I’ve written before about my appreciation for the remarkably interdisciplinary nature of the preservation field, but it took a visit to the National Building Museum yesterday to show me that one of those disciplines is quantum mechanics. Wait, what?
Some physicists believe in Many Worlds, created when the universe splits into branches to accommodate an action’s possible outcomes. (Fuller explanations sail over my head, and often involve Schrödinger’s poor boxed cat; google if you dare.) The National Building Museum’s “Unbuilt Washington” exhibit, which opened this past weekend, provides archival insight into what might be called Many Washingtons, the parallel capital-universes created by the numerous architectural proposals that have gone unrealized in the city’s history.
Upon entering, I overheard someone who represented the exhibition telling a reporter that its greatest value lies in inspiring “appreciation for what the city looks like.” Indeed, after spending three hours in “Unbuilt Washington,” I felt glad to live in a world where the Lincoln Memorial is not a ziggurat, the Jefferson memorial is not a skinny skyborne spout, and the Old EOB was not replaced with a twin of the Treasury (no offense to ziggurats, fountains, or the Treasury). Moreover, I gained heightened appreciation for the work that went into sculpting the city’s built environment. I hadn’t realized that so many of the capital’s landmarks resulted from design competitions, which were the source of many of the alternative designs featured in the exhibition — not only rejected proposals but also winning entries that never came to fruition. The executed structures resulted from often decades-long efforts to procure funding and finalize designs, including disagreements over which architectural styles would best reflect both the site’s intended symbolic value and the era’s ideals of how to manifest democratic government in the built environment.
Some of the residual designs appear now — and in some cases surely did when first proposed — to be laughably absurd. Interestingly, the easiest laughs perhaps come from much more recent designs: Jim Allegro and Doug Michels’ 1996 “National Sofa” across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, complete with Jumbotron, and their 1989 Dolphin America Hotel, part of an effort to improve dolphin-human relations. Equally entertaining, however, are the otherworldly monuments that could have been. Amateur architect James Diamond appears to have thrown every architectural feature he knew onto the central bay of his Capitol building contest entry — columns, arched entry, Palladian window, round windows, pediment, frieze, balustrade, dome — and the cherry on top is an eagle weather vane that more closely resembles King Kong’s precarious pet pelican (1792). In her entry for completing the Washington Monument, stalled for decades mid-construction, Vinnie Ream Hoxie suggested converting the obelisk stub into a severely distended sculpture base, topping it with a figure of Washington requiring the balance of a pointe dancer (1876-1878). Alexander Esty’s design entry for the Library of Congress took too seriously the suggestion to avoid tall elements that might detract from the Capitol dome; he somehow burdened the Victorian Gothic style with swampy horizontality, picturing an overwrought cathedral sunk neck-deep in quicksand (1880).
Still, other showcased ideas make a lot of sense. For example, the Kennedy Center’s unrealized curvilinear design would have been better integrated with the riverfront than the stark, rectilinear form that replaced it for budgetary reasons. In his review for The Washington Post, Philip Kennicott observes, “Some of the prize pieces in the “Unbuilt Washington” exhibition remind us what could have been if the Mall had been treated as an urban amenity rather than a national symbol.” As he points out, designs for the Mall by Robert Mills and Andrew Jackson Downing would have created pleasure gardens in place of what in recent years has received criticism as a neglected turf of trampled grass.
Kennicott begins his review by predicting that this exhibition is “the National Building Museum’s best chance at drawing blockbuster crowds in years.” I agree. The exhibition’s greatest strengths are its appeal to the imagination and accessibility to anyone who has one. As a preservationist, I especially appreciated it as an example of storytelling through archival material, and I found its stories to be directly related to our field. Preservationists often find ourselves facing multifurcations, standing at the thresholds of diverging options and outcomes. Which alterations and additions would be appropriate? Which structures should be built, kept, razed? Which side of each split will we follow; which world do we prefer? The unbuildings on display at the National Building Museum demonstrate that historical value lies not only in the decisions we convert to reality, but also the alternatives that get left behind, those ideas that slip away to get built in other worlds.