Longstreth, Richard, editor. The Mall in Washington, 1791-1991.
Article Type: Book Review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Fischler, Raphael
Pub Date: 12/22/2004
Publication: Name: Canadian Journal of Urban Research Publisher: Institute of Urban Studies Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2004 Institute of Urban Studies ISSN: 1188-3774
Issue: Date: Winter, 2004 Source Volume: 13 Source Issue: 2
Topic: NamedWork: The Mall in Washington, 1791-1991. Studies in the History of Art (Book)
Persons: Reviewee: Longstreth, Richard
Accession Number: 129248110
Full Text: Longstreth, Richard, editor. The Mall in Washington, 1791-1991. Studies in the History of Art, No. 30, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, Symposium Papers XIV. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art; distributed by Yale University Press, 2002.

The Mall in Washington, D.C. is one of the paradigmatic public spaces of the world, the symbolic heart of a great capital. In its proximity, around its perimeter and within its confines are located key institutions and monuments of the United States of America, key symbols of the nation's democratic and civic ideals. A home to war memorials and a place of protest, a front lawn to government buildings and a popular tourist destination, the Mall is both an urban cliche and a living environment. In this book, it receives the attention of historians who have studied its creation and its transformation over time and that of designers who have participated in its recent evolution.

Aside from two prefaces and an introduction, the book contains thirteen chapters on the plans and designs that have made the Mall what it is today. The volume is beautifully illustrated and laid out, in the manner of a coffee-table book rather than an academic tome. In fact, only the first part of the book, with its historical essays by well-known scholars, has the thoughtfulness and evidentiary solidity expected from a scholarly publication. The second part, made up largely of pieces by designers and officials on recently completed buildings, is intellectually much less satisfying. Between the two parts is a wonderful set of plates, reproductions of maps, plans, lithographs and photographs from the late eighteenth century to the 1980s.

The main purpose of the book is to explain the multi-secular dynamic of cultural interpretation and political ambition that has shaped the Mall. As Richard Longstreth remarks in the editor's introduction, it is precisely because the Mall remains a place of change, with the addition of new buildings and monuments, that knowing its history is so important. That history parallels the history of landscape architecture and city planning; indeed, the Mall's design is an important element in the history of these two fields. The original urban plan of Pierre Charles L'Enfant in 1791-2, the landscape plan of Andrew Jackson Downing in 1851 and the McMillan plan of 1901-2 are important milestones in the history of urban planning in the United States. The last of these plans, in particular, was a catalyst in the rise of the City Beautiful Movement and, more generally, in the emergence of comprehensive city planning.

The most interesting chapters in the book are those written by Pamela Scott, Therese O'Malley, Thomas Hines, Jon Peterson, David Stratfield and Richard Guy Wilson. They analyze key plans, highlight the precedents, mostly European, that inspired their makers, and follow their implementation (or lack thereof) under the vagaries of political decision-making. From their essays emerges a vivid portrait of the Mall both as a real place, a material artifact and setting of human activity, and as a symbolic expression of each generation's understanding of US history, its attitude toward the built and natural environments and its aesthetic sensibility. What also emerges, therefore, is a saga of planners and designers undoing what their predecessors did, sometimes to recover an original plan (especially L'Enfant's), sometimes to correct mistakes (e.g. removing train tracks laid across the Mall), sometimes simply to enhance spatial qualities. The main drama of this story is how a disorganized urban area with office building, gardens and slave pens was restored, starting in the 1850s, to the grandeur and dignity that its French designer had originally given it in his imagination.

The book under review is a re-edition of a volume originally published in 1991. Aside from a brief new chapter that outlines the changes brought to the Mall since that year, the book has remained essentially the same. This may be regretted, in that the re-issue might have been to opportunity to address the unfortunate lack of dialogue among its authors, if only by means of a revised introduction. Agreements and disagreements between contributors are not highlighted, and conflicts in their arguments are not resolved. For example, Streatfield holds on to the common perception of L'Enfant's plan as an exemplar of formal planning in the baroque tradition, while Scott finds a strong picturesque element in the plan in its treatment of topography and green space; Hines explains the specific location of the Washington monument by referring to difficult soil conditions, though Scott convincingly disputes this explanation in favor of one emphasizing aesthetic and functional choices.

Despite these minor problems, and despite the relative weakness of the final chapters of the book, this beautiful volume will interest all serious students of urban design, of the history of city planning, and of the design of capital cities and their public spaces.

Raphael Fischler

School of Urban Planning

McGill University
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.