TCS Daily

Learning From the French

By Sabrina Savodnik - September 21, 2004 12:00 AM

France is hardly the most popular nation in the U.S. just now, but the French have something to teach us about how we honor our nation.

My two favorite cities in the world are Paris and Washington, DC, perhaps not surprising since the latter was modeled after the former. The wide boulevards, the confusing round-a-bouts, the tree lined streets, the mixture of old architecture with new, and the beauty of a river are just a few of the cities' wonderful features.

What I value most about these cities, however, is the history and the traditions that are ingrained in every building, monument, and park. The National Mall represents the republican values set out by Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. Their monuments do more than honor these individuals who helped lead our nation. They represent ideas of liberty, equality, and cultural unity that are the essence of the American identity.

As my husband, my brother, and I set out from the Capitol down the Mall to see the new World War II Memorial, we were assaulted by sprawling construction and neglected grounds. Up and down the mall there were cranes, fences blocking off restricted areas, and mounds of dirt, weeds, and trash.

Over the course of the 20th century many additions have been made to the National Mall -- from the Smithsonian Castle in 1847to the National Gallery in 1941 to the most recent World War II Memorial -- which have each contributed in making Washington a cultural as well as political capital. The art, history, and science museums are a testament to America's commitment to knowledge, while the individual monuments demonstrate to the visitor America's foundational beliefs and tradition of intellectual debate between Federalists like Washington, Democratic-Republicans like Jefferson, and Whig-Republicans like Lincoln. The war memorials remind us that -- as Tocqueville wrote -- our "passion for equality is ardent, insatiable, eternal, and invincible," but this love of equality rests on our commitment to freedom, and the cost of liberty is great.

Yet, with each new museum, memorial, or monument comes the job of more upkeep. While the World War II Memorial was impressive, much of the rest of the Mall had been neglected in favor of this new addition. With the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian September 21, the National Capital Planning Commission has declared the Mall full and "a finished work of civic art." Many cultural and ethnic groups, however, continue to push plans to fit their museum or monument onto the grounds of the National Mall, despite the dense concentration of buildings and monuments that already exists. Approval was already granted for a Museum of African American History and Culture, and there is interest in building a Museum of Latino Culture as well.

Perhaps residents of Washington, DC and the Americans who will pay tax dollars for it ought to reconsider the French flair for preserving the simplicity and history of a beautiful site. We should focus our energy and resources on preserving the existing Mall before we add anything new.

The National Mall was originally designed by Frenchman Major Pierre Charles L'Enfant, who believed it should serve as the focal point -- the "grand avenue" -- of the capital. Shallow pockets and a civil war slowed the construction process, but L'Enfant's plan was preserved with a distinctive American style that welcomed softball games and picnics upon completion in the early years of the 20th century.

The Mall has always been intended for public use -- even as far back as the Civil War when the Mall was a site of gathering troops and collection of arms -- demonstrated by the series of museums that have been built along the periphery, the spring softball games, and the annual Fourth of July fireworks celebration, and public demonstrations. While all this makes the National Mall -- and Washington, DC -- unique, it is at risk of being lost among architectural sprawl and the encroaching quotidian clutter that comes with being a city.

The focus of recent years has prioritized new development and "dressing up" the Mall at the expense of basic maintenance and a long view toward preserving its esthetic and the traditional American ideas it represents. It is past time that we seriously consider the consequences of this approach. A Capitol Visitor Center is under construction, a Vietnam Memorial Visitors Center is on the drawing board, and every year, more groups propose new projects for our national commons. All these things may be desirable and even necessary, but if they are crammed onto the ever-diminishing real estate that is the Capitol Mall, are we diminishing the quality of the experience visitors have there? And are we diminishing the respect due these memorials themselves?

The French have succeeded in striking that difficult balance between use, beauty, change and preservation. Strolling into Les Jardins du Luxembourg, next to le Quartier Latin, it is clear that Parisians value the beauty of their parks as much as they do the utility. While the garden is formal in style -- pebble paths, groomed hedges, and well-trimmed lawns, it is also intended for recreation and learning. Tennis courts, a jogging path, chess and ping pong tables are some of the ways Parisians can socialize in their garden, while they can learn something from the orchard and espaliered trees, the 80 statues, and the museum inside the Palais du Luxembourg.

Thomas Jefferson -- (who was, it is worth noting, a Francophile) -- designed the University of Virginia as an "academic village" where he believed people could both live and learn. In the spirit of Jeffersonian beliefs, and out of respect for the elegance of his architectural design, the University of Virginia has maintained the flow and feel of Jefferson's vision even as it has expanded over the past century and a half. Most recently, a new library for the university's special collections integrated the traditional white columns, brick fa├žade, and formal gardens with modern skylights. Congress, the White House, and the National Capital Planning Commission should consider a Jeffersonian respect for the architectural landscape and work to preserve -- not just to clutter -- the National Mall.

Even if our inclination may be to reject French culture, we ought to at least consider Mr. Jefferson who clearly respected the grandeur of their aesthetic vision. Americans have demonstrated that they are not afraid of change, but we should not overburden our monuments. We should focus on preserving our National Mall and with it the traditions and ideas it represents.

The author is a writer living in Virginia.


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