Wall Street. Main Street. The Street. Shouldn’t all this trafficking in synecdoches be regulated in some way? The rhetorical devices are lagging behind the realities, and that means there’s a metaphor debt crisis looming in the future. That rhetorical bubble is bound to burst. Truth is, what once made Wall Street the physical, social and culture space that it was has decamped to Connecticut or Jersey. Main Street packed up for Route Whatever or Big Box Boulevard, leaving just a bit of itself behind, dressed now in quotes. Main Street became “Main Street.” It leads, of course, to “Towne Square.”

We’re left with streets as metaphors, because streets as real, vibrant, diverse, and beautiful civic places were among the first causalities of the automobile age. Before we knew it streets became roads and in late 20th century America all roads lead to home, but away from the city. It’s an old story, the post-war flight from the city, underpinned by centuries of cultural values but hastened and accelerated by deliberate policy as much as social crises. The engine that drove it--here metaphor and reality collapse—was fueled by cheap gas. For smart growth advocates, alternative fuel proponents and entrepreneurs, mass transit users the rise in gas prices this summer was cause for real optimism, even if it looked to the auto-addicted as schadenfreude. The last entry in our Time Core in the Green Community exhibition is the July peak price of $140 per barrel.

Of course, that’s all changed. Crisis over. Gas is cheap again so let’s dust off the SUV’s and get back to life as we knew it. Amidst all the other bad financial news, for me the darkest is the drop in gas prices. Now is the time for a gas tax. And, fortunately, I am not alone in that opinion. Allan Sloan wrote about the need for a gas tax in his recent “Deals” column in the Washington Post. (“A Danger to Detroit in Low Gas Prices”, (
http://www.washingtonpost.com) His argument has more currency than mine as he’s a renowned economist, and I’m, well, not. He also makes it clear that he's not a “car-hating elitist,” proving the truth of the old Klingon proverb that only Nixon could go to China. An SUV driver calling for a gas tax has real credibility.

Unlike Mr. Sloan, I am a car-hating elitist, or at least a car-averse elitist.--I’m sticking with the elitist part—so my support for a gas tax has all the credibility of meringue, but I hope the planning and design community will make its voices heard over this. Economic downturns like the one we appear to be careening into hit the design professions hard. Architects my age know that the recent good times were an anomaly, while younger architects know nothing but good times. The profession has been so busy it’s been hard for clients to even get an architect’s attention. It’s easier in a recession…just hold your hand up, and say “waiter!”

Seriously, the street we should all be focusing on isn’t Wall Street or Main Street, it’s Green Street. This is an opportunity to break some bad habits and get our metaphors in shape.



I spent all morning Tuesday talking about Green Community, first straight to a camera for a short web tour and then to a group of sharp and knowledgeable students from Smith College. From a variety of liberal arts majors, they are spending this fall in Washington interning at various Smithsonian museums. Dorothy Moss, their instructor, has been lining up opportunities for them to visit other museums and hear from the curators. Tuesday was National Building Museum day

Without having attended all of the other museum visits they’ve had…which would have been great, since I still consider myself a novice in the curatorial biz…I spent the first part of our time together talking about what the Building Museum is not: not an art museum; not a science museum; not a history museum. And then talking about what the Green Community exhibition is not: it’s not a history exhibition; it has no original artifacts; and, it’s not neutral. Green Community is an advocacy exhibition.

Advocate. A wonderful word. It's from the Latin ad+ vocare. Various dictionaries define advocate, when it’s a verb, as “to summon for counsel.” The noun, advocate, is the one who is summoned. The prefix, ad, is the Latin preposition meaning to, toward, and for. It’s directional and it takes an object; that is, there’s always a thing at the other end to, for, or toward which the action is directed. (Latin geeks will smugly remember that ad takes the accusative ending) Vocare, the Latin verb, means to call, to summon, to name. The Italian and the Spanish words for attorney, avvocato and abogado, respectively, hew close to the original Latin; the attorney is literally the one summoned for counsel. An advocate speaks for and calls to. A blizzard of derivatives—the etymological kind, not the weird financial kind--falls from vocare: advocate, avocation, convoke, equivocal, evoke, invocation, invoke, provoke, revoke, vocation, vouch…voice.

