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Two ideas of America collide in Washington

Venturi/Friedberg overlap in Washington

We all know one great idea of America. It is grounded in confidence in the individual, in self-invention, and the possibility of transcendence − in Whitman and Thoreau, Sullivan, Wright and the pursuit of originality. Yet the governing constitution and civic life of the country, and the whole pattern by which its lands and passages are laid out, come from something very different − the Enlightenment passion for balance, discourse, and order between people and between man and nature.

Right at the heart of Washington is an uncomfortable moment where the commercial hub to the north of Pennsylvania Avenue collides with the start of the bureaucratic strip to its south. At that point, on an awkward bend in the road, Pierre L’Enfant’s mile-long vista to the Capitol first appears. On this spot, the 1964 plan for rehabilitating an already decaying sector of a by then notoriously dangerous city (and one that had never been quite finished to begin with) called for a pocket park and a small plaza. The design of the park was awarded to Paul Friedberg and the plaza to a team led by Robert Venturi.

Early in 1978, the two architects matched their early schemes together in this composite overdrawn print. Friedberg’s plan talks to that first great notion of America by capturing it in the simple Romantic ideal of a wandering terrain. Venturi, patterning the pavement of his plaza on L’Enfant’s 1791 plan of Washington, talks to the second conception of the country: a sensibility of layered precedent, regulation and order. His approach used many of the elements that marked the first critical approach to the Postmodern, ranging from superposition and disjunction to what this document signals, the dramatic juxtaposition of contradictory aspects, in which reason and accident, history and contemporaneity, the sublime and the satirical, could be happily exist in combination.

L’Enfant’s plan weaves together radial and gridded geometries, and a respect for existing topography with a determination to superimpose new lines and vistas upon it. It was a scheme that delighted Venturi. He saw in its pattern of intersecting diagonals and rectangles shifts between the ‘major and minor scales’ of the same key, and the occasional skewed angle as the discordant accidental that anchored the whole.

Grass swards among the paving, inserted to represent the great lawn of the White House and the wide meadow that is the National Mall, capture the idea of a civil conversation between wilderness and order. Further layers of ‘complexity and contradiction’ are added by inscribing playful literary reflections on the city on the pavement alongside such solemnities as a time capsule honouring Martin Luther King and a representation of the Great Seal.

The early scheme shown here included replicas of the White House and Capitol, steel sculptures by Richard Serra and a frame of giant masts laid out as a parallelogram that would reconcile the colliding orientations of the streets converging around it and perhaps direct the
eye toward those wider horizons within which the monuments of man are dwarfed.

Brought closer to the ground and stripped of its three-dimensional features by a timid review board, the finished plaza works neither as an urban promenade nor as a landmark. Few are tempted to mount a shallow podium on what is essentially a large traffic island simply to read the pattern beneath their feet. Yet − re-christened ‘Freedom Plaza’ − the site has become hugely successful in two quite disparate ways: as the primary site for demonstrations and as the subject of much fanciful speculation about its supposedly dark Masonic undertones. One can imagine a second burst of delight as Venturi contemplates this totally unexpected result.

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