The New Face of Pennsylvania Avenue
Will Require Inspired Landscaping

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 gates.

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 tentatively.

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 means.

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 effort.

Pennsylvania Ave. Closure || Peace Park