The New Face of Pennsylvania Avenue
Will Require Inspired
By Benjamin Forgey
The White House yesterday had the startling look of being under
siege while a quiet little lawn party took place just outside the
People had to cross a chilling iine of concrete barriers to test
the novelty of strolling in the middle of the nation's most
famous street. But cross they did, politely. Maybe a hit
These contrasting realities--the Jersey barriers and the Bermuda
shorts, the policemen knotted all about and the clusters of
camera-slung citizens, the air of sudden crisis and the promise
of a bright spring day--define the problems and the possibilities
of the abrupt decision to close sections of Pennsylvania Avenue
and South Executive Avenue NW.
The problems are critical and fairly obvious. Traffic tops the
list. You don't close down two major crosstown streets--and
in this respect the short stretch of South Executive Avenue,
connecting to New York Avenue, is as important as Pennsylvania
Avenue--without causing serious difficulties.
Increased congestion is the main result. but there are untold
ripple effects, most of them bad. How many people will ride buses
and trains to avoid the new traffic jams? How many will decide
not to come downtown at all? How many dollars and jobs will the
city lose as a result?
But the long-range civic damage--to the nation's as, well as the
city's sense of its public self--is potentially more serious. You
don't close a portion of "the Nations Main Street" and primary
ceremonal boulevard without prompting concern.
The imperious way the decision and its legal justificptions were
foisted on the city is worrisome. After all, there are many
government buildings much closer to Washington streets than the
White House. These buildings are magnificenlt in their
architectural evocation of government's legitimacy and strength.
Are they not, then, also targets of terrorist violence, which is
above all about symbolism? Obviously, they are.
Is it impossible to imagine a day when sweeping justtifications
are used to extend the security cover to all of Pennsylvania
Avenue between the White House and the Capitol? Before Saturday,
the resumse to this question might have been, "Yes, it is
impossible." Now, one cannot be so sure. A certain
confidence-reflected in the city's very plan and much of its
architecture--has been chipped significantly. The unsettling
lmage of an isolated--and therefore joyless--federal compound no
longer seems so totally unreal.
Yet the White House, Like the Capitol, is a special case, and
there is another side to the Story. It's clear that aesthetics
played out a tiny role--if any--in this decision. It's also clear
that if we are to salvage anything at all from it, aesthetics--in
the form of inspired landscape architecture-will be the only
The White House security review team may have acknowledged as
much, backhandedly, when it asked the National Capitol Planning
Commission (NCPC) to produce within 90 days a proposal for
converting the now closed street and adjacent parks into
pedestrian zones. A certain crass naivete is evident here: To
design a dignified, meaningful public space is not so easy.
Nonetheless, traffic considerations aside, there is an
opportunity to make a splendid public space out of the now-closed
section of Pennsylvania Avenue. It is worthnoting that Pierre
L'Enfant's original plan envisioned the White House and its
grounds--the "president's park"--as part of a landscaped whole.
John Carl Warnucke, the architect called upon by President and
Mrs. Kennedy in the early '60s to help save Lafayette Square and
its environs, has in recent years revived his old proposal to
close down the avenue and make It into a secure park. His was one
of two images released by the White House Saturday, Though, it
would be duly noted, the new drawing is without
the traffic tunnel that was the justification for the original
idea. Warnecke's design shows the avenue as a simple
walkway, with circular fountains at either end and symmetrical,
formal plantings in the center. The other drawing, by Mark
Bunnell, shows the avenue as part of an extended Lafayette
Square, with curvilinear walkways and large shade trees.
These are just sketches, of course. Even so, Warnecke's seems
greatly preferable for the simple reason that he preserves
something of the street itself: its linear quality, its width.
This has the practical advantage of allowing the area to be used
for vehicular traffic on occasion--inaugural parades, say. More
important, it preserves the memory of the space as a street.
It is vitally important, in transforming this space, that its
history not be totally obliterated. Rather, history could be the
starting point for a beautiful and richly evocative design.
These are the kinds of fundamental issues that should be
addressed by the NCPC.
After that, a set of design guidelines should be written. These
should confront the yet unaddressed--or unannounced--issue of how
much security there is to be at the perimeter of this area--too
much would of course defeat the whole point. Then, after the best
possible standards have been written, the very best talent
available should be solicited--by invited competition,
perhaps--to create a design.
Yesterday was a sad day for sure, full of ironies. There was a
sense of panic in the pattern of the heavy barriers. South of
the White House, for instance, the big concrete objects formed an
uneven wall around the pretty park where stands the First
Division monument with its winged figure way up high: A gilded
allegory of victory seemed imprisoned.
Much has been lost. It will take a strong creative effort to
make something out of that loss, to transform it. The city, the
nation, the president and presidents to come deserve such an
Pennsylvania Ave. Closure || Peace Park