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"Unbuilt Washington": The National Building Museum explores some breathtakingly beautiful and some simply bizarre proposals to shape - or re-shape - America's capital

From a pyramid honoring Abraham Lincoln and a Modernist Ponte Vecchio for the Washington Channel Bridge to height limits, two architect/curators discuss the eye-opening array of what-might-have-been architecture and urban design projects that would have made Washington, DC look very different today (and tomorrow).

November 22, 2011

The National Building Museum explores the many serious – and sometimes not-so-serious – proposals that would have dramatically altered the architectural character of Washington, D.C. “Unbuilt Washington,” an exhibition that opened November 19 and runs through May 28, 2012, presents unrealized architectural and urban design projects – some breathtakingly beautiful, some puzzling, and some simply bizarre – from throughout the capital’s history. Visitors will see rare original drawings by America’s most influential early architects, including Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Robert Mills, and even Thomas Jefferson, as well as digital renderings of innovative projects by contemporary architects.


Two architects discuss “Unbuilt Washington”: Exhibition curator G. Martin Moeller, Jr., is senior vice president and curator at the National Building Museum, and author of the fourth edition of the AIA guide to the Architecture of Washington, D.C. (and author of the fifth edition, to be released May 2012). Susan Piedmont-Palladino is also a curator at the Museum, as well as a professor of architecture at Virginia Tech’s Washington Alexandria Architecture Center.


Susan Piedmont-Palladino: The political landscape of what gets built and what doesn’t get built goes all the way back to the plan of Washington, D.C. itself. Thomas Jefferson pictured the city as a small town, which of course is very different from how it turned out.


G. Martin Moeller: “Unbuilt Washington” is about what could have been: the possibilities, the alternatives. Jefferson was extremely skeptical of Pierre L’Enfant’s imperial plan for Washington, D.C. L’Enfant had grand ambitions, taking advantage of high points in the landscape and emphasizing impressive vistas. Jefferson envisioned a humble town, more along the lines of what we now see in Williamsburg, Virginia. He pictured the Capitol and the President’s house at opposite ends of a public walk running along a creek. His plan was deliberately low key and limited, reflecting his mistrust of urban life and of centralized government. Of course, L’Enfant’s much grander plan, mainly derived from European enlightenment ideals, ultimately became the basis for Washington’s design.


SP-P: I believe visitors will be interested in learning, through the exhibition, the very reasons why things don’t get built. The most common belief is that it’s due to the failure of architecture.


GMM: Many projects in the past weren’t built for the same reason many aren’t built today: money. Private financing may not have materialized. For public buildings, a congressional appropriation may have been held-up. Politics also played a large role, especially during the era in which federal government directly ran the municipal affairs of Washington. One administration would approve a project, then the following administration would cancel it.


Concerning memorials, families are sometimes greatly influential. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s family directly intervened in various design proposals for his memorial. The original, competition-winning design, by New York architects Pedersen and Tilney, was a composition of eight colossal vertical tablets. It was immediately lambasted as an “instant Stonehenge.” A revised version of the scheme received the necessary approvals from design review agencies, but FDR’s family steadfastly opposed the design, and eventually Pedersen and Tilney withdrew from the project.


SP-P: We touched on money and politics being reasons why certain things do and don’t get built, but have there been instances when citizen opposition stood in the way of a project?


GMM: Yes, especially in the realm of infrastructure and highways. Without the opposition, some of the proposed projects would have obliterated large portions of the city. There was a proposal developed in 1946 that would have involved elevated highways running down the National Mall between the rows of museums. There was a proposal in the 1930s to completely re-vamp East Capitol Street, which would have involved demolishing countless historic row houses. The power of citizen opposition, however, greatly depends on how much money is backing the particular project. When money is lacking, citizen opposition can be effective. When money is there, citizen opposition tends to be overshadowed.


SP-P: Looking at Washington now, the most noticeably missing, “unbuilt” things are tall buildings. There’s a lot of folklore surrounding why they’re missing.


GMM: It is commonly believed that the height limit is based on the idea that nothing can be taller than the Capitol dome or the Washington Monument. In fact, a private building – the Cairo apartment hotel, built in 1894 – triggered the first height limitation. This was mainly a reaction to concerns about the safety of tall buildings, possibly combined with a general distaste for the architecture of that particular building. The current law, enacted in 1910, is largely intended to ensure that light and air reach our streets. The height limitation has its benefits: Washington has a relatively consistent density and has avoided the skyscraper/parking lot pattern that can be found in many American cities. Unfortunately, the law has also contributed to a certain sameness of form, as developers fight to maximize the amount of leasable space they can get within a set buildable volume.


