Kirk Savage


On his book Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the Transformation of the Memorial Landscape

Cover Interview of March 02, 2010

The wide angle

Washington, D.C. may be the most studied national capital in the world.  There are dozens of guidebooks to Washington’s monuments and countless specialized studies of individual projects, landscape plans, and designers.  But during my twenty years of research on the city and its monuments, I became convinced that a wider conceptual lens was not only possible, but necessary.

It was plain to see that even over my own professional lifetime, much had changed.  The increasing prominence of war memorials on the west end of the Mall and a new attention to historical trauma brought on by the nation’s increasingly fraught engagement with the rest of the world were reshaping the monumental core.  In order to understand these changes it became necessary to go back to their origins and examine how and why the landscape had changed so fundamentally.

The basic monumental framework of the capital was laid out by a French artist, military engineer, and polymath, Pierre L’Enfant, working under George Washington at the end of the eighteenth century.  His plan, steeped in the language of military conquest and occupation, established symbolic possession of the city and the continent with a grandiose scheme of multiple centers and public monuments spread across the far-flung grid of the city.  Almost none of his specific ideas came to fruition, but the general idea of a dispersed monumental landscape did take hold in the multiple public grounds that emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century.

A parade of individual heroes, typically military commanders, standing or riding on high pedestals, spread out across the developing city, dotting its many tree-lined squares and circles left over from L’Enfant’s street layout.  Often renaming the grounds they decorated, these heroic statues began to create a kind of cognitive map of the city and the nation.  Even at the center, the Mall became a polyglot arrangement of grounds: gardens, greenhouses, woods, and the occasional statue (though to relatively minor figures, like a surgeon and a scientist).  But just as the capital was becoming world famous for its statues and its trees, this landscape fell victim to modern systems of spatial thinking and design.

I first noticed years ago that the term “public space” hardly ever appeared in the nineteenth century, while “public grounds” were ubiquitous.  With the advent of full-text search engines, I was able to demonstrate more convincingly that the change from ground to space was not just a linguistic shift, but a conceptual and psychological one as well.  Space, which had been thought of as mere emptiness in the nineteenth century, acquired a positive agency in the twentieth.

Conceptually, space became a force to impose order and to control perception and experience.  Consider the clearing of the national Mall, a massive project involving the devaluation and destruction of acres of carefully nurtured grounds.  Thousands of trees and hundreds of homes were sacrificed to make room for an axis of space lined with miles of new roads.

This project is often misunderstood as a reactionary return to the classicism of L’Enfant and Baroque garden designers, when it should be seen instead as an early example of modern urban renewal.  The transformation of the monumental core from local grounds to national space, against decades of opposition from Washington residents, revealed the nation as a mysterious organizing force, rivaling nature itself.

At the same time the devaluation of the old memorial landscape in favor of a highly charged central space had some unintended consequences.  The creation of the Lincoln and Grant memorials, intended to unify the Mall around a Civil War narrative of national rebirth, introduced notes of suffering and tragedy into what had been an exclusively triumphal landscape.  Grant and Lincoln emerged as complex figures, both heroes and victims of history’s vicissitudes.  The monuments themselves turned from objects on pedestals to integrated spatial designs.  Physical space thus became psychological space, engaging its viewers in a new experience of historical complexity and trauma.

Ultimately the entire Mall turned into a space of national conscience, as its large open areas and architectural platforms became the premier public stage for democratic protest.  These developments eventually gave rise to the modern victim monument, brilliantly implemented in Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and to counter-reactions such as the World War II Memorial, which nostalgically reasserts the old triumphalism of the nineteenth century.