Peaceable Assembly

What can I contribute to the mountain of words after the Inauguration? I’ve lived in Washington now for nearly 25 years and I have never experienced anything quite like that and I found it difficult immediately to digest most of last week. For us fans of the plan---the L’Enfant plan that is—the entire day of ritual assembly and choreographed procession provided an extraordinary demonstration of the true role of a capital city…our beautiful capital city in particular.

Visitors from European capitals have since the 18th century dismissed Washington for one reason or another: embarrassingly grand, yet empty; pretentious yet provincial; all about commemorating the dead and doing nothing for the living…Its wide avenues often seem empty; its huge expanses of lawn seem comically anti-urban. But, the city is fulfilled when filled. And it was filled on Tuesday.
The ideals of the structure of the government and the relationship of the government to the people are inscribed in the very form of the city. In that sense, the drawings of the whole gang--Pierre Charles L’Enfant, Andrew Ellicott, the surveyor who completed L’Enfant’s plan, and Benjamin Banneker, the African American mathematician and technical assistant to Ellicott,--for the design of the new capital city are no less founding documents of the United states than the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and especially the Bill of Rights. They just happen to be written in a different language.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
--The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution

The plan is the First Amendment manifest, and last week we had a series of events, from the peaceable assemblies of joy for music and inauguration, and peaceable assemblies of petition in the gatherings to mark the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. The city receives both generously. In fact, from the perspective of urban design and architecture, the First Amendment, often called the "free speech" amendment, can also be described as the “free space” amendment, in that its provisions encompass the physical conditions of assembly as the boundaries of expression, and the representation of ideas in the built environment.

“Representation” is the key word here: representation in the political sense as the hallmark of democracy, and representation in the cultural sense through the symbolic languages of architecture and city design. The Greek word polis and the Latin word civitas each carry the same double meaning: the body politic and the physical city. The profound connection between the political and the physical was framed millennia ago in the Athenian Oath, in which the citizens would vow to leave the City, not less, but greater and more beautiful than it was left to them. Is there any better mission statement for a truly sustainable city?

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