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Is the National Mall the place for risk-taking architecture?

DC's art community was chagrined to see the Hirshhorn cancel plans to build an inflatable "bubble" to house seasonal events. This is a good time to ask, "what now?" The bubble would have been a striking sculptural statement, but is that what the National Mall should be?

Photo by Shih-Pei Chang on Flickr.

Should the Mall be a singular urban space, defined by consistent neoclassical style, or an architectural sculpture garden for individual masterpiece buildings? Either vision could be great, but with no agreement on what the Mall should be, neither is happening.

The question is not really about artist preference for classical or modern styles. That's a distraction. Rather, the question is whether the focus of the National Mall should be its open public spaces, or its buildings.

If the focus is the public space, then that space is better defined by framing buildings that have a consistent character.

Many of the best urban public spaces in the world are "outdoor rooms," where a plaza or park is framed by surrounding buildings that act as "walls." The activity mostly takes place in the central space, but the buildings define the central space's character. The more consistent the surrounding buildings, the stronger that character.

On the other hand, if the focus is the individual buildings, then it's more interesting to have a wider variety of styles. No one wants to see an art gallery where every painting is the same, after all.

Historic plans envisioned the Mall as a singular space among neoclassical buildings, with the Capitol as major landmark. But that idea has given way in recent history to much more individualized buildings. Besides the Hirshhorn, there's the the National Museum of the American Indian and the under-construction National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

It would be nice to have a great public space and a variety of architecture, but unfortunately the two visions are mutually exclusive. Urban walls need consistency, and sculpture gardens need variety. The more we push in one direction, the worse the Mall will function as the other. So which is it?

Urbanistically, neither option is necessarily better than the other. The Mall is such a large space, with such large buildings, that the normal rules of Jane Jacobs urbanism don't generally apply. There will be few corner stores or sidewalk cafes no matter what, and no mixed use.

I like the American Indian museum, and I think I would have liked the Hirshhorn bubble. But I'm not sure I'd sacrifice the Mall's overall character for too many more standalone masterpieces. Either way, it would be nice to make a decision and then stick with it.

What do you think?

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and professor of geography at George Washington University, but blogs to express personal views. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado, and lives in NE DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post


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Maybe I'm stodgy (I hardly think so) but I don't want the character of the National Mall changed, except maybe some more trees. The different museum designs don't really bother me any more than the different monument styles do. That Hirshorn bubble just sounded like a terrible joke to me though.

by Alan B. on Jun 6, 2013 1:54 pm • linkreport

Im not absolutely sure that functioning as an urban room requires consistency of style. There are parts of manhattan, for example, that function well as urban rooms despite mixes of turn of the century neo classical, art deco, and even modernist buildings - I think its a common wall line, common scale, that define the rooms better than the architectural details.

Somehow Im thinking someone is thinking about debates about the Ringstrasse in Vienna.

The museums on the mall are free standing, not sharing common walls. The older ones are, in some cases, poor examples of neoclassical design - overbearing, out of scale, and generally dull. Im not sure that adding a few eclectic examples (and hirschhorn and Air and Space have both been there for some time) is really an issue either way. As for the bubble, I dont really know all the issues.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Jun 6, 2013 2:01 pm • linkreport

There is no consistency of style. The Hirshhorn isn't neo-classical; neither is NMAI.

by MLD on Jun 6, 2013 2:04 pm • linkreport

I don't think the 'urban room' and 'sculpture garden' are mutually exclusive.

The walls of the 'room' are just different. They are along Constitution and Independence, not Madison and Jefferson. The real problem is that the walls aren't particularly well defined in many places.

by Alex B. on Jun 6, 2013 2:08 pm • linkreport

My feeling is the Mall is for all Americans, it's like our common backyard to gather in for 4th of July, Inauguration, Concerts, Frisbee, etc. For that reason, I believe it should be surrounded by a variety of architectural and sculptural styles, representing the variety of influences that make America, well, America. Newer architectural and sculptural materials and forms next to older ones reflects the passing of time, the growing longevity of our nation, and the growing technology we are able to apply to our built environment. Progress is good, and, I hope, unavoidable.

by Patrick on Jun 6, 2013 2:09 pm • linkreport

The Mall hasn't had a consistent architectural style ever. Proof: Smithsonian Castle.

As to whether it should be one thing or another, it can and must be several things at once. Competing demands on the Mall require it to be a city garden for DC and a monumental national procession ground. There is a question of to what extent it should be one or the other, but that is independent of the Hirshhorn bubble project, which seems to have fallen through for financial reasons.

by renegade09 on Jun 6, 2013 2:13 pm • linkreport

This question was already answered when the Gothic Smithsonian "Castle" building from the 1840's was followed by the late Victorian Arts & Industries Building in 1879. The Mall has never been a neoclassical preserve and it's way too late to make it one now.

by jimble on Jun 6, 2013 2:16 pm • linkreport

I'm all in favor of maintaining strict style controls on the Mall, even though I oppose them in the privately-owned parts of the city. The Mall is a composition whose parts should work in harmony.

