The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

Spring 2002, #23

Questions arising from time to time: What is the plan of the city of Washington? Have not unauthoritative alterations been made in it? How do these alterations affect the rights of individuals? It becomes necessary to review the facts on which they depend, to deduce principles from these, & to apply them to individual cases. -Thomas Jefferson, October 12, 1803

Special Federal Issue
Reading the landscape in Washington DC is especially instructive, as so much of it represents something larger, by both intent and incident. Pierre L’Enfant’s 18th century design for the city, a city built from scratch to be the nation’s Capitol, was an expression of the basic principles of freedom and access to government that are fundamental to the United States, manifested physically in the layout of the Capitol. Like a civics lesson played out through urban planning, the city’s hubs and radials were intended to describe the function of government: The executive branch represented by the White House node, and the legislative branch anchored on the Capitol Hill node. But just as the judicial branch in L’Enfant’s design fell by the wayside (the Supreme Court held sway in the Capitol Building until its courthouse was built behind the Capitol in 1935), unforeseen influences and events intervened, reality settled in. As the influence of commerce became fused with the execution of government, the city became dense with not only the vast offices of the expanding departments of government, but also with the headquarters of the national this and the national that - trade organizations, lobbying groups, advocacy organizations - all seeking proximity to the corridors of power, and to be part of the decision-making process. Unlike, say, the Kremlin, with its physical walls containing and isolating the government, all Washington could do was grow outward into the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia, becoming a sprawling conglomerate of representatives of the entities that rule or seek to rule the American land. Within this capitol region is a sort of condensed version of America (a headquarters of headquarters), and its denizens are supremely aware of the importance of how they are perceived. They go out of their way to present their image and their view in a controlled and mediated manner - the essence of politics. This landscape is then a sort of public-relationscape, a place of display and representation. What better place could there be to take a view of the current state of affairs, if this is a new era, or not, than in the landscape of the capitol region, where the interpretive layer is as thick as it comes. - Lay of the Land Editors