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.