The National Mall in Washington, DC, is the legacy of two brilliant visionary plans: the 1791 L’Enfant Plan and the 1901-1902 McMillan Commission Plan. The underlying planning principles of the L’Enfant and McMillan legacy are embodied in the geometry of the Mall symbolic axis (click on diagram to enlarge).
Peter (Pierre) Charles L’Enfant, working closely with President George Washington, envisioned a capital city that embodied American Constitutional principles, enlightenment rationality, and a humanistic approach to urban design. The centerpiece of his plan was the Mall symbolic cross axis that married public buildings and monuments with open public spaces: the location of the iconic Capitol and White House symbolized representational government and the separation of powers; the location of the Washington Monument at the intersection of the Capitol and White House axes would honor the father of our country; the public open space of the Mall embodied the essential role of We the People in American democracy. The McMillan Commission (also known as the Senate Park Commission) reaffirmed and updated L’Enfant’s planning principles in their 1902 Plan. That plan expanded the original design geometry and symbolism to include the Lincoln Memorial and what became the Jefferson Memorial.
For over two centuries planners and developers have respected that legacy, and agencies such as the National Capital Planning Commission and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts have been created to uphold the historic planning vision. But the historic legacy is threatened today by the lack of an updated, comprehensive visionary plan for the National Mall to guide coherent future development. Instead, piecemeal, jurisdiction-based development too often ignores or dismisses the L’Enfant and McMillan legacy.
It is time to reaffirm and update that visionary planning legacy once again by creating a new plan for the Mall in its 3rd century. A century ago, the American Institute of Architects took the lead to convince Congress to create the McMillan Commission. Who can take the lead today to champion and bring together a new McMillan-type Commission to carry out a long-range, visionary plan that supports modern social and civic needs and recognizes that the National Mall is an embodiment of America’s ever-evolving democracy?