There have certainly been numerous proposals for buildings that would have changed the skyline. The Grand Masonic Lodge here in Washington owned a large tract of land on high ground just outside the area of L’Enfant’s plan. The Masons commissioned several proposals for a major complex on the site, each of which included a prominent tower, and Congress granted an exception to the height limitation specifically for that structure. In fact, Congress has granted exceptions like this on several occasions. Moreover, the height limit has always allowed for exceptions for purely ornamental elements, such as spires and domes.


SP-P: This issue of height limitation is still at play today. Will towers remain unbuilt in the future, or will we begin to see them in Washington over the next 100 years?


GMM: I wouldn’t be surprised if attitudes about the height limits changed in the next 20 to 40 years. As Washington has become denser, private developers have said that they’re running out of space – of course, they haven’t been saying that as much during the current recession. But these attitudes come and go. Also, during the Modernist era, people tended to think of all buildings as having flat roofs. Then, along came the ‘80s and ‘90s and a lot of architects started crowning their buildings with spires and other ornamental elements.


Besides, people are always trying to memorialize something in Washington. Whether it is peace or victory, there’s always a reason to build something that will stand out, which often means going for height.


SP-P: Do you have a personal favorite showcased in the exhibit – something particularly imaginative and quirky?


GMM: After talking to many people about this exhibition, I’ve realized that one project never fails to start a conversation and routinely makes jaws drop: John Russell Pope’s proposal for a stepped pyramid to honor Abraham Lincoln. People laugh and ask, “Why would we build a pyramid to Abraham Lincoln?” Well, in response I always ask, “Why would we build a Greek temple to Abraham Lincoln, a man who was born in a little log cabin?” We come to take these things for granted. Often the proposals we find the funniest or most outrageous have a certain rationale that tied them to their time and place.


If I had to pick a favorite project in the exhibition, it might be the proposed Washington Channel Bridge from 1966, by local architect Chloethiel Woodard Smith. This was a modern take on Florence’s Ponte Vecchio – a bridge lined with shops and restaurants that would have spanned from DC’s Southwest waterfront to East Potomac Park. The model of this project featured in the exhibition shows an elegant Modernist structure enlivened by terraces and projecting bays. I think it would have been a great attraction.


SP-P: When visitors leave the exhibit, whether they’re members of the general public or architects, what do you hope they learn?


GMM: That nothing in the built environment is inevitable. All of the things we take for granted in public and private buildings could have turned out differently. There was no rule stating that the Capitol had to be a symmetrical, white building with a grand dome. It could have gone in a number of different directions – in fact, it did go in a number of different directions before we ended up with the building we now know. Every building reflects a series of decisions and circumstances, the results of which could have been quite different. Not every decision involves a clear choice between right and wrong, or even between better and worse. As we look into the future of the built environment, we should always remember that we have options – lots of them.

(click on pictures to enlarge)

National Archives, Washington, DC

Proposal for the Lincoln Memorial by John Russell Pope, 1912: Pope’s proposals for the Mall site tended toward the bizarre. This design for the western end of the Mall was a ziggurat surmounted by a standing statue of Lincoln. The Lincoln Memorial Commission awarded the project to his rival, Henry Bacon.

Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society, 1976.88.51

Main elevation of Capitol competition entry by James Diamond, 1792: Many entries to the design competition for the “Congress House” were by amateurs, including this one notable for its crudely drawn weathercock.

National Building Museum, Gift of the American Architectural Foundation, 2009

Proposed Washington Channel Bridge by Chloethiel Woodard Smith & Associated Architects, 1966: Lined with shops and restaurants, the bridge (nicknamed “Ponte Vecchio”) was intended to be a vibrant retail and entertainment destination that would allow pedestrians and shuttle buses only.

Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division

Plan for the City of Washington by Pierre (Peter) Charles L’Enfant, 1791: L’Enfant deserves credit for the city’s characteristic street pattern and the placement of its principal buildings. Yet many elements of his plan were never executed. In 1792, President Washington reluctantly fired him, and a modified version of his plan, drawn by surveyor Andrew Ellicott, became the basis for the layout of the city.