- The Washington Times - Monday, July 17, 2000

Pierre Charles L'Enfant took less than a year to devise one of the greatest city plans in history. This was the plan of Washington, a project entrusted to him more than two centuries ago by the future capital's namesake. Now, a talented group of young architects has taken just a week to come up with a design for a major monument which will honor L'Enfant's achievement as no recent project has.Atlanta philanthropist Rodney Cook, who is responsible for this initiative, has afforded Washington a magnificent opportunity to put an end to a century of misguided concentration of major memorials and civic buildings on and around the Mall. Mr. Cook and his minions have identified a perfect site for a privately funded monument to be dominated by a triumphal arch Barney Circle, which is located on Pennsylvania Avenue, immediately west of the John Philip Sousa Bridge spanning the Anacostia.Two Millennium Monument schemes, of which the Barney Circle design is the more compelling, were unveiled at a reception July 7, the culmination of a grueling design "charette" which took place on the grounds of the National Cathedral. The charette involved 10 young competition-winning architects who worked 20-hour days under the supervision of more experienced colleagues. The Barney Circle design makes excellent use of classical forms, while skillfully exploiting the circle's potential as a vibrant urban nexus.The L'Enfant Plan emphasizes dramatic vistas along the tree-lined avenues its author superimposed in radial configurations upon a rectilinear grid of secondary streets. Though the Mall constituted the civic heart of his plan, L'Enfant created circles and plazas all over the city which were intended to serve as the sites of institutional buildings and monuments. The idea was simple: Spread the urban amenities around for the benefit of all.The Senate Park Commission's Plan of 1901 extended the Mall from the Washington Monument whose grounds had been lapped by the Potomac before a massive landfill project was undertaken to the site of the Lincoln Memorial. In doing so, however, the 1901 plan ignored the genius of L'Enfant's scheme by turning the Mall and its environs into a huge, essentially self-contained precinct which claimed the lion's share of the civic jewels in the capital's crown. This archaic, monumental-city-within-a-city model relegated commercial and residential Washington to a life of its own.In the great cities of the world, however, monuments and grand civic buildings aren't confined to such precincts. They are woven into the urban fabric, and into the fabric of everyday life. The Millennium Monument scheme for Barney Circle takes a big step in this direction, enriching one of the city's principal avenues in the bargain. The arch would serve as a splendid architectural precursor to the Capitol for people driving across the Anacostia from the southeast. Its design, no less than the Capitol itself, reflects the timeless vitality of the classical idiom, the idiom which inspired L'Enfant's vision of Washington. The arch's appeal to tourists would be reinforced by visitor access to its roof and a panoramic view of the city.As it stands, Barney Circle is an isolated, amorphous patch of turf with the avenue cutting across it. It is located within walking distance of the Potomac Avenue metro stop. The Millennium Monument scheme does not alter the Southeast-Southwest Freeway, which terminates under the circle, and whose ramps feed onto and off of the bridge. The design simply reconfigures the circle and its relationship to adjacent Congressional Cemetery, a neglected Washington landmark, while providing pedestrian access to the Anacostia waterfront.

The cemetery, its burial stones obscured amid the overgrown grass, presently slopes down to a dismal chain link fence and a somewhat sunken roadway girding the circle. Covering over a freeway ramp, the Millennium Monument design puts the entire circle on a level plane, and endows the cemetery with an imposing entrance.

Also the scheme consists of two bastions, one on each side of the Sousa Bridge deck spanning the Anacostia floodplain, the freeway, and a pair of railway tracks. The bastions are hexagonal in plan and crowned by terraces adorned with handsome fountains. The bastion on the northeast side of the bridge deck serves as an overlook offering a view of the parkland leading up the Anacostia towards RFK Stadium. The other bastion includes elegant stairways lined with balustraded rails which lead up from the waterfront, offering a potentially attractive connection to Barney Circle and the surrounding neighborhood for joggers, strollers and bicyclists. The problem of managing pedestrian traffic between the bastions and the circle, however, will have to be handled very carefully, or the bastions will bomb.

The Millennium Monument scheme also offers muchneeded relief from prevailing trends in civic design. Five years ago, the late sculptor Frederick Hart noted in this space that Washington is the only major Western capital lacking a great commemorative arch. He advocated that emphatically vertical, heroic form as appropriate for a World War II memorial. Alas, Hart's sensible advice was disregarded, and the memorial to that titanic conflict is shaping up as yet another Washington anti-monument, in this case a sunken plaza on the Mall's main axis which will be flanked by a pair of rather puny structures masquerading as "triumphal arches." The anti-monumental tendency entails a reliance on the tiresome modernist reinvent-the-wheel routine, or, at best, the modernized ersatz-classicism employed in the World War II memorial scheme.

Mr. Cook has spoken of a $50 million price tag for the Millennium Monument, a figure which, like most preliminary estimates, should be taken with a grain of salt. But the nation's current prosperity, together with the organizational and political skills he has demonstrated in this endeavor to date, make the Millennium Monument a dream well worth pursuing.

Catesby Leigh is a design critic in Washington.

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