I think the National Museum of the American Indian provides an excellent benchmark for the maximum amount of divergence from the norm that should be allowed on the Mall. Usually, unfortunately, the main reason for unusual-looking buildings is to build the architect's brand. For NMAI, though, the divergent style sends an important political message: "Our history was different from your history; even though we are now part this nation, we were once our own nations." No other conceivable museum (except maybe NMA-AHC) can say that about its subject matter, so no other conceivable museum should be allowed to be as divergent from the Mall's architectural style.

by Tom Veil on Jun 6, 2013 2:27 pm • linkreport

Other not-neoclassical buildings on the Mall:
Air & Space
American History
National Gallery East Building
Arts & Industries Building

by MLD on Jun 6, 2013 2:40 pm • linkreport

Tom V., OK, I'll agree, the National Museum of the American Indians is different from the others sends a message:

"divergent style sends an important political message: "Our history was different from your history; even though we are now part this nation, we were once our own nations."

Aren't all of us "Americans" former citizens of other nations? Be it European, Asian, African, Australian, South American, we've all only been here a few generations at the most, except of course for the native Americans. By that reasoning, in your opinion, should NMAI be the standard all architecture on the mall should adhere to?

by Patrick on Jun 6, 2013 2:51 pm • linkreport

Good urbanism is primarily about good public spaces as many a city clearly demonstrates, whether the architecture be highbrow or vernacular. That being said, there are many good public spaces with a high variety of archtiectural styles, but one should make a distinction in this debate of whether a building is a sculpture or part of a space enclosing "street wall". There are many modern buildings that make great enclosure buildings, (not necessarily beautiful) like the American History and Air and Spacce Museums, and then there are pure sculpture buildings like the Hirshorn. Traditional/classical buildings tend to be wall buildings simply becasue traditional construction is rectaliniar (structurally logical and efficient), but not necessarily so as in the Castle which is very picturesque, but arguably still a good wall building.

I don't think one can promote stylistic harmony on the mall simply becasue the architectural community still favors modernism, and that includes modernist urbanism, which places more emphasis on a sculptural building rather than a public space creating building. In the case of the mall though, it's dimensions are so large that I'm not sure the sense of enclosure is very perceptable unless from the air, but maybe becasue of our pluralistic society, we should allow for a variety of styles while still insisting on a level of urbanism, which implies that the public space is more important than the individual building.

by Thayer-D on Jun 6, 2013 2:52 pm • linkreport

The mall is becoming too much a collection of architecture. Every decade, yet another monument goes up to another famous figure or another war. When do we get an Afghanistan and Iraq war monument, a monument to the first black President, a monument to gay rights pioneers, Asian Americans, religious dissenters, etc.

by SJE on Jun 6, 2013 2:59 pm • linkreport

Why are they mutually exclusive? Downtown Chicago has terrific green space on the waterfront and beautiful, eclectic architecture. The fact that we do not reflects a lack of imagination and political will - not impossibility.

by eponymous on Jun 6, 2013 3:57 pm • linkreport

Not to go off topic, but I liked the idea of the bubble, partly because it was temporary, but on an actual museum site. I would prefer to see more typical event activities held on the periphery of the mall rather than right in the middle of it. This would be aesthetically more pleasant than a scattering of tents. I personally hate the mall, it is the most inhospitable place in the city, especially in the summer. If you're looking for making an "outdoor room" you can do that by having things closer to the buildings and use them to frame the spaces to make the events a little more contained, and offer better opportunities for water, food, bathroom access, shade, and rest areas. Staging things closer to the buildings also would allow more logical connectivity to power, water, etc., rather than having generators. I don't think of the mall itself as an outdoor room, its too big for that, its more like a desert.

by spookiness on Jun 6, 2013 4:59 pm • linkreport

I was looking forward to a bubble too.

And architecture everywhere, public and private, needs to take more risks, even if some or most of them wind up to be 'failures'

by Kolohe on Jun 6, 2013 9:01 pm • linkreport

The primary problem, to me, with the Hirschorn Bubble was that it wasn't clear what it added to the value of the Hirschorn. It was not inherently programmed, and the programming that was proposed was not profoundly different than the other formalized lecture series.

Cool idea, but not worth the money, and not revolutionary in what architects would call a "performative" sense - cool shape, fascinating, uncanny way of supporting it, but what does it do for us?

