Postcard from Washington DC

I’m here in Washington DC, with the Victoria University team for the Solar Decathlon 2011 competition – building and running the First Light House. The month started off with the pre-assembly from containers of our modular house, and the competition proper started last night. Wish us luck!

We have spent the last few weeks in this capital nerve centre of America, a city that is steeped in history right to it’s very roots, and it doesn’t like you to forget it. Even the very roads we drive along every day are a lesson in American history. There is of course, like every American city, a regular grid of streets from A Street to Z Street, running at right angles to another swathe of imaginatively titled 1st Street, 2nd Street, 3rd Street and beyond – further complicated here by a mirroring of these names into a NE quadrant, a NW quadrant, SE, SW etc – you get the picture. This is a city where it is easy to get completely lost in, especially if you are not paying attention. My unerring sense of natural direction, that works so well in the Southern hemisphere, frequently short-circuits here in the north.

Washington (DC, can’t forget the DC), is further complicated by the avenues that bisect and triangulate the city. The avenues, all named after states in the US, set up axial routes through the city in the grand patterns for a world capital set out by L’Enfant in the 16th 17th century, which all culminate on famous vistas like the Capitol, the Washington Monument, etc. Some states evidently fare better than others – Massachusetts Avenue drives through a ritzy part of town, and Pennsylvania Avenue includes the White House as its most notorious residence, while Florida Avenue and Rhode Island Avenue swing through some seedier parts of town. While an axial plan should make it easier to get around, all it really does is slash up the landscape, and introduce irregularities in your mental map of the city, bisecting 30, 60, as well as 90.

And then there are the freeways and features, named after famous Americans and ex-Presidents, like the George Washington Memorial Parkway, Franklin Roosevelt Island, Thomas Jefferson Avenue, Ronald Reagan International Airport, as well as the grand monumental structures such as the Lincoln Memorial, a giant temple tomb memorial to one of the founding fathers of the nation, where a gigantic stone seated Abe Lincoln sits still, glowering out the door and down the Mall. This is truly a capital where the nation is planned out and played out on a grand scale.

It is interesting to compare and contrast the planning of Washington DC with Wellington NZ, and how far-sighted and bombastic DC is by comparison with our more timid, and dare I say it, sheepish country. When L’Enfant set out the blueprint of DC, the city was small – but he planned big. So large in fact, that the locals grumbled and complained that the scale of the city was ridiculous, and some of the states (such as Virginia) who had given land to create the capital, withdrew their offer and reduced the size of the capital’s rigid boundary. But the grand planning remains intact. The Washington Monument, although only sized as a stump for much of it’s life and hence sporting a colour change part way up the tower, is still incredibly high for an object of no function – a giant needle for this giant haystack. The monuments to Lincoln and Jefferson, alone in their marble tombs (and simultaneously surrounded by hundreds of camera-toting tourists) sit at the junctions of vistas, as does the Capitol and other prominent buildings.

Most notably of all is the War Memorial, perched atop a shallow rise of a hill at Arlington Cemetery and overlooking the city across the river Potomac. Not for them is the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior despoiled with a 3 lane highway across his door step – respect and decorum for their (plentiful) war dead ensures an honour guard slow marching in full military uniform, all day long, all week long, all year long – respect for the dead implies eternity, and eternity is a pretty long time. There are parts of DC that are very walkable, like Georgetown with it’s small scale street network and friendly block size, as well as 250 year old architecture. Other parts of the city are monumental in stature, with monuments, museums and governmental buildings lining the mall like a carefully arranged game of chess, arrayed across a board of thick green grass. And then there are the freeways that cut up the city, slicing any pedestrian logic apart with their overpasses, underpasses, on ramps and off ramps.

The freeways both liberate the city from the traffic, and destroy it as a place to inhabit. Without a doubt, building freeways is the most destructive thing that anyone can do to a city – they solve nothing, but ruin everything along the way. In DC, vast tracts of land are given over to nothing but cloverleaf interchanges and carefully clipped grass between, unsurpassable by anything without wheels or wings. Planes fly overhead, cars queue up in long swathes to navigate their turn, and bicycles weave in and out of the local traffic, but where the freeway hits the pavement, no pedestrian survives. Wellington has a lot to learn from Washington indeed – primarily this: build no freeways


4 responses to “Postcard from Washington DC”

  1. A few very minor corrections:

    L’Enfant planned the city in the 18th century.

    Neither Lincoln nor Jefferson are buried in their memorials. The Lincoln Family Tomb is in Springfield, IL; Jefferson is buried at Monticello.

    Also, I am not sure that “bombastic” is an architectural quality. I would say “grandiose.” But either way, probably not something to be emmulated.

  2. Fantastic – thank you for those corrections David. Points noted. I want to go to Monticello while I’m here – I hear it is quite lovely. Jefferson, from what I understand, was quite the Renaissance Man, and studied / practiced architecture as well as running the country. He designed Monticello, and, umm, a little holiday house nearby as well. Or, was Monticello his holiday house? I must go do some studying…

  3. Good luck on the competition. DC is a great city. Be nice to see that viaduct in georgetown torn down, the southwest & southeast freeways removed or buried, and that mess around the west side of the mall and the kennedy centre sorted. (the mess outside of the DC borders itself I can’t speak to). Otherwise what an awesome street plan, great density, good parks, and fantastic metro (for north america).

  4. PS, and they never should’ve handed back the Virgina portion, if the principals of the l’enfant plan and DCs urban development had extended across that potomac it would’ve been great.

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