Greater Greater Washington

Tregoning, Wells bash blank wall on Ukraine memorial

DC Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning and Councilmember Tommy Wells criticized the design for the planned memorial to the Ukrainian Manmade Famine of 1932-1933 on Massachusetts Avenue near Union Station, primarily for of the way it turns a blank wall to F Street.


F Street view of the memorial. Image from NCPC.

Both ultimately voted against the design at yesterday's meeting of the National Capital Planning Commission, but were the only dissenters. Tregoning said,

Even though a crowd of people might be on the other side of that wall, interacting with the memorial, talking about their experiences in the Ukraine, talking about hunger problems, whatever it might be, if you're on the other side of that wall, nothing is going on.

I think we suggested at the time of the commission meeting that it might be ameliorated with a lower hight so that you can see that there are people on the other side of that wall, or maybe some porosity or transparency, so that it wasn't just a blank wall. I think the pattern that was picked is very lovely; I like the interplay of the shadows of the trees on the wall, but it doesn't really take away from the fact that it's a public space deadening element.

One thing that might make a difference is in the new design, the deeper landscaping is also clearly a front and a back. So you have a low wall, but people are not going to be inclined to be facing out toward F Street because it seems like in that landscaped area, no feet should be in that area, no people should be sitting and facing that direction.

Wells worried about the potential for the blank wall to attract crime at night:
I am a strong believer and agree that we use public space when we can as teaching spaces, especially in the nations capital, and this fits into a vision for what our city should be. But I am also concerned this is an area where we have a lot of tourists, where folks are walking at night. There are not a lot of eyes on the street as you have in some other areas. This clearly creates potentially a nice hiding space.
Peter May, of the National Park Service, defended the design:
I understand the concern, but don't necessarily agree that it is as negative an effect as Ms. Tregoning suggests. Given the full range of things we have looked at for this memorial, this is by far the best concept. Some of the suggestions for making it more porous or lowering the height would significantly diminish the concept.

Given the expanse of F Street, and the liveliness of what happens along F Street along its entire length, particularly across the street, I don't think this is particularly deadining.

It's certainly not without precedent to have a 1-sided memorial ... it does exist in other circumstances with memorials in certain settings. This is a lot more successful than those in setting the memorial confortably on the site.

It is admittedly a 1-sided experience, but frankly, the concept doesn't work when you try to make some of the changes that were suggested. I think it is an excellent design and am very very pleased with it as it is.

May wasn't the only person less concerned about blank walls; Presidential appointee John Hart said, "Having a blank wall is not necessarily a detraction."

Tregoning took exception to May's point:

I am underwhelmed by the argument that we've done worse in other parts of the city. I'm sure that's true, but I think that by creating a back to this memorial that's hidden from everything that happens on the other side, it does create not just safety issues.

These are areas where people can undertake activities unobserved by people on the other side of the wall, whatever those activities might be. If you create a blank wall that's clearly the back of something, given the other activities that take place in the area, you will find that it attracts some amount of disamenity in terms of how it ends up getting used.

Another commissioner noted that there are homeless shelters in the area, and Tregoning added that she was referring to the two Irish pubs nearby.

Tregoning also suggested the applicant use a lighter colored stone for the paving and benches. That would keep the surfaces cooler in the summer, she noted, and make it a more enjoyable place to sit for lunch.

Former DC Councilmember and mayoral NCPC appointee Arrington Dixon suggested a translucent wall to create less of a barrier, and noted that "wheat grows in sunlight." Architect Mary Kay Lanzillotta, from Hartman Cox Architects in DC, replied that the design came out of a design competition, and the entry called for a bronze sculpture, so her firm did not explore that type of option.

Lanzillotta gave some insight into her thinking around the issue:

I think the prominent elevation here, and the way that people will experience thismany peoplewill be driving down Mass Ave and North Capitol. Those are the 2 prominent streets here, and that is why the memorial was turned towards that direction as well.
We can certainly hope Lanzillotta was not saying that she was more concerned with the experience for those driving through the area than those walking through the site or trying to use the plaza. A design philosophy centered around a "drive-by" experience instead of the pedestrian scale was responsible for many of the worst planning mistakes of the past, like L'Enfant Plaza, mistakes NCPC is now trying to correct.

Urban designers have learned through painful experience that blank walls can be some of the most destructive elements that get created with good intentions. This isn't a very large blank wall, but it's a blank wall just the same, and it's disappointing to see this level of unconcern from NCPC staff, NPS, the architect and others.

The empty public reservations in DC will turn into memorials over time. That's appropriate. These can be memorials that either contribute to the urban experience or detract from it. Each piece matters, even small ones, because they add up to a whole. NCPC and the federal commissioners will rightly put interpretive experiences foremost in their priorities, but they should also take great care to respect and enhance the pedestrian experience as they review and approve new memorials.

