It is a natural human desire to build standpoint buildings of great importance and to place them in certain areas. this does not have to be bad. I disagree with the criticisms of the Federal triangle- most of these are FL Wright inspired and he was notorious for disliking any kind of architectural ornament or sculpture in his buildings. He also hated DC .FL Wright worked with robert Moses, his cousin by marriage, and he was the main inspriation for Levittown. We should not be debasing ourselves with opinions from a jerk like this with no artistic spirit who hated all historic buildings and fine arts and desired freeways and broad acres city.

by w on Nov 30, 2011 3:30 pm • linkreport

"they provide cover in bad weather"

Oh, you mean like the Forrestal Building?

by Neil Flanagan on Nov 30, 2011 4:21 pm • linkreport

Both SW and the Fed Triangle were ambitious renewal projects. Both involved bulldozing huge swaths of DC's fabric. Both of them substantially altered the surrounding streets. Both replaced what was there with buildings of a monumental scale. Both projects involve predominantly office monoculture with very little retail, and what retail is there tends to be focused towards internal spaces.

by Alex B. on Nov 30, 2011 4:29 pm • linkreport

@w,
I share your frustration with our puritanical architectural culture, but I wouldn't take everything a meglomaiac like Frank Llyod Wright said at face value. There's clearly a change in his work once the modernists came into vogue, but his buildings from the Larkin Building to the Japanese Inperial Hotel are dripping with decoration. His Broad Acre city is a horizontal version of LeCorbusier's vertical Villa Radieuse, and unfortunatley, we got both in spades as you note, but his distaste for the European modernists and their work is well docomented. His outsized ego makes many of his pronouncments unpalitable, but decoration in any style is what enlivens many a street, not just classicism. Even LeCorbusier used to crank out Romantic versions of Swiss Chaletes before he moved to the big city (Paris) and changed his name to apear more hip, in essence decorate himself for popular consumption. Then he went on to decorate what was essentially Greek white stucco boxes with the accutrements of industrial production, from pipe railings to factory windows, much like Sir Richard Rogers does today.

by Thayer-D on Nov 30, 2011 4:32 pm • linkreport

@ Alex B.

" I do think it's urbanism (Federal Triangle) is better and more human-scaled than SW, but I think a case still can be made for that to fall under the realm of 'style.'"

You definatley could make that case, but I think most people would recognize that a building's style doesn't refer to how it's disposed in the landscape, ie urbanism.

by Thayer-D on Nov 30, 2011 4:38 pm • linkreport

In some ways, Southwest and Federal triangle are mismatched to DC's plan, and to the infrastructure. They both employ public space figures that do not reflect the way cities work. On the other hand, I've been to enough superblocks that work and are liked to not be able to dismiss them entirely. They might not be as durable and resilient, but with the proper integration, they can work. I wouldn't do it without a really good reason.

I would challenge the claim that the Federal Triangle buildings keep the streetwall. They are mostly set back quite a bit, but vary dramatically depending on which building. Many of the buildings have overscaled rustication at the base that is not haptic. They have lovely cornice details, but what about at the human's level? It's a lonely place to walk at night.

The Mellon Auditorium is possibly the most beautiful building in DC, but it is impossible to appreciate from the sidewalk.

w:Although FLW was a distant cousin of Moses, they did not appreciate each other that much. Also, Moses hated modernist architecture, even if William Zeckendorff didn't.

by Neil Flanagan on Nov 30, 2011 4:50 pm • linkreport

Thayer, the Ville Radieuse and Broadacre City are incredibly different. Their only similarities are the emphasis on family life (probably marketing BS for LC, but sincere for FLW) and the use of automobiles. Le Corbusier's city is based on a functionalist program of separating uses and deliberate engagement of the city. Wright's city is agrarian, with everyone operating a cottage industry

Did you know that lil' Charles-Edouard Jeanneret wanted to study with Camillo Sitte, but Peter Behrens talked him out of it, and encouraged him to go to Paris instead?

by Neil Flanagan on Nov 30, 2011 5:00 pm • linkreport

This seems like an apples to oranges comparison. The Mall reflects L'Enfant's plan, as well as Daniel Burnham's effort to to restore it. Burnham famously designed civic centers that are smaller scale versions of the Mall--large, usually heavily massed public buildings around large open parks. The posts miss the solemnity of purpose and the ideas of democratic gathering that are idealized in spaces like this. Modernism has nothing to do with that vision--although some modernists like Louis Kahn espoused democratic social ideals, but the neocalssical structures common in the early 20th century are just as heavily massed and antagonistic to immediate streetscapes as any brutalist hulk from the 70s. Istanbul may be a capital, but apparently their mall does not have the same kind of monumental and administrative purposes. If you want food, you can go to just about any of the museums. There's already plenty of noise and clutter around the edges. Turning the mall into a craft market or a festival market place is really counter its purpose and it's nice to have a space where commerce takes a backseat.

