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Thursday, March 7, 2013

Pierre Charles L'Enfant

Though many departures have been made from L'Enfant's original plan, its spirit continues
to guide and inspire the urban planners of Washington, DC, and cities around the world.
A couple weeks ago I presented to you the most beautiful new city in the world, Brasilia (02-21-13). In today's world, beauty is planned. That which grows unplanned, ugliness is more often than not the result. I could cite any number of urban centers in the world today to validate this fact, most of which are ancient cities. Any beauty they might have acquired over the centuries has been the result of the imposition of modern day planning, or simply a matter of accident. On the other side, Paris, France, is today considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Two hundred years ago it was one of the ugliest cities in the world. One man made all the difference--Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, who at the behest of Emperor Napoleon III, imposed order over medieval chaos, squalor, and fetid urban sprawl. But he was not the first urban planner. Before that, the Romans had dabbled in the art/science with their rectilinear-grid military cities, and it's likely the Egyptians laid out planned urban centers a few thousand years before that. Only trace remnants of either survive.
Pierre Charles L'Enfant
However, a generation before Haussmann, another Frenchman sought and won the opportunity to do what had not been done for centuries, perhaps millennia. The result of his efforts still thrives. His name was Pierre, Charles L'Enfant. The year was 1790, the place was a swampy little stretch of wilderness on the Potomac River just outside Georgetown, Maryland, in the brand new nation of the United States of America. There he would scratch out in the 18th century wilderness that new nation's capital city...a beautiful city, a practical, efficient city, a grand, monumental city--a planned city. 
The Capitol (Senate wing), ca. 1800.
That's Pennsylvania Ave. going off to the right.
The area had little in the way of natural beauty and what there was likely went unrecognized by the sparse inhabitants. Moreover, despite L'Enfant's radical, radial, farsighted plans, his new capital city was far from beautiful for more than a hundred years after the first survey team chopped away the wilderness undergrowth to form Pennsylvania Avenue. Money was scarce. Time was of the essence. The new nation's government was due to arrive in just ten years. Land speculators descended upon the place. Politics raised its ugly, inevitable head. On top of that, L'Enfant himself, though an excellent engineer, lacked tact. He was a stickler for details in an era when the niceties of city planning were little understood, much less appreciated. Washington eventually fired him, replacing him with a political hack.
From Georgetown to the Anacostia River, L'Enfant's plan foresaw a century of growth with
remarkable foresight.
Pierre Charles L'Enfant was born in the northern French province of Eure et Loir in 1754. His father was a portrait artist to Louis XV. Young Pierre studied at the Royal Academy in the Louvre before seeking adventure fighting the hated English on the other side of the Atlantic in the American revolution where his talents as a military engineer were highly valued by the Continental Army. Though wounded during the siege of Savannah, he recovered and by the end of the war was serving under fellow Frenchman the Marquis de La Fayette, a major general on Washington's staff. When the war ended, L'Enfant set up a highly successful civil engineering business in the rapidly growing, but very unplanned, city of New York.
Washington, DC, owes it's appearance today to three factors, L'Enfant's planning,
 the Tidal Basin Potomac Park revitalization of 1880-1900, and the freeways of the
1950s and 60s. Compare the map above to the aerial photo. Most of the park
area west and south of the Washington Monument was once part of the river.
When you want to be a city planner it helps to know the right people, and L'Enfant knew the President of the United States. More importantly, Washington knew the talented French designer, engineer, and architect; recognizing, trusting, and appreciating his aptitude for such a grand endeavor as planning an entire city. L'Enfant applied for the job in 1789, though it was a full two years before he was commissioned and submitted his initial plan to Washington (and Thomas Jefferson, who assisted the president). Though the new federal district encompassed a hundred square miles, L'Enfant's plan occupied less than one-fourth of that. Yet, within its mesh of diagonal avenues and grand, grassy vistas overlapping the standard grid of streets and alleys, were the seeds of the beautiful city we know today. The marshes have been conquered, the canals drained, the monuments dedicated, the cherry trees planted, the landmark government buildings erected, all gracing the broad, grassy mall that was the heart of L'Enfant's masterful, groundbreaking design.
This Civil War era map of Washington, DC, gives an indication of just how much the
20th century changed the face of the city. Note the original design for the Washington
Monument in the lower left corner.

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