This is a city geared up for performance. Architecture subdivides space: we can view buildings as a mass of wood and stone, glass and steel, the physical components of construction, or we can view them as the space that they partition, functional, operational, performance. A first walk through the centre of DC, it’s the latter that strikes me. The way the space of the National Mall has been created, or curated, not simply for the functional purpose of holding government offices, museums, and theatres, but rather to create the spaces in which a country can perform the rites of its capital.
Civilisations have always held an understanding of the importance of performance and performance spaces: places where rituals can be formed and perfected, where communities can come together to incant shared stories, find, common alignment and state their shared purpose.
The perspective of television lies in stark contrast to the perspective of reality grounded on your own two feet: as I stand on the grass of the Mall, looking up at the Washington Monument, it dominates the skyline both physically and in terms of holding the story. Wherever you are in the city you catch glimpses of this pinnacle, pointing towards the sky, uniting a nation. From an aerial perspective viewed on the television, it’s simply one monument amongst many. You cannot get the sense of location, the sense of centrality, the sense of unity, unless you are located.
The most obvious thing to strike me as my long held preconceptions of the city are grounded in the reality of miles walked upon the ground is the clutter of construction and the ways that the realities of security have eroded parklike landscapes and transformed them instead into a sense of fortresses without walls. The White House, whilst on view, is on view only at distance, and only if your eye-line rises above the concrete barriers, security personnel, and hundreds of tourists. Every day this building serves two roles: both home for a President and also as checklists stop on a Segway or bicycle tour of the top 10 attractions ticked off by tourists speaking multiple tongues.
The museums are truly magnificent: vast structures built to classical principles but with modern materials, spaces created for crowds not adapted to suit them. The National Art Museum houses one of the best collections i’ve seen, a textbook tour through the ages, through the development of scale and perspective, through the stylistic evolutions, through the science of colour and representation. It speaks of a collection crafted from scratch, not one made of makeshift acquisitions and attempting coherence.
In the Smithsonian I see the capsule from the Apollo 11 mission, the actual capsule, the one that slingshot around the moon and bought Mike, Neil and Buzz safely back home, heroic children of the new Empire, explorers of a new realm, reborn through friction and flame as plasma paved the way for their return to earth. Today the motion of the capsule is drained: it sits as sculpture, reduced to simple metal and plastic, the patina of the stars now simply reflecting the McDonald’s down the hallway. It’s the fate of artefacts to pass into history: their energy to be held in stories alone, for there is nothing intrinsically valuable in the materials themselves except their ability to invoke the story.
Some spaces are created for performance: to hold the totems and artefacts that shape our story, to serve as our national stage, to be the hallowed ground where we play out our unifying rituals and come together to celebrate.