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Changing the Guard
A new design for "America's Main Street" removes the clutter of makeshift security.
By Benjamin Forgey

It is just heartbreaking," says landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, after his first visit in a long while to the area in front of the famous north portico of the White House. As a young Dumbarton Oaks fellow in the early 1970s, Van Valkenburgh was deeply impressed by Washington's beauty and tranquility. He remembers it as "an amazing city of open spaces and sanity, just a great, great experiment." And now this.

What used to be a busy boulevard at the center of the nation's political life has become a sort of no-man's-land—a broad, empty band of asphalt blocked off by concrete barriers and inhabited only by police vehicles parked here and there. Sometimes the vehicles are empty. More often, they are occupied by uniformed security officers. Ordinary pedestrians, tourists, and townsfolk alike tend to avoid the empty strip, though it attracts its share of skateboarders. This key stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue—"the nation's main street"—today feels like a cross between an abandoned parking lot and a military occupation zone. Many share the sense of loss.

To help do something about this sad state of affairs is what brought Van Valkenburgh back to Washington late last fall, along with representatives of three other top landscape architecture firms invited to participate in a design competition for the White House segment of Pennsylvania Avenue. The competition was organized by the Interagency Task Force on Security, whose purview extended well beyond this section of Pennsylvania Avenue (see Practice in this issue). The special competition was set up because the group sensibly recognized the importance of the White House district and the uncommon circumstances surrounding its disposition.

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