The FLW comments are funny--Wright built vastly different buildings across his career. His earliest residential commissions look little different from other homes built by other architects at the same time. Ornamentation was never missing, rather it was meant to be fully integrated into the designs and materials. Wright's most productive period coincided with the Arts and Crafts movement and has much in common with it, although Wright also was one of a number of architects who never were modernists in the same way as Mies or le Courbusier.

by Rich on Nov 30, 2011 5:50 pm • linkreport

Anyone see the article in the Sunday WP "The Washington Monument re-imagined"?

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-washington-monument-reimagined/2011/11/25/gIQAuqOnwN_story.html

Addresses many of the above issues.

by Eupalinos on Nov 30, 2011 6:03 pm • linkreport

Turning the mall into a craft market or a festival market place is really counter its purpose and it's nice to have a space where commerce takes a backseat.

Great in theory, but in practice it results in an almost anti-human space. Commerce, such as food and basic commercial amenities are not a sin. It is a basic human need. Humans have a need to gather, interact, sit, and eat. Public squares and spaces usually understand this, but the National Mall does not-- though the shortcoming of the National Mall, in my mind, is that we simply have too many reasons for people to be there-- too many museums and memorials, drawing too many people there, resulting in a situation where those people are suddenly isolated from "human-scale spaces." You can't create a space for millions of people to visit and then tell them that their basic needs for amenities simply "don't belong." And if you are going to do that, it should be a space that expects few people.

The placement of so many museums and places to visit are already a violation of L'Enfant's plan. So if you want to go back to L'Enfant's plan, get rid of the museums and move them elsewhere, in a place more friendly to the human environment. But since the genie is already out of the bottle, and we've created a national mall flooded by millions of people, at least make it friendly to people, giving them a place to gather and stay.

by JustMe on Nov 30, 2011 6:09 pm • linkreport

I'm inclined to agree with Rob P. and JustMe here: it's an inherent problem with purpose-built capital cities that amass governmental and monumental architecture without the cultural and commercial presence of an "organic capital". Do Ottawa and Canberra manage to do something different?

"The beauty of The Mall is in its simplicity."

Deserts have a beautiful simplicity, too.

Residents have the advantage of being able to enjoy the Mall in small doses when the mood takes them. Visitors with a constrained schedule face up to a large, bare expanse with limited opportunity to punctuate their sightseeing -- it's a bit like trying to "do" the Louvre in a day -- and the perceived monopoly held by museum-based cafés and restaurants feels overbearing.

"What about Vondelpark in Amsterdam? The only restaurant I've noticed there is the teahouse."

It's a block from Overtoom, which has lots and lots of restaurants.

by pseudonymous in nc on Nov 30, 2011 6:28 pm • linkreport

Guys, there is a solution to this that can please everyone.

Burnham famously designed civic centers that are smaller scale versions of the Mall--large, usually heavily massed public buildings around large open parks.

And unfortunately, they're not that comfortable or well-used, like Cleveland. Only a tiny portion of the visitors of a courthouse also need to go city hall and the museum. There's no real need for that much proximity.

by Neil Flanagan on Nov 30, 2011 8:20 pm • linkreport

Neil,
Saying the Federal Triangle dosen't keep the street wall is like saying the Champs De'Lysee dosen't either. It may have wider than the average streets, but a street wall is defined by how the buildings line up, not how wide the street is.

Villa Radieuse and Broadacre are incredibly different, exept that one sprawles horizontally, and one sprawls vertically, and as monocultres, both are inherently de-humanizing.

As for Moses's relationship to modernism, he may have hated modernist architecture, but he remade New York for the automobile, straight out of Modernism's play book. Furthermore, he's responsible for many a tower in a park schemes (UN Building), so I wish he had studied with Camillo Sitte, but I'm sure that wasn't cool enough for him.
The origins of starchitecture begins to reveal itself.

by Thayer-D on Nov 30, 2011 9:12 pm • linkreport

Between this post & watching my cousin play Assassin's Creed over the holiday weekend, this REALLY makes me yearn for a return to Istanbul... I loved every single minute of the short stint I lived there!

by Bossi on Nov 30, 2011 9:51 pm • linkreport

@Pelham The beauty of The Mall is in its simplicity. It wasn't until 1969 when President & Mrs. Nixon made a priority of clearing the Mall of the last vestiges of 'temporary' WWII buildings that it become such a beautiful open space. in those days there were, seemingly, far more folks playing softball, throwing frisbees, footballs, etc.

You're correct. It's not the physical structure (and layout) of the Mall that's the problem, it's the increasing restrictions on it's use that is the problem. It wasn't all that long ago that for the 4th of July (for example) that folks from everywhere would walk or bicycle down to the mall with their beer and wine and picnic baskets in hand ... and enter WHEREVER they wanted (NO security gates) and party all day ... drinking, smoking, playing music, eating, trying to keep cool with the spray showers that NPS would set up. And over on the part of the Mall near Rock Creek Pkway AND Memorial Bridge AND the GW Pkway you'd have cars pulled over on the grass and on the sides of the road/bridge tailgating ... And there was absolutely no 'enforcement' against it. On the contrary, I think there were signs facilitating using this open space as, incredibly enough, open space. No, the problem isn't with the mall and what's built on it ... It's a fantastic open space ... It just needs to be used again as open space ... as America's backyard.

by Lance on Dec 1, 2011 12:19 am • linkreport

Er, Thayer, I've never been to Paris, but I google streetview shows the Champs Elysees as having sidewalks that run from the roadway to glassy storefronts. No rustication, no dead green spaces, and permeable storefronts. Now that is maintaining a streetwall.

