Designing the Ecology of Democracy: Speculations on National Identity, Free Speech, the American Elm, and the Nation’s Front Yard

GSD 1402, Hilderbrand, Fall 2009DESIGNING THE ECOLOGY OF DEMOCRACY: SPECULATIONS ON NATIONAL IDENTITY, FREE SPEECH, THE AMERICAN ELM, AND THE NATION???S FRONT YARD\”The Mall, far from being inevitable, is the distinctive product of the Progressive Era, embodying its florid rhetoric, its thrusting civic activism, even its social discontents…But in serving a bundle of competing clients, without a heroic and overriding aesthetic unity, the Mall will revert to what it was for its first century, a great experimental landscape for exploring the most searching questions of American identity.\”Michael J. Lewis, 2008\”Washington has become, in season and out, the demonstration capital of the world. [P]rotests are part of the landscape, the rule rather than the exception.Haynes Johnson, 1978INTRODUCTIONFor 200 years, our National Mall\’s grand spatial figure and its assemblage of institutions and memorials have together formed a recognizable image for the American democracy. The Mall has also provided the locus of remarkable national moments of passage and pilgrimage. A two-mile long swath of 9000 trees, turf, memorials, and reflecting pools, the Mall\’s outlines were first established in Charles Pierre L\’Enfant\’s 1791 plan, under the direction of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. L\’Enfant\’s Mall promoted a conceptual field for embedding the interdependent compartments and objects of a balanced federalism – in a simple, pragmatic park scheme that drained and transformed the bottomlands at the base of Capitol Hill. In 1850, with a new plan to expand the collections of the United States Botanic Garden below the Capitol Grounds, Andrew Jackson Downing aligned a striving ambition for American horticulture with an emerging scientific identity for the nation – formed of diverse botanical arrangements representing the unfolding landscape of the continent amid the westward-expanding democracy. Downing\’s project for the Mall preceded the establishment of New York\’s Central Park, commonly thought to be the nation\’s first designed urban park, by almost ten years.In 1902, a plan by members of the Senate Park Commission Plan, including Daniel H. Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., revised Downing\’s picturesque landscape. This plan, fully endorsed by the 1902 Senate Park Commission, reflected a more fixed spatial organization, a closed and static field with a singular horticultural identity focused on groves of American Elm and a monumental turf grass median. Aspects of this plan were implemented during the 1930s by Olmsted\’s firm. Later, in anticipation of the nation\’s bicentennial, further alterations occurred under a plan of 1966 by Skidmore Owings & Merril, Dan Kiley, and others, both reinforcing and altering Olmsted\’s work. In 2004, the World War II Memorial substantially altered the eastern end of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool with a nostalgic return to recognizable, though ambiguously framed, classical signs and symbols. This year, the last major addition on the Mall – until another one is allowed – will be designed as a home for the National Museum of African American History. All these efforts have accrued to a complex and layered national landscape – in Don Mitchell\’s words, a \”field of contention\” – which is always passionately defended in the name of democracy. In turn, constant building and alteration have hardened and depleted the biological circumstances of the Mall and suppressed ecological relationships, to the point that today\’s Mall has been rightly declared unsustainable. The time has come for a new ecological paradigm to take hold.The Mall awaits overdue action by Congress and the American people. The crisis of its decline became abundantly clear when record-setting crowds for the 44th Presidential Inauguration trampled the Mall\’s turf and its rock-hard soil. Within weeks, the case for renewed investment i