Monumentality in Microcosm: Triangle Parks in Washington, D.C.

By Robin Abad Ocubillo

July 13, 2012

Greetings all…!  I’m honored to be the Landscape Architecture Intern this summer, a position refashioned in 2009 after a program which was active at Dumbarton Oaks during the 50s-70s.   As a Landscape Architecture Intern, my work actually focuses on an urban topic not specific to the Dumbarton Oaks estate, but to the city of Washington D.C. itself.  From the earliest dreams of Thomas Jefferson and Pierre-Charles L’Enfant to the boosters of the Gilded Age, Washington, D.C. was conceived as a garden its own right.  For over two centuries, the real and imagined city of Washington has been depicted in plans, maps, and renderings as both a front yard to the nation’s vast wilderness and an arcadian setting for the seat of a new democracy.

Washington, D.C.’s layout melds Baroque garden and urban design elements (axial) with Jeffersonian rationality (gridiron), creating a great variety of spatial types. (map generated by the author using GIS datasets from the National District Planning Commission)

Beaux-Arts Era urban planning layered a distinct spatial quality into American cities.  These majestic landscapes of carefully framed vistas, axial boulevards, etoilles, and monumental architecture conveyed political potency, social grandeur and cultural primacy.  At the same time, the lucid geometry of these grand master plans systematically produced small, incidental spaces in the urban fabric.  Situated at the intersection of roads, these irregular voids contradict the rational clarity of the grandiose city schemes that produced them.  Roadway triangles in particular occur routinely and frequently, yet never share the exact same geometric and programmatic profile.  At times, they serve as gateways, venues for monuments, or mark district thresholds; more often, their function and importance was overlooked.   My study constructs a historical narrative examining the spatial, social, and political dimensions of these remnant pieces of land in the Capitol.  These are examined both as a whole system and in a series of individual case studies; supported by original photography and mapping.

Roadway triangles such as this one at Connecticut, 18th and N Streets were once blank voids in the city’s numerous irregular intersections. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, HABS DC,WASH,591-)

As the product of a Beaux-Arts plan re-interpreted and implemented in successive phases, Washington, D.C. hosts innumerable such remnant roadway triangles with footprints as small as five to twenty thousand square feet.  Given these sites’ tertiary status within the structure of the Baroque city plan, their purpose and utility has always been contested; in both social and infrastructural terms; as a collective feature and as individual sites.  Indeed, jurisdiction and stewardship of the sites has shifted throughout history.  In the present day, they host a range of programs and exhibit a great variety of horticultural treatment; indicative of an iconic presence within the civic consciousness of the Capitol.

The physical footprint, horticultural treatment, and monumental programme (a memorial statue) of Reservation 150A has remained unchanged over the years. However, many other triangles have undergone a variety of conversions and adaptations. This paper will map and explore some of the most interesting cases. (Image by the author).

I earned a Master of Landscape Architecture at the University of Southern California, and a B.A. in Industrial Design with minors in Urban Studies and Theatre Arts from San Francisco State University.  I also studied for one year at the School of Design and Systems Engineering at Brunel University, London.  Before graduate school, I worked for three years as a Project Manager at the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy in San Francisco.  I’m thrilled to be part of the Dumbarton Oaks community!

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