As war in Iraq loomed over the last many months, archeologists, art historians and others expressed grave concerns about the fate of countless historic monuments, ancient sites and museum collections in the region, many dating back as far as the beginning of civilization. They had good reason to worry. Widespread looting followed the 1991 Gulf War. Subsequent U.S. sanctions accelerated the decay of hundreds of vulnerable Iraqi cultural assets -- treasures whose elemental significance is important to all of humanity.
As this perilous situation continues to develop, another landmark of global stature stands vulnerable and exposed, its safety all but ignored.
This treasure isn't located abroad, but in the United States. Congress, which ought to be the landmark's strong defender, is in fact the unwitting assailant. The onslaught has come in waves over many years, not with the burst of chaotic combat, but the Iraq war may aggravate the jeopardy.
The National Mall in Washington is the most powerfully designed landscape in the country, the single greatest artistic monument to America's founding democratic principles. Its carefully structured open spaces articulate the framework of our defining open society. As such, it embodies an unprecedented phenomenon in world history.
That, ironically, is its problem. The emptiness of the Mall is a radical artistic invention. But it's as critical to the glorious design as the marble monuments that have been built there. Space has profound meaning on the Mall -- but it means different things to different people.
Where some see open space filled to overflowing with the bright promise of American social ideals, others see vacant real estate waiting for development. House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Tracy) is one of these. Late last month, Pombo introduced legislation for the construction of a visitors' education center at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. (As if that masterpiece -- which the public adores -- even needs explaining.) Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) is expected to introduce similar legislation in the Senate soon, backed by other influential Vietnam combat veterans including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and presidential hopeful Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).
The visitors' center is just one recent addition to a growing list of ruinous incursions intended for that sacred field. A week after Pombo filed his bill, the presidential commission charged with developing a plan for a 350,000-square-foot National Museum of African American History recommended a spot on the Mall, adjacent to the Capitol Reflecting Pool. In the past 20 years, Congress has authorized 21 new memorials, seven of which have been built on or near the Mall. As incursions mount, ruin looms.
The openness of the Mall is a central symbolic feature of Pierre Charles L'Enfant's renowned 1791 plan for the new nation's seat of government. In fact, disgust with 19th century clutter is responsible for the Mall we see today. After a disfiguring period of rapacious commercial development, the L'Enfant scheme was revived and modified in 1901 at the direction of a Senate committee, led by Michigan's James McMillan. A brilliant team of artists that included landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead Jr., sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens and architects Charles F. McKim and Daniel H. Burnham devised the McMillan Plan.
Their inventive ground plan embodies the rational order of Enlightenment thought. Shaped roughly like a kite, its long axis is anchored at one end by the Capitol, seat of the people's representative government, and at the other by the Lincoln Memorial, shrine to the unbreakable union of the states. The short axis reaches from the White House, home of the nation's civilian leader, to the Jefferson Memorial, which remembers the founding document -- the Declaration of Independence.
Next to the point where the long and short axes cross, the great obelisk of the Washington Monument anchors the design. It's the spindle around which the capital city turns. These individual components form a clear network of structures that, taken together, outline the late-18th century principles on which our social contract as a nation was written. The Mall is a physical emblem of democracy, constructed from buildings, memorials and sculptures.
And, not least of all, from open landscape. The glue for its five distinct structures is empty space -- an open, unencumbered park. There, the citizenry is invited to gather.
Partly based on the aristocrats-only gardens at Versailles, the Mall was given public uses that made social freedom manifest. Usually its gatherings consist of simple recreation -- jogging, throwing Frisbees, strolling at lunch. Sometimes they take the form of vigils, marches and protests, where the people petition their government for redress. Both made the American covenant unique.
It can be tough to wrap your head around the idea that empty space has deep meaning. But here it does. Space is integral to the national psyche. From the colonists' faith in the clean slate offered by a New World through the enduring "heartland" myth of the Great Plains, emptiness resonates throughout the American cultural fabric.
The visceral power of luminous open space defines many American artworks. It formed the quasi-religious subject of landscapists such as Frederick Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt in the 1860s, and became the secular focus in the 1960s of Robert Irwin and James Turrell, who sanctify as art light-filled volumes of empty space. For the more conventional artists of the McMillan Plan, the meaning of open space was tinged with pathos. They designed while the American West was closing, continental expansion had bumped up against the Pacific Ocean and Manifest Destiny was running out.
But the artists recognized in L'Enfant's scheme, which ended at the Washington Monument, the seeds of something marvelous. So they pushed the open Mall farther west and south, to where Lincoln's and Jefferson's memorials now stand.
The five buildings and memorials vary in aesthetic caliber, but the open space is an unalloyed marvel -- a vital, functioning, poetic public symbol of the authenticity of our open society. Given shape by the contrasting urban tangle of a federal city, the open space of the National Mall encapsulates America's soul.