Rethinking the Monumental Greensward


Culture critic Philip Kennicott has a vision for the National Mall that I found shocking at first, then really wonderful.  Though it'll never, ever happen.  That's because it means no more massive political protests, no more Folklife Festival (now THAT I'd miss), and the retiring of war memorials after all the survivors have died off (a shocking but excellent idea, I must say).

But garden designers and park users everywhere will be instructed by a little history, starting with how the original plan for Washington was pretty modest and human-scale. Then came the now-sacred 1901 McMillan Plan, which created an "epic, empty vista that celebrated the imperial splendor of the republic".  Kennicott's idea of bringing trees back to the space would certainly fix one perennial problem we've addressed here – the utter unsustainability of all that hard-packed turfgrass.


  1. Uh. Doesn’t retiring memorials after the survivors have all died sort of defeat the purpose of a memorial, which is to help us, you know, remember?

    I agree that the Mall is hardly perfect, and that visitors’ centres are ridiculous, but I am also realistic (or maybe cynical) enough to think that letting every one “write what his heart dictates” on a plain tablet is likely to result in profane graffiti rather than a useful public memorial.

  2. I agree with much of what the writer states. The neo-classical imperial architecture of the early 20th century has too often become the “historical” architecture by the way that it borrows forms and then dominates spaces. I lament the memorialization of the mall, especially with pathetic memorials like the Korean, sadly robbing features (with its dopey aluminum expressionism and etched faces in stone) of both Lin’s Vietnam memorial and its oppositional counterpart, the bronze figurative memorial. The Korean memorial simply has every feature -plants, wall, reflecting pool, figurative statues (what doesn’t it have?)! The WWII memorial serves its cause to ID that war as the moment of shift to American military dominance, which is why it looks like a candy coated imperialist’s dream.

    I don’t think the author lays out a well thought plan for the mall, and he should be careful not to illuminate the future with present day ideas (like the Macmillan Plan had). Sustainability is important, but it will be hard to hear the rallying cry over the roar of “not on my mall.” The humanism of 19th century strolling and picnicking (and its obvious success to this day) along with sustainability in application and design, with allowances for public gathering seems to me to be a good start.

  3. To resign a memorial after all the survivors have died is a thoughtless slap in the face. He may not mean to backhand the descendants of those who fought and died in the war, or those who lived through it, but he does, despite his intent. There is no one living who was around during the civil war. There may be a few centarians around who’s parents may have been affected by the war, but when they finally die, will we remove the memorials of a war that shaped this country and affected the freedom of many thousands of former slaves? Yeah, just try to suggest the removal of Civil War memorials and se how that one goes over.

    The Mall is the meeting place of the American public. It is where we can voice our opinions and have those we elected take notice of said opinions when they do not heed or mind them singly.

    These monuments are not so much monuments to the “imperial splendor of the Republic” so much as monuments to the ideas created by these men for the greater good. Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson were not symbols of the Republic, but men *OF* the Republic in which they devoted their lives to create.

    Sounds like Kennicott is either without understanding of the purpose of monuments, the function of public spaces or he has been brainwashed into thinking “America=evil.”

  4. I too disagree with the idea of scrapping the memorials in the Mall. My grandfathers both served in WWI, and paid a price all their lives. One lived with mustard gas damage. The other with a leg lost. Just because they’re dead, we should forget that sacrifice? I don’t think so.

    I do like the idea of more trees. Trees are good for the urban environment. I’ve only seen the Mall in the spring. It must be unbearable in the summer.

  5. Actually, Deirdre, it isn’t unbearable in the summer — the axis of the Mall is from east to west, and the trees are aligned thus, so there is always shade under the trees as you walk along. Sometimes though crossing from north to south (or vice versa) is hot because you leave the shade behind. A big problem for many people though is the gravel walks — they are pitted, sometimes muddy, the gravel gets into your shoes or sandals, and the footing is difficult for the elderly, etc .

    I worked for many years at a museum on the Mall, and the biggest problem for me and my co-workers was the lack of benches for seating — something I am sure many visitors can relate to. It is definitely a grand space, perhaps grandiose, and I am open to rethinking it, although hoping that the re-thinkers will keep in mind that people use this space, not only aesthetes.

    As for dismantling memorials when the last survivor dies, what a great idea! We should take down the Washington Monument, definitely plough under Arlington National Cemetery bit by bit, replace the Lincoln Memorial with a Starbucks (refreshment is definitely needed when you get that far down the Mall), and the Jefferson Memorial would make a dandy YouTube viewing place. Your videos here!

  6. I’m sorry, but that “retire war memorials when survivors all die off” is just so obnoxious. How about we rename all schools named after dead people, only living people can have schools names after them? No more schools after Kennedy? How about all those MLK jr. memorials and streets and parks get renamed, the guy is long dead now! The sustainably-minded should only seek to memorialize the living . . .

    I dunno, when I visited the museums and monuments around the Mall, the grass expanse was filled with numerous spontaneous sports games, frisby tosses, picnickers, there were two rallies. There were signs all over the plaza that the grass was being reseeded with region-appropriate grasses. I’m fine with a wondrous celebration of grassy expanse.

  7. Wow, comments are sure backing up my prediction that memorials will never be retired. Can I just add, though, that the land in question for every war to be memorialized ON THE MALL is a very limited commodity. Also, MANY are raising the complaint, esp. since the building of the WWII Memorial, that the place is overly dominated by wars. I’m just saying.

  8. I don’t think the author is suggesting the removal of say, the Lincoln Memorial, which is more than a memorial to the dead, or enslaved, but a lasting tribute to an idea bigger than the battles, the death, or any man. It reveals our greatest ideals, and does so in a lengthy, yet captivating walk towards a solid edifice that half conceals its own dark recess. As we make our final approach, up the monumental staircase, with the courage to enter that dark place of our own history, we are embraced by the inspiring words and the image of a mere mortal, a man like us and that is what makes this the greatest of memorials -a triumph of memorial architecture.

    The WWII memorial has nothing on Pearl Harbor or Gettysburg, or even the poorly placed, but haunting, WW I memorial to those of Brooklyn who died:

    War is never forgotten -history is strung along as a series of wars, not a sequence of peaceful years.

    People need a place to go to deal with sacrifice and loss -just let us be willing to take a risk on something or someplace that truly has the power to bring us there.

  9. Circling back to this: I don’t think any of us who think the idea of retiring memorials is obnoxious would say that the current memorial situation on the Mall is ideal. There’s a whole separate room for debate on the subject of designs for memorials — Slate’s architecture critic Witold Rybczynski wrote a photo essay on the topic a few years back:

    However, we find the idea of memorials as temporary structures to be dismantled when it’s no longer convenient to remember at least short-sighted and possibly abhorrent. Fewer, better memorials, sure. Temporary memorials, no.

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