Moses still wasn't a modernist, and all highway construction isn't modernist! Shocking, I know, but have you seen the RPA's plans from the early 1920s? More highways than Moses wanted, and Modernism hadn't even made it to the US!

by Neil Flanagan on Dec 1, 2011 4:54 am • linkreport

Neil,
I'm shocked they aren't teaching you the concept of street walls at Yale, so I went to it's web site and now understand your confusion. http://www.architecture.yale.edu/drupal/student_work/student_work

As for highway construction in the USA not being modernist, your right. They built highways, now called parkways, way before modernism's ascent, but it was modernism's influence after WWII that led to the urban renewal/highway programs that destroyed so many of our cities. http://www.salon.com/2011/12/01/are_freeways_doomed/

Wasn't it Corbusier who advocated for the whole scale destruction of Paris? But as a "a strident defender of brutalism", I guess it's no surprise you'll want to put the best face on modernism's destructive legacy.

by Thayer-D on Dec 1, 2011 5:41 am • linkreport

1. The issue isn't whether or not Fed. Triangle buildings "keep the streetwall" but whether or not the street abutting parts of the building connect to the street or wall off the building from the street.

- http://www.flickr.com/photos/rllayman/sets/72157602084117376/ (from a Downtown DC BID brochure)

As others commented, as long as there are big federal buildings on the streets there, with no public access and functions on the first floors, it's walled off.

2. I believe Thayer-D is right about purpose built capital cities.

3. Relatedly, the reason museums are here is to project and reinforce National Memory and Myth about the US and the American people.

4. They are grouped to further reinforce this, not unlike Neal's point about Burnham's "civic centers" and yes the Cleveland example is a good one.

Those "civic centers" were designed to project a sense of govt. as legitimate and mighty and just. They weren't designed to be about connection, activity, and free-form gathering.

5. As w points out, probably though the Mall was different pre-1968, pre-Pennsylvania Ave. Dev. Corp. -- I wasn't here, so I don't know for sure, because of the proximity of Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Back then much of the north side of Pennsylvania Ave. NW was small office buildings with ground floor restaurants and retail, not immediately located at the Mall, but close enough for people to reach.

by Richard Layman on Dec 1, 2011 6:11 am • linkreport

What impressed me about Turkey's most precious sites was that there was a place to sit. Great large benches with no backs which allow family groups to sit together. You can see something similiar inside Union Station's main hall. But think rows and rows of these benches. There is absolutely no place to sit and look into the Lincoln Memorial (sitting on the sloping wall doesn't count). No place to sit and gaze at the Capitol. The White House has no seating on the southside that offers views. The northside views are usable only in the winter.

by tour guide on Dec 1, 2011 8:58 pm • linkreport

The Mall needs the 'rent a chair' service that nearly ALL the parks in London have. At two bucks a pop the chair pays for itself in a day or two.

Tables, and umbrellas to get out of the heat.

A copper awning around the perimeter of the Washington monument shading the bench.

by Capt. Hilts on Dec 3, 2011 5:48 pm • linkreport

A "dead zone"? Have you ever been to the Mall in the late afternoon? It's covered in kickball, frisbee, and softball teams! It's a wonderful space that many residents in and around DC use for sports. The last thing I want to see as I jog on the Mall is another vendor selling hot dogs with an eco-unfriendly generator.

by Mall jogger on Dec 6, 2011 10:37 am • linkreport

Am I the only one who thinks that softball does not belong on the Mall? Incompetents throwing, hitting and waving bats around so close to pedestrians has always just seemed 'off' to me.

Somehow, the Mall is not a good place to hang out.

by Capt. Hilts on Dec 6, 2011 11:26 am • linkreport

The Mall is an anti-human environment? That's news to me. Head down there pretty much any day when the weather is nice, and it's teeming with people. "Enlivening the Mall" to me seems to be a solution in search of a problem.

And personally, I happen to adore the fact that the Mall is (largely) devoid of commerce. There is something I find immenently enjoyable about standing on the Mall at night, when it's not crowded, and just being surrounded by the federal buildings and Smithsonian. It is, to me at least, one of those uniquely American experiences. I'm not particularly interested in bringing a farmer's market to the Mall, nor particularly bothered that such a thing currently can't be done. It's nice to clean it up, pave the walkways, re-sod the grass and all of that. But otherwise, leave it alone.

by Ben Harris on Dec 6, 2011 10:51 pm • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.

or

Support Us