Saturday, July 19, 2008

Show D.C. Some Love, Part 1: Urban Architecture and Beauty

All images by Mr. 14th and You

In March of 1791, Pierre Charles L'Enfant rode into the port village of Georgetown with grand designs for the soon-to-be federal city. Classically trained as an artist in Paris, L'Enfant--an established civil engineer and architect who had designed, among other notable structures, Federal Hall in New York--had a vision for a grand capital city born from the plans of such great European cities as Rome, Paris and London. Surveying an area of land that was at that time a mixture of swamp, forest and farmland, L'Enfant envisioned a metropolis rising from the confluence of the Potomac and Eastern Branch rivers boasting grand avenues, vast, open spaces, monuments and stately buildings befitting the capital of a young nation filled with promise.

It took awhile for the city called Washington to materialize into the grand capital L'Enfant had imagined whilst taking his first strolls through the federal city's land. Development was slow in coming to the District, and it wasn't until the 1870s that the District undertook an unprecedented developmental effort to pave roads, install sewer lines and the like. With the arrival of the "City Beautiful" movement in the last decade of the 19th century, and the subsequent issuance of the McMillan Plan in 1901, however, Washington finally began to resemble the majestic capital L'Enfant had planned over a century before. And what a city it became.

The monumental core of Washington, D.C. stands alone in the United States, and rivals its European counterparts, for awe-inspiring classical beauty and sheer urban planning brilliance. The sweeping vista of the National Mall afforded by the view from the steps of the U.S. Capitol; the symbolic strength of our nation's leaders embedded within the stone and concrete of presidential memorials; the gentle reflection of amber light in the waters of the reflecting pools; the grandness of the classical and Parisian-inspired structures that surround the Mall and its nearby avenues; the gentle natural beauty presented by the blooming of the cherry blossoms around the tidal basin each spring; this is L'Enfant's city come to life. A city rich in symbolism and character, beauty and elegance. A city that rarely disappoints--the image of the brightly lit Capitol dome standing guard atop its perch on "the Hill" never fails to inspire or, at the very least, demand from me a second glance or extra moment of attention.

D.C.'s architectural heritage and influence didn't stop 100 years ago, however. I.M. Pei's design of the East Wing of the National Gallery provides a sleek, modern contrast to the columned, neoclassical design of the West Wing. The Museum of the American Indian has been lauded by architectural critics for its boldness, due particularly to its prime location on the Mall. Though office and condo towers springing up throughout the city run the gamut from interesting to dreadful, its evident that the city, while not necessarily at the forefront of design, is not hesitant to push forward beyond its traditional architectural heritage. Further evidence still lies in the landmark vote last year by the D.C. city council which led to D.C. becoming the first major U.S. city to require LEED certification (environmentally friendly "green" construction standards) for private projects.

It could be argued that the true beauty of the city lies not among its monuments, memorials and museums, but rather in the multitude of buildings, homes, circles and parks which dot its landscape.

Everyone, it seems, has his or her "favorite" place in Washington. For some, it may be a block of meticulously conceived Victorian rowhouses. For others, the serene majesty of a church or cathedral beckons. Still others find beauty not in the structures themselves, but rather in the people (and characters) that come together from every walk of life (and nation) imaginable to form the community of Washington, D.C. For this particular Washingtonian, a personal favorite is the nearly surreal image of Rock Creek Park observed while traversing south along Connecticut Ave. towards Kalorama, the minaret of the National Mosque and rooflines of various structures visible over the treetops. An impression bested only, perhaps, by the view of the Potomac and Georgetown as taken in from the terrace of the Kennedy Center; or, again, perhaps by the autumn landscape of turning leaves enveloping the ornate mansions that surround Logan Circle.

Whatever one's passion, whatever inspires and moves, the city of Washington affords no shortage of opportunities to find it amongst the gleaming marble, carved brick and stone and glorious fountains and monuments. The mere mention of street names and neighborhoods--Pennsylvania Ave., Dupont Circle, Capitol Hill, Massachusetts Ave.--invokes images of magnificence and elegance that some, this writer included, sometimes find difficult to translate into words.

When I first moved to Washington, I wondered whether living here would dull my senses to the aesthetic wonders the city provides. Would I cease to be enthralled by the gentle strength and prestige of the Lincoln Memorial, or fail to be sated by the subdued power and radiance of the White House, visible through the trees of Lafayette Park? Would I come to view the impossible-to-reproduce loveliness of the city's residential architecture as but mere dwellings, not altogether different from the cookie-cutter homes and manicured lawns of the suburbia I grew up in?

Thankfully, I should say not. Hardly a day goes by in Washington that I do not find my eyes getting drawn towards something I had not noticed before--or something I had noticed a thousand times. The enchanting federal city still impresses, its imagery still invigorates. For that, I am constantly thankful that I have the opportunity to call L'Enfant's city my home.


Lori said...

very nice write-up and equally nice photos to go along with...

do you think L'Enfant would be disappointed at the state of The Mall these days? it could definitely use some upkeep/landscaping work :)

-DC Daily Photos

SydAjax said...

I agree with lori...the mall looks really awful sometimes, especially the pools/ponds/whatever. Maybe they should light something up, like the Eiffel tower...haha.

Mr. 14th & You said...

The Mall could use a lot of help, no disagreement there. Between the woeful upkeep by the NPS, the lack of sufficient funding, and the barriers and other assorted junk thrown up inthe name of the securitocracy, it's seen better days.

Still, the view from the WWII Memorial at night, either looking back towards the Capitol or down towards the Lincoln can't be beat. It's one of my favorite spots to be in the world, really.

Anonymous said...

Hear hear! Well said, and I agree 100%.