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Tuesday, Sep 16, 2014
Commentary

Keep 'newly relevant' Washington Monument's current look


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WASHINGTON The Washington Monument is broken - and it hasn't looked so good in years. Put in place after the structure was damaged by an earthquake in 2011, the scaffolding creeping up the 555-foot stone obelisk like kudzu has overtaken the memorial. Let's keep it that way.

Last week, the National Park Service held a special ceremony to illuminate the monument using more than 400 lights. Lit up like a spectral tower, it has a new civic purpose. "It is a way of saying, 'We are here, and we will always be here,'?" National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis said at the ceremony.

The scaffolding does more than that. It gives us an opportunity to reconsider our least enlightening memorial. Although we fawn over other patriotic marble, we don't get mushy about this monument. In the summer action flick "White House Down," for example, Jamie Foxx, playing the president, asks the pilot of Marine One to execute an illegal maneuver just so he can get a glimpse of the Lincoln Memorial's seated statue - the memorial where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963 and President Richard Nixon debated student war protesters in 1970. Meanwhile, on film, the Washington Monument has been destroyed by an earthquake in "2012" and by aliens at least three times - in "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers" in 1956, in "Mars Attacks" in 1996 and in the only season of the NBC sci-fi series "The Event."

But under scaffolding, the monument is - quite inadvertently - newly relevant. Because Americans broadly agree that governance in this nation is broken, there is a casual elegance to the symbolism of a monument to national unity under construction. We are a work in progress, the cracked memorial reminds. Our union is not perfected.

The Washington Monument, at the center of an ever-changing landscape, is always in progress. It belongs under wraps.

Today, the obelisk looks like Germany's Reichstag in 1995 when, after three decades of debate, the German Parliament allowed artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude to wrap the building in fabric for two weeks. Just five years after the nation's reunification, this was an artistic accomplishment, but a civic one, too. The Washington Monument looks like it has been encased in an animated version of itself, lines drawn in blue fabric to evoke its brick pattern if that pattern were drawn by, say, the pop artist Roy Lichtenstein.

The monument wore this same armor once before: The National Park Service and Target commissioned architect Michael Graves to design the scaffolding and fabric for a restoration between 1998 and 2000. He managed to encapsulate the world's tallest stone obelisk in scaffolding that does not actually touch it. It looked cool then, and it looks cool now.

It makes aesthetic sense - and fiscal sense, too. Recession and austerity have led architects to reconsider, reuse and rethink buildings. Consider the "Bubble": a proposal to build a temporary inflatable pavilion on the plaza of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington right up through the doughnut-shaped building. An unprecedented piece of inflatable architecture, the plan nevertheless ran out of air. Still, for all its novelty, the Bubble was typical of a new instinct to reinvent even things that seem immutable.

It's too bad that project failed. Washingtonians and tourists might have greeted the seasonal inflating of the Bubble the same way they have received the Washington Monument under scaffolding: with utter delight. At last week's ceremony, as officials turned on floodlights level by level, starting from the base, iPhone-wielding videographers turned out in force. Flickr and Instagram are chock-a-block with pictures of the enmeshed memorial. That's nothing new for the monument, maybe - but it is rare for anything obscured by scaffolding to get so much love. Washington yields too few opportunities for this kind of "Mission: Impossible" design.

And as a nation built on a living Constitution, we should not hold a memorial, even one that honors George Washington, too sacred for future generations to monkey with. But even after its cracks are repaired, we should leave it as is: enmeshed by brackets and cross-braces, wrapped up like a sword in its sheath. What if we agree to take down the scaffolding when Congress can pass a bipartisan bill declaring it finished? Then we'd know that some national healing had taken place.

Kriston Capps is a senior editor at Architect magazine.

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