By Christopher Knight, Times Staff Writer
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.
Before Baghdad fell, leaders of U.S. forces expressed an understanding of what was at stake. Then, the unthinkable happened. In just 48 shattering hours, the irreplaceable National Museum of Iraq was destroyed. The military neither prevented nor stopped its catastrophic looting. On “Meet the Press” last Sunday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld disavowed U.S. responsibility for securing the site.
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.
But that openness is under siege. The proposed Vietnam memorial visitors’ center would need to accommodate more than 4 million people who come to the site every year. Like the African American history museum, its size would be daunting. Think historical displays, educational exhibits, memorabilia collections, toilet facilities and more. Even a building constructed underground would require entries, exits, ventilation systems, skylights -- intrusions above ground that chip away at the Mall.
Approved or proposed Mall additions now include memorials to President Reagan, Martin Luther King Jr., terrorist victims, Native Americans and soldiers lost in peacekeeping missions. Then there’s the network of tunnels, underground security checkpoints and surveillance cameras newly suggested for the Washington Monument. Like other burgeoning examples of a post-Sept. 11 “architecture of fear,” these schemes would destroy the monument in order to save it.
Many memorial planners were doubtless emboldened in 2001 by the success of backroom maneuvering in getting the huge, 17-acre World War II Memorial a prime location on the Mall, right between those to Washington and Lincoln, where construction is now underway. That disastrous design, based on foreign U.S. military cemeteries, jams a funereal stake into the splendid Enlightenment heart of the L’Enfant-McMillan scheme. The World War II Memorial is a monumental act of hubris -- not a proud statement of founding principles like the other five structures, but a medal of honor pinned with egoistic pride on the national chest.
It also shredded the Commemorative Works Act of 1986, which Reagan signed into law in response to just such threats to the Mall’s magnificent open space. The law was a safeguard meant to counter the emotionalism of any memorial process. But in the aftermath of the Cold War, sentimental appeals to the passing of the so-called “greatest generation” proved too strong. An exception was made.
Supporters of the Vietnam memorial addition have apparently learned the lesson. With American troops now in harm’s way in Iraq, they’ve made their move. This is the third time legislation has been introduced for the ill-advised project, and it may well be the charm. The first two didn’t have a tide of patriotic enthusiasm on which to ride.
Some congressmen do want to strengthen the Commemorative Works Act -- an essential but arduous step. An amendment to last year’s failed legislation authorizing a Vietnam memorial education center had the right idea. It correctly described the Mall as “a substantially completed work of civic art” and prohibited new projects in the park’s great cross-axis. Supporters of a Reagan memorial -- likely to exploit the high emotion sure to follow the death of the conservative idol, now 92 -- killed the bill because of it.
A useful idea has been offered by the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, a scrappy citizens’ group that rose up to fight the World War II Memorial fiasco. For if an education center is warranted at the Vietnam memorial, what’s to stop others from being built there and at the Korean War Memorial?
The coalition suggests establishing one off-site visitors’ center for the entire Mall. It could encompass a national military museum, not unlike London’s Imperial War Museum, where all conflicts in defense of the nation could be explained. Historic military installations line both sides of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, and several would make an ideal museum site.
It might also explain the powerful historic meaning of the Mall’s open space, not least to Congress. But if politicians won’t protect the Mall, the people must. It’s time to sound the loudest general alarm.
The World Monuments Fund -- the foremost private nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of historic art and architecture worldwide -- should be petitioned. The fund’s current list of the world’s 100 Most Endangered Sites ranges from Egypt’s ancient Valley of the Kings to the pivotal 1921 Schindler House on Kings Road in West Hollywood. Two imperiled cultural heritage sites in Iraq are listed, while the historic neighborhood of Lower Manhattan joined in the wake of Sept. 11.
The fund can’t stop the destruction, but it can let the world know what’s at stake. The richly empty 2-mile stretch of the National Mall is the most important cultural icon in all of America’s history. But slowly, they’re paving it over.
Christopher Knight is The Times’ art critic.