I have only known Washington through the epic series The West Wing. We spent a year watching it from the first episode to the last. Having visited Washington DC for the first time today, I will now have to watch it all again.
What struck me when we arrived this morning was the scale and beauty of the place. You can tell this city was designed to be the capital: symmetry around a central axis, but the most stable triangle holding together the Capitol (legislature), the White House (executive presidency) and the Supreme Court (judiciary) – which can all be seen at once from just to the south of the Washington Memorial. Look west and your eye is taken to the huge reminder of the fragility of the Union, the Lincoln Memorial.
Paris shows the hand of a single mind: Haussmann. Berlin pivots on its axis (from Unter den Linden through the Brandenburger Tor). If Hitler had had his way, both Berlin and Linz would have become enormous memorials to hubris and a monstrous ego. The only other place I have seen that shows such singular design is Astana, the capital city of Kazakhstan. Here, too, the man responsible for holding the country through the transition from Communism to free market Capitalism (and doing rather well out of it in more ways than one) has designed his capital on an axis that is breathtaking in its ambition.
Nursultan Nazarbayev decided to move the capital from the beautiful Almaty in the south (prone to earthquakes and too close to expansionist China) and build on what had originally been the village of Aqmola (Kazakh for ‘White grave’ – not the best name for a new capital city) and later became Tselinograd. Since the capital moved north some ten or fifteen years ago the President’s ambitious building programme has gradually and determinedly been realised. It isn’t pretty, and it’s pretty confused in terms of its mixture of styles – but it is symmetrical and grand and imposing.
However, the link between Astana (which actually means ‘capital city’ – not exactly imaginative) and Washington DC – to my mind, at least – is the ubiquity of a search for or assertion of identity. Astana has essentially three styles of modern architecture: Islamic, Soviet and (what I call) ‘Dubai’. It is as if this young country – of which so many of it’s young people are hugely proud, building a new future – is trying to decide who it is: the nomadic horse people of Genghis Khan, a peaceful Islamic (though in a rather ‘keep it quiet and unobtrusive’ sort of way), or a modern, confident Islamic buffer state between the fanatics down south (Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan), the imperialists up north (Russia) and the expansionists to the right and down a bit (China). The architecture betrays the search for which origins will eventually define Kazakhstan’s identity: they will work out who they are and who they might become by where they decide they have come from.
What struck me about Washington was the emphasis on ‘greatness’, grandeur, self-justification (and I mean that neutrally, not pejoratively). And the ubiquity of conflict. Every memorial seems to speak of conflict won or lost. It seemed poignant to me as a visitor that the two most powerful memorials were those closest to the Lincoln Memorial – Korea and Vietnam – and both of those were lost. More to the point, tens of thousands of lives were lost – and it isn’t obvious to younger generations what the point of these wars was.
As I watched so many young people reflected in the stone and the engraved names of those lost and missing in Vietnam between 1959 and 1975, I was haunted by the enormity of the loss. Not only the Americans, but hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians and others. It reminded me of when I visited the memorial to the fallen in the ten-year Soviet Afghan campaign (1979-89) in Astana and I saw the mothers still weeping at the sight of their sons’ names etched into the stone.
What was it all for?
I loved Washington. It is beautiful, confident, friendly (despite the snarly policewoman I asked for information – a mistake I won’t make again). The wide avenues are stunning. The vistas are breathtaking, the architecture pleasingly classical (mostly), the sense of space and pace relaxing. But I also found myself wondering what researchers will be making of it all in a thousand years. Will they be seeing the place as we do when we look at the ruins of Rome or Greece and wonder what happened?
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Location:Washington DC, USA