"unbuilt Washington": The City That Never Was (But Might Have Been) (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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"Unbuilt Washington": The City That Never Was (But Might Have Been)

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:08
I'm Rebecca Sheir, and welcome back to "Metro Connection." On today's show, we're going down the road not taken, as we imagine how things might be in the D.C. region if fate, destiny, or just plain life hadn't taken us in a different direction. Take for instance, the buildings here in Washington, D.C., and not just the buildings, but all architectural structures, like, say, this one.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:30
So can you tell us where we are right now, Martin?

MR. MARTIN MOELLER

00:00:32
We're standing in the plaza in front of the Lincoln Memorial, in between there and the Reflecting Pool, which is actually currently under renovation.

SHEIR

00:00:41
The Martin you're hearing here is Martin Moeller.

MOELLER

00:00:43
I'm senior vice president and curator at the National Building Museum.

SHEIR

00:00:45
And if you head to the museum, at Fourth and F Street, in northwest D.C., you can check out a new exhibit called "Unbuilt Washington," which examines the road not taken when it comes to the city's structures, including, yes, the Lincoln Memorial, which, as we all know, resembles an ancient Greek temple, right, with grand columns and shining marble. But as Martin Moeller will tell you, Henry Bacon's design proposal wasn't the only one put forth back in the early 1900s.

MOELLER

00:01:11
As I've talked to people throughout the past year or so about this exhibition, and have shown them many, many images, the one that probably has attracted consistently the most attention is a proposal by John Russell Pope for a version of the Lincoln Memorial as a ziggurat, a stepped pyramid. And people are just always astonished and they often seem to talk about how strange and how arbitrary it is, but it's probably no less arbitrary than a Greek temple, for a man who was, after all, born in a log cabin in my home state of Kentucky.

MOELLER

00:01:42
So it's a reminder that we often appropriate historical forms in architecture for reasons related to style or symbolism, but reasons that change over time.

SHEIR

00:01:53
Well thinking about the exhibit and all of the elements that are on display there, personally for you, is there any one example of unbuilt D.C. that you kind of wish would have happened, that you're like, you know what, that would be really cool?

MOELLER

00:02:06
There are several projects in the exhibition that I really find myself wishing had happened. One of them is a proposed bridge called the Washington Channel Bridge that would have connected the southwest waterfront with East Potomac Park. But this wasn't just any bridge, it was meant to be a modern interpretation of Florence's Ponte Vecchio, lined with shops and restaurants.

MOELLER

00:02:25
And it was proposed in 1966 by local architect Chloethiel Woodard Smith and it was very much of its era. A lot of concrete, a lot of steel and glass, and while it was certainly a '60s kind of project, when we see it in the model that we have in the exhibition, it really looks very inviting. It looks very attractive to people probably not just from the neighborhood, but potentially from the entire region. I think it really could have changed our attitudes about southwest and that part of the city, while also creating an entirely new kind of attraction.

MOELLER

00:02:57
In a very different vein, there's also one of the early proposals for the National Museum of Natural History, much more ornate. And this is funny, my tastes tend towards the modernist and simple and minimalist, and yet, this proposal by the local firm of Hornblower & Marshall for an early design for the National Museum of Natural History, was very Parisian, a la 1900, 1905. Fabulous, almost World's Fair like structure, much like what was being built in Paris at the time. And I think it would have been a wonderful addition to the Mall, compared to the relatively sedate building that we ended up with.

SHEIR

00:03:28
Another D.C. landmark that is quite different from some things that were proposed, I understand, is the National Mall. I know there were proposals to flood it with water, all sorts of things. Can you talk a bit about that?

MOELLER

00:03:37
One of the things that we take for granted in Washington is the -- the National Mall is this open, uninterrupted swatch of space from the Capitol all the way to the Potomac River, and there were many variations on that idea that could have ended up giving us a very different kind of Mall. Even in L'Enfant's original plan, it wasn't a green space down the middle, it was a boulevard, lined with grand houses and gardens, which he thought would be appropriate for foreign diplomats.

MOELLER

00:04:02
Even into the 20th century, there was a proposal by Leon Krier, a Luxembourg based architect, to flood the National Mall and create a kind of a modern day Venice. It's easy to sort of make fun of that proposal, in fact, it was part of a more serious critique of American urbanism, he was talking about his concerns about this federal enclave, this isolated enclave around the monumental core, and proposing a more 24 hour city, with a mix of uses, residential, public, commercial, etcetera, but it's hard to get over that idea of the flooded Mall.

SHEIR

00:04:32
I still can't get over the stepped pyramid, just standing here looking at the Lincoln Memorial, and trying to picture us standing in front of that.

MOELLER

00:04:39
It's so funny, when you think of the different possibilities for the Lincoln Memorial, at first you look at them in isolation, as works of architecture, and you think, well, that would have been different. But then, imagine the events that we now associate with the Lincoln Memorial. Imagine Marian Anderson singing here, or imagine Martin Luther King giving his speech here, or even Bill Clinton emerging in front of Lincoln's statue as he was here for his first inauguration in 1993.

MOELLER

00:05:03
All of those events take on different meaning if that building is a pyramid, or a step pyramid, as opposed to the Greek temple that we take for granted. So architecture really does convey meaning, and we don't necessarily think of that consciously, but there are certainly aspects of it that we absorb as we're experiencing an event that is somehow connected to an architectural site.

SHEIR

00:05:23
Well, Martin, thank you so much for taking the time to meet with me today here in front of what we now know as the Lincoln Memorial.

MOELLER

00:05:29
Thank you, it was my pleasure.

SHEIR

00:05:32
Martin Moeller is senior vice president and curator at the National Building Museum, where you can view "Unbuilt Washington" through May 28. And you can see images of that ziggurat, along with other examples of the Washington that could have been, on our website, metroconnection.org.
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