At the end of January I served as a juror for an “ideas competition” for the Washington Monument grounds on the National Mall.  This is a competition with no official backing whatsoever from any of the relevant agencies in Washington, D.C.  The competition, in effect, is an intellectual exercise meant to think outside the regulatory box and to generate innovative ideas that could captivate the public.  If the ideas are interesting enough, they might one day lead to a more profound reevaluation and rethinking of this most potent symbolic space.

Anyone who has walked around the Washington Monument knows what a strange, inhospitable, and placeless site this is, despite the fact that it is located at the crossing point of the two most important axes in L’Enfant’s original plan for the city: the east-west axis from the Capitol building and the north-south axis from the White House.  While elegant security walls and walkways have been put in place around the monument, designed by the renowned landscape firm Olin Studio, the new circulation scheme aggressively ignores L’Enfant’s historic crossing-point, which is currently occupied by a small, forlorn historical marker known as the Jefferson Stone.  Even for those in the know it’s easy to miss in the vast empty expanse surrounding the great obelisk.

Many of the entries in the ideas competition tried to create a new sense of place at the site, some by rearticulating the cross-axes and drawing attention to the Jefferson Stone, some by envisioning huge above-ground pedestals or underground facilities surrounding the monument.  Other more minimal interventions cleverly made a virtue of the emptiness surrounding the monument and focused on new ways to frame the spectator’s experience of the obelisk, by creating berms, sunken paths, and idiosyncratically angled views.  Still others envisioned radical programs of ecological restoration, turning large parts of the site into wetland, garden, and forest.

Surprisingly, the entrants had far more difficulty conceptualizing the grounds as a site of historical memory.  Those interested in the issue tended to adopt a static “visitors center” model, which would supply information about George Washington, the Revolutionary era, or the history of the monument itself – even though such information is readily available at nearby museums or on the internet.  There were no dramatic schemes for temporary memorials or other innovative programming.  Yet the site is in many ways a tabula rasa, waiting to be filled.  The entire site, for example, might be converted into a huge living memorial to the First Amendment: there is plenty of room after all for soapboxes or empty plinths for public performances or ephemeral monuments.  What if the grounds were to become a massive display of truth to power, with the opportunity for oppressed, traumatized, or disenfranchised groups across the nation and the world to project “blasts of truth” on the walls of the monument?  Imagine a ritual, like the regular tolling of bells from a church spire, except that it would be words struck on the monument, everyday at dawn, noon, and dusk.  Would we come to anticipate the testimony eagerly, or learn to ignore it?  If only we had a chance to find out!

Click here for more on the competition semi-finalists.