Here is the video from the meeting. The presentation about the memorial starts at 14:48 in the video and the question and answer period starts at 26:55.

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

Comments

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"The empty public reservations in DC will turn into memorials over time. That's appropriate. "

No, that's not. Turn then back over to DC.

This was a stupid memorial. Sorry, it is true -- there is no need for appease Ukranian-Americans on their tragedy which had nothing to do with the US.

by charlie on Sep 7, 2012 12:27 pm • linkreport

"Tregoning, Wells bash blank wall on Ukraine memorial"

Already vandalizing it? What did they bash it with, their bare hands?

by Mike on Sep 7, 2012 12:39 pm • linkreport

This is exactly the kind of thoughtful, detailed reporting and analysis that makes this site so valuable to our region. Who else would bother to explain why a blank wall matters? Yet it does.

by Gavin on Sep 7, 2012 12:41 pm • linkreport

The empty public reservations in DC will turn into memorials over time. That's appropriate.

True. Just want to point out that 'over time' does not mean 'in the next decade'. Most serious country capitals exist for hundreds of years. Keep some space for your awesome 98th president, and those heroic soldiers that won the war against the Caneximahans in 2543. Or for the celebration of America's 500th and 1000th birthday in 2276 and 2776.

by Jasper on Sep 7, 2012 12:42 pm • linkreport

I agree, the first question is: why does a memorial to the 1932-1933 Ukranian famine deserve such a prominent place near the capital building? If it must go there (or anywhere) and it must have this deadening design, then maybe we should be talking about moving the nearby CaBi station directly behind the wall and let go of the pointless highway landscaping.

by David on Sep 7, 2012 12:53 pm • linkreport

I agree, the first question is: why does a memorial to the 1932-1933 Ukranian famine deserve such a prominent place near the capital building?

For the same reason the "Memorial to the Victims of Communism" is in a nearby and similar location - to piss off the Russians.

by Dizzy on Sep 7, 2012 12:59 pm • linkreport

Who designed this memorial? I would like to hear what they have to say about it.... In the design for the Eisenhower memorial it would be sacrilege if you did not mention Frank Gehry. All too often on this site and many others you don't get to hear who the designer is. Important questions like: Should the gov't hire xyz designer again based on their poor track record, or not being innovative in their design.

by Doug on Sep 7, 2012 1:00 pm • linkreport

...Important questions like that could be discussed in the comments.

by Doug on Sep 7, 2012 1:01 pm • linkreport

@Dizzy--also to appease GOP congresscritters who see themselves as heroic members of the resistance.

by Dan Miller on Sep 7, 2012 1:08 pm • linkreport

Is this the first time Peter May has objected to lowering the height of something?

by Steve S. on Sep 7, 2012 1:42 pm • linkreport

I think this is a Richard Layman idea, but to follow up on Jasper's point, it's time for us to start rationing our memorials. If we decided that we'd only build - for example - one new memorial every 10 years, and that these would alternate between large memorials (of a certain size, but like WWII, MLK, Navy Memorial etc...) and smaller ones like this, we'd force lawmakers to actually choose what matters instead of saying "OK, why not." If a memorial to Ukranian Famine Victims meant that a memorial to James Madison would have to wait another decade (and then compete with all the other ideas) we might end up with better memorials.

We could also further delineate between permanent memorials (Lincoln) and temporary (Gompers), with temporary ones being removed after 100 years.

So if I were running the show, we might get something like this.

On an four year cycle

Permanent, large memorial
Temporary memorial
Permanent, small memorial
Temporary memorial

Congress could submit a list of proposals to the President - any idea that could get approval of 100 house members and 25 Senators, and the President could decide among them.

That's how I'd do it.

Also, I can't believe we're getting a memorial to Ukranian Famine victims before we get a memorial to, let's say, those who died on slave ships or on the Trail of Tears or the exploration of Space or building the Panama Canal, etc...; or monuments to Madison or Edison or Salk or the Wright Brothers or any one of the many worthy Americans without one.

by David C on Sep 7, 2012 2:08 pm • linkreport

Dang, that famine was a bad one. Awful. But, you know with all those food trucks there's going to be hipsters sitting atop that wall munching on curbside cupcakes or somesuch.

Famine memorials? That's one ugly wall is what it is.

by mphs on Sep 7, 2012 2:17 pm • linkreport

@ David C:it's time for us to start rationing our memorials

and museums. Please no more museums for ethnic-Americans. There is a museum for that. The American History Museum.

