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Unbuilt Washington: A new type of rejection
People sometimes take Washington D.C. for granted, but it’s beautiful—the manicured grass lawns surrounding the mall, the minimalist Washington Monument, the simple yet dignified White House, and the famed cherry blossoms bordering the tidal basin.
But what if the grassy plane of the national mall were flooded with water à la Venetian canals, and Congresspeople were carried in paddleboats to the different federal departments? Or if walking across the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial Bridge, bookended with two gothic towers straight from Medieval England, you were met with a pyramid-shaped version of the Lincoln Memorial, seemingly plucked out of Egypt?
Seeking to challenge assumptions about the city with an exploration of these unrealized architectural plans, the National Building Museum has opened its latest exhibit, Unbuilt Washington, which runs from now through May 28. Outlining “the Washington that could have been,” the exhibit reveals an unrecognizable cityscape. The exhibit invites these and many more “what ifs” through its exhibition of the city’s architectural history and rejected building plans. By showcasing a sample of alternative plans and miniature models for the nation’s capital, the exhibit succeeds in capturing a unique take on the history of the city’s development.
Balanced with a collection of some serious and other not-so-serious building proposals, Unbuilt Washington takes visitors on a journey throughout the district’s development. From competing designs for the Capitol, including sketches by Thomas Jefferson, to a monument proposal made during the Clinton administration for a “national couch” facing the White House—which would allow visitors to talk with the President through a television screen—the city has seen a variety of proposed plans that would have drastically changed the face of the District. Chronicling the alternate destinies of D.C.’s designs, the exhibit keenly provides insight into why city planners chose the buildings, museums, and monuments as they exist today.
Beyond the displaced vibes that their designs give off, these unrealized buildings are unique for the various reasons why they were not constructed. In the case of the Washington Monument, a shortage of money explains the building’s simple design: insufficient funds prevented the creation of an extravagant rotunda at the base, and forced architects to build its top out of a different material than its bottom.
The exhibit’s success, however, lies not only in its largely unexplored subject matter. The organization of the works on display also serves to create the feel of exploring the unrealized side of Washington. Extending across several rooms in the museum, the exhibit’s arrangement fulfills curator Martin Moeller’s goal in communicating how the “design and construction of the capital and its additions constitute an epic—and ongoing—drama.”
If nothing else, Unbuilt Washington, boasts an incomparable supply of dinner party anecdotes on the more comical buildings proposed throughout the district’s history. One architect’s plan for the Dolphin American Hotel proves one of the more laughable, as his “Dolphin embassy” was intended to provide government workers an opportunity to relax with an in-house population of Dolphins.
From its diverse collection of proposed but unrealized building plans to its historical insight into the development of D.C., Unbuilt Washington provides a unique look a city whose architecture has played a large role in its history. The exhibit leaves visitors with awe at the city’s inventive designers—and perhaps with a bit of disappointment as well, knowing that we all could have paddleboated to our internships on the Hill.