Took the airplane down to my hometown of Washington, DC for a bit of exercise this weekend. The city was built to awe the citizens with an inhuman scale. Plazas are vast and the Mall itself is a forbidding barrier if you’re trying to walk from place to place on a hot or cold day (the architects who wrote A Pattern Language concluded that no public square would be effective unless it was small enough that people could recognize each other from opposite ends). The government buildings are huge and discourage casual entry by being set back from the street and not having any retail shops on the ground floor as a commercial office building might.
The D.C. of my childhood is vastly different from the D.C. of today. Those imposing buildings that symbolize the government’s power are now wrapped in concrete highway barriers that broadcast the government’s fear of a lone terrorist driving a truck filled with a fertilizer bomb. Around the Federal Reserve building, for example, the barriers cover part of the sidewalk so as a pedestrian you’re separated from the street by a wall of concrete. The effect is certainly ugly and it will be interesting to see what happens if a beautiful Old World city such as Paris needs to be secured against lone terrorists in trucks. But in a way the cowering of the government marks the triumph of the individual in American society. “God created men; Colonel Colt made them equal” wasn’t quite right after all. It was the terrorists who blew up the Marine compound in Beirut and those who blew up the World Trade garage in 1993 who actually made individual men the equals of government.
There is one new building in Washington, D.C. that harks back to an era when governments were all-powerful and individual men and women subordinate: the World War II Memorial. This is at the east end of the Reflecting Pool and adjacent to the Washington Monument (now wrapped in an ugly high security fence). The new monument looks as though it was built by Soviet architects and indeed looks a lot like the WWII memorial in East Berlin. The thing is huge and it makes one pause and reflect… “We’d better not start any more wars or we’re going to run out of space on the Mall.”
[My visit to the Memorial coincided with protests in Europe against American power in the form of George W. Bush, visiting to celebrate the American victory over the Germans in Italy. Picking up on the theme of an earlier entry, I suppose it would not have been very politic of him to respond by saying “We’re sincerely sorry for being so bellicose and we’re going to show it by giving Italy back to the Germans…”]
Overall I still love Washington, D.C. Where else can you drive on a riverside parkway, 100-percent paid for with Federal tax dollars, and pass adjacent signs reading “The George Bush Center for Intelligence” and “Turkey Run”?