I can sometimes be found wandering major cities for hours on end, as research for my Labyrinth project. On election day, 2020, this is an account of my first time at the National Mall in Washington D.C., in Autumn 2017.
If you’ve visited D.C. you’ll know that the National Mall draws you in. The Washington Monument towers over everything and most of the city’s most famous buildings are there, or nearby. Over the course of two days I walked back and forth across the Mall and out round different parts of the city that surround it.
I found the whole experience deeply personal and actually quite visceral. This was my first time in the capital city of the US, a nation that both inspires and appals me in equal measure, and the shuddering disjunction between Obama and Trump was still less than a year old.
Before arriving I had not appreciated the sheer scale of the National Mall. It’s a 3km walk from the Capitol building to the Lincoln Memorial. Lining each side, for the first half, are a sprawling array of museums, a bewildering collection of architecture. At the Washington Monument the second stretch comes into view, with the World War II Memorial and the Reflecting Pool; the White House over to the right, and across the tidal basin to the left, the Jefferson memorial. I have visited grand imperial cities, like London, Rome and Berlin; I have never experienced anywhere like the National Mall. I walked there early in the morning, and late at night; in the still-warm autumn sun and in the evening chill. The experience was both terrible and sacred.
By the end of the first day I was completely overwhelmed by the neo-classical architecture. Having walked the streets that run around the Mall, the shallow triangle roofs and endless pillars seemed obsessive. It felt like a nation trying way too hard to be Rome, and yet the real-world power exerted by each building was immense – the empire was not just in its imagination. When I returned at dusk to the National Mall and saw the Washington Monument again I couldn’t help but remember Trump’s protests in the primaries about the size of his hands. “They’re big, so big, the biggest!” I could hear him say, as the tallest obelisk in the world towered above me in desperate, defiant overcompensation.
The next morning I got up early and reached the Lincoln Memorial while the light was still low, and the eastern rays of the sun found their way through the pillars, bathing the most-hallowed president in a soft haze of quiet glory. Men have built gods lesser temples than this. From there I walked south around the cherry trees of the tidal basin and through the sprawling memorial to FDR. His four terms in office are set out in four zones of open-plan rock, sculpture and water, with carvings of his most famous and enduring words the only guide through the gentle space. The trees were turning and the autumn light was soft. Noble ideas seemed forgotten in this new age of broken politics. America in the Fall of its life.
Then on around the basin to a temple I will never forget. At the foot of the steps, through the pillars, framed by a tall thin strip of daylight, stood the silhouette of Thomas Jefferson. I had approached his memorial feeling somewhat melancholic, but his presence was arresting. Inside on the high sloping walls were quotes from the Declaration of Independence, carved with thundering clarity. I had walked into a monument to aspiration, to the fundamental cause of liberty. For the first time in my life I began to understand the devotion to the nation that defines America, even when reality fails. The moment was simply sacred; I left the temple changed, with the spirit of something I didn’t know what to do with.
By the time the sun set on that second day of walking I found myself at the Capitol, looking back down the Mall, reflecting on my experience. I felt such a strong love/hate relationship with the place. Those emotions I felt were already part of my relationship with America in the abstract, but the National Mall exerts a profound psychogeographic force through which the physical contours of the space overwhelmed, provoked and comforted me.
Today, America votes in an election with more at stake than any I can remember. The aspiration will tussle with the reality; gods will wrestle with men.
Jefferson, entombed in White, plantation owner, dreamer; father of a nation whose democracy is still so young. Great swathes of the population could not vote until living memory, despite the echoes of liberty which resonate from America’s cracked, slave-laid foundations. A nation of contradictions searches for a future. I am conflicted.