But, the National Mall is not an "outdoor room" either way - it's way too big and totally out of the human scale.

by Neil Flanagan on Jun 7, 2013 1:15 am • linkreport

If the term ‘risk’ means risking derision for being costly and unhelpful, esoteric and elitist, or downright annoying we should not be taking any risk whatsoever on our National Mall. Things that unite our fractious nation should be the only ideas considered. Despite what the Constitution says about speech, neither expression or speech are free, they always have a cost.

by AndrewJ on Jun 7, 2013 6:16 am • linkreport

"And architecture everywhere, public and private, needs to take more risks, even if some or most of them wind up to be 'failures'"

This seems to be appropriate for fine art where it can languish in some Park Avenue or South Hampton Salon and not annoy anyone else, but architecture is different. While surely an art, it's social and always there, until torn down of course. This additude prevelant amongst most architecture schools that one needs to be on the cutting edge (whatever that means) to be relevant is why many in the profession fail miserably in delivering an architecture worth admiring and even loving.

Daring architecture used to come from conquoring some practical goal artistically. Nowadays it seems to be done primarily for the gee-wiz factor, not that it would be spoken about in those terms. The typical language might go more like "methodological principles, evaluative criteria, and characteristic formal repertoire", but for most people who would actually experience the building it gets translated in to "the bubble"!

by Thayer-D on Jun 7, 2013 6:47 am • linkreport

This is an important conversation, but the 'urban rooms' discussion is a bit of a stretch for a space the size of the National Mall. The most successful urban public spaces are experienced at about 5 ft off the ground, at a speed no greater than about 2-3miles an hour. From that perspective, the Mall is composed of several urban rooms (of varying success), from the Smithsonian Castle garden, to the Korean war memorial, each leaving their distinct impressions on visitors. While framing the space with buildings of similar scale and color positively contribute to framing the entire Mall, I don't think a visitor's experience at the Vietnam Memorial is degraded by a clash of architectural styles a mile away at the NMAI. These inconsistencies play out at the non-human experiential scale, usually observed from an airplane or other tall building. The aerial photo associated with this piece betrays the author's perspective on the matter, though it's ironic because the Mall is so massive, even from the air, it's challenging to distinguish the individual styles of the buildings... The short answer is yes, the Mall should be a place for risk-taking architecture, showcasing the best and brightest from across the Country (not starchitects). The Solar Decathalon was a great example of this, which highlights the bigger obstacle of jurisdictional control over DC's public space.

by eozberk on Jun 7, 2013 8:05 am • linkreport

It would have been fine if after the castle and the Arts and Industry Building had been followed by buildings designed in other styles that each topped the last in beauty and form. Instead, as the last Sen. Moynihad used to say, "You can stand in front of the Castle and slowing turn around, and watch the steady decline of American architecture."

by trulee_pist on Jun 7, 2013 9:29 am • linkreport

This was not a question about the Mall, it was a question about the Hirshorn and avant-garde art. You don't place a museum like the Hirshorn somewhere and then try to make it conform to what everything else looks like because that denies its purpose in being. The Hirshorn exists to challenge our aesthetic sense so that it can grow and change.

by Katherine Mereand-Sinha on Jun 7, 2013 10:03 am • linkreport

Innovation (aka risk taking) has displaced beauty as the main criterion of architectural merit in the profession. Unfortunatly for the public, this has resulted in the downgrading of the public realm becasue to the average passerby, what stands out isn't novelty, which has a short shelf life, but beauty, which can last for centuries.

It should be noted though that beauty isn't the exclusive domain of any one architectural style, but like porn, you know it when you see it.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927 – 2003) R.I.P.

by Thayer-D on Jun 7, 2013 10:05 am • linkreport

I think the near-universal approval of the Michael Graves lighted scaffolding in the last Washington Monument restoration shows that "modern" fits extremely well and is appreciated as a relief from the heavy pseudo-classical and neo-Nazi.

by Tom Coumaris on Jun 8, 2013 10:24 am • linkreport

The either or premise of the question posed by the author is false. Asking that question reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of Venturi's critique of Modernism in Complexity and Contradiction In Architecture because great buildings both shape the public space and stand out as distinctive sculptural objects at the same time.

The Bubble was conceived as both a Work of Architecture and a Work of Art. It was acclaimed as great Art but it failed the economic viability test that buildings must pass.

The Bubble was abandoned because of a failure of imagination by the supporters of the Hirshhorn. It's failure is a manifestation in the Are world of blowback from the austerity ethos gripping Washington politics and bleeding into the intellectual life of a community that can no longer make that distinction.

The Bubbles physical presence would have graced the mall and the discussions that would have taken place inside would have enlighten the community. Grace and enlightenment have intangible value that cannot be quantified with economic metrics but that is how Art is evaluated. A work of Art would never be subject to a three part economic analysis in the first place,(one can hope).

Richard Koshalek had faith that it would be embraced by the wider community as a work of Art and held to that standard only. Once the decision was made to evaluate the Bubble as an event space an essential conceptual element of Diller and Scofidio's Work, critical to it's meaning was lost and it was doomed.

by Randy Jacobson on Jun 14, 2013 3:44 pm • linkreport

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