So, what is an advocacy exhibition? Green Community, like the 2 Greens before it, speaks for, in support of, the content and calls to the visitor to listen and to act. The curator for an advocacy exhibition, then, deploys a different voice than she might use for a more traditional kind of exhibition. My previous exhibition, Tools of the Imagination, a thematic history of drawing tools and technologies from the 18th century to the present, was in the latter category. I chose the artifacts, drawings, and my words to illuminate and give context to the subject matter, but I wasn’t trying to convince anyone of anything. The take away message of Tools was not that the volutor was the better way to draw Ionic capitals, or that digital models were superior to cardboard. Not that I don’t have opinions on these things myself… they just weren’t germane to the narrative. (btw, volutors rule)

To be persuasive, to be an effective advocate, requires that everything--the original writing, the selection of quotes, the material and arrangement of the space, the colors and the graphics, the selection of each image, and of course the selection of the projects themselves—call to the visitor and speak for the goal of sustenance. The “calling to” and “speaking for” is directional, but it is not one-way, as the Smith students reminded me. Their questions and challenges demonstrated that an advocacy exhibition’s content is never entirely closed. It’s just the opening statement.


Dupont Circle

Like an asteroid with an eccentric orbit, I’ve been revolving around Dupont Circle since I first moved into the city. From what was once the outskirts of the system at 17th and S, to the intense near orbit of 19th and Q, I am now flung farther out to the very edges of L’Enfant’s plan. But the gravitational pull of the Circle is still strong. I have walked to or through it nearly everyday for, well, a really long time, in every season and every time of day or night. Every semester at some point I’ll hold a class session there for my architecture and landscape architecture students to introduce them to a truly great green urban place. That-- "Great Green Places"--is the title of a web-based series of films the Museum will be producing as part of our Green Community exhibition.

So, I’ve been spending a lot of time in that circle recently pondering as I always do: what makes it so good? This isn’t mere curiosity. As an architect and an educator of architects, I want to know how and why certain public places succeed and others don’t. Is it geometry? Material? Location? Maintenance? History? Quality of construction? As you may guess by now, it’s really all of the above, but surely there’s a hierarchy. Is any one of those qualities both necessary and sufficient? I’ve also wondered: does it look to others as it looks to me? Do my students see what I see when we visit?

Years ago, when we lived at 19th and Q, my husband’s sister and her family were visiting Washington and we were eager to share our neighborhood with them. Their two daughters, our nieces, were probably about 9 and 11 and had lived their entire young lives in the leafy green, sidewalk-free suburbs of Knoxville. We emerged from Metro at Q Street on a sunny late afternoon to the sound of the mud-bucket drumming, merchants hawking sunglasses and hats, belching buses, honking cars, and the general chatter of a 100% corner like that one. Katrina, the older of the girls, wrinkled her nose and said, “You live in this crummy neighborhood?” For a brief moment the veil of affectionate familiarity fell away and I saw my neighborhood through her eyes. What a cacophonous mess! She had no way to process what she saw, as her world was not constructed of this range of humanity. No one entered her world uninvited.

A truly public space issues no invitations and expects no rsvp’s, yet welcomes all. As Henri Lefebvre has written, we all have a right to the city. To spend time in a public place like Dupont Circle is to encounter the marginalized, the hungry, the un-and underemployed, the idle rich, the ladies done lunching, the dealmakers, the yoga masters, the baton twirlers, the chess players, the protesters, the singers and the drummers, the guerilla poetry insurgents, the chalk painters leaving cryptic messages (“just call her”) on the sidewalks, the football tossers and dog walkers, PC’s and Macs, the lonely, the lost, and the clueless. It’s so easy to draw a circle; just pin the center and rotate the arm completely. The difficult part it is introducing the ideal to the real, to make space into place. Be sure to look for our short film on the website, www.nbm.org
to see what makes Dupont Circle, and a few other places in Washington, not just spaces but great, green places.

Katrina, the perplexed preteen, is now all grown, out of college, working and living on her own. From her apartment balcony she proudly showed us the bustling café-lined streets of her transit-oriented, mixed-use, compact town. Pretty crummy.