Also, I can't believe we're getting a memorial to Ukranian Famine victims before we get a memorial to, let's say ... Edison or Salk or the Wright Brothers or

Or Nik Tesla!
http://theoatmeal.com/comics/tesla (go read this, it's Friday afternoon, and you'll laugh)
http://theoatmeal.com/blog/tesla_museum

by Jasper on Sep 7, 2012 2:19 pm • linkreport

I want a memorial to J. W. Gibbs -- no joke, he deserves one.

by goldfish on Sep 7, 2012 2:23 pm • linkreport

@Dan Miller

@Dizzy--also to appease GOP congresscritters who see themselves as heroic members of the resistance.

Right. Resistance TO the Russians and other godless commies.

by Dizzy on Sep 7, 2012 2:28 pm • linkreport

Or Nik Tesla!

He also invented that crazy replicating machine that magicians use.

by David C on Sep 7, 2012 3:13 pm • linkreport

I like the Nik Tesla idea. I would suggest we find a space for a giant Tesla Coil, similar to the one in Chicago:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FsHd8QGTxLY

by Alex B. on Sep 7, 2012 3:25 pm • linkreport

@ goldfish:I want a memorial to J. W. Gibbs

Gibbs, the man that mixed math and thermodynamics to yield a easily measurable quantity for biologists that few people can tell you the true meaning of.

It so much fun. It's easy to explain the math, it's easy to explain the thermo, it's easy to explain why it's so useful for biologists, but the three together: impossible.

by Jasper on Sep 7, 2012 4:12 pm • linkreport

@Jasper: a easily measurable quantity for biologists that few people can tell you the true meaning of.

The biologist in me wants to know: what are you referring to?

by goldfish on Sep 7, 2012 4:24 pm • linkreport

@ goldfish: The Gibbs free energy, ∆G, the only energy that matters in biology, as opposed to ∆U and ∆A, which are pretty much useless to experimental scientists, and ∆H which is nice for chemists.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gibbs_free_energy

You nominated the guy, I thought you knew. Why did you nominate the guy?

by Jasper on Sep 8, 2012 12:40 pm • linkreport

@Charlie "This was a stupid memorial. Sorry, it is true -- there is no need for appease Ukranian-Americans on their tragedy which had nothing to do with the US."

That's pretty callous and it is precisely why this memorial is important. Most Americans don't know about it and it deserves our attention. Millions of Ukrainians died when the Soviets confiscated their grain. Hitler took lessons from Stalin in this regard on how to decimate an entire population.

The number of people killed was roughly the same as the Holocaust and Jewish Americans have a museum. Why can't we commemorate the victims of this genocide with a small corner in our nation's capital?

by Brian on Sep 8, 2012 5:37 pm • linkreport

@ Brian:That's pretty callous and it is precisely why this memorial is important.

Why? There is no end if you want to commemorate every victim from every genocide or bloody slaughtering in the history of mankind. I was reading some Chinese history recently, and wow, they had no problem just exterminating whole segments of the population. Want a monument for that too?

Most Americans don't know about it and it deserves our attention.

Most Americans don't know how to fill our their tax forms, and that deserves their attention because it costs them money they can't miss. Want a tax monument?

by Jasper on Sep 8, 2012 7:59 pm • linkreport

@Jasper

"Want a monument for that too?"
Actually, yes. Yes I do. We are a multi-cultural country and DC is especially. We have plenty of space for little memorials or monuments throughout the city so let's bring commemorate victims.

"Most Americans don't know how to fill our their tax forms, and that deserves their attention because it costs them money they can't miss. Want a tax monument?"

Your right, tax forms are definitely comparable to millions being murdered. I take back my statement, you win the internet today.

by Brian on Sep 8, 2012 8:18 pm • linkreport

Actually the US holocaust museum is not "the Jews' museum" It documents all victims of the Nazi holocaust, including Roma, Slavs, gays, etc. It also has an exhibit on other genocides. Alison Des Forges did a program there on Rwanda when that genocide was barely over and US policy was still in flux.

by Just Saying on Sep 8, 2012 9:03 pm • linkreport

We have plenty of space for little memorials or monuments throughout the city so let's bring commemorate victims.

I'm with Jasper on this. After 1000 years, DC will start to look like a cemetery.

by David C on Sep 8, 2012 9:13 pm • linkreport

@Jasper: I don' know nothin bout biology -- that is why I asked. I do know what ∆G is, but use it for non-biological pursuits.

by goldfish on Sep 8, 2012 11:45 pm • linkreport

Smile! We're on HuffPo

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/09/ukrainian-famine-memorial_n_1869478.html

While some have criticized the design of the monument because it creates a high wall along an adjacent sidewalk,

That's us!

by Jasper on Sep 10, 2012 9:14 am • linkreport

Better than another Capital Bike Share station!

by MBG on Sep 10, 2012 7:41 pm • linkreport

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