Emersion Session

Experiencing the Architecture of Washington DC: The Wisdom of Physically Bringing Forth a New Nation

When: Thursday, 13 October | 13:00 – 16:00
Where: Various locations in Washington, DC
Facilitator: Mark Roberson, California Baptist University
Maximum Number of Registrants: 20

TICKET PRICES: $40 ILA Member | $54 Non-Member

In the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln spoke of the “Great Experiment” of bringing forth a new nation on a newly settled continent dedicated to new ideals. And while Lincoln was speaking mainly of the philosophical underpinnings of this new nation, there was also a physical “bringing forth” that was vitally important to the nation’s successful establishment. By the time of Lincoln’s address, 73 years had passed since the dedication of the capital city of Washington D.C., which played a major role in the perception of this newly established nation as a legitimate presence both locally and globally. The character of the design of the city and of the buildings which would populate it were vitally important decisions which had to be made by our forefathers. These decisions, and the city that emerged from them, are often underappreciated components in the successful birth of a nation.

The three-hour walking tour emersion session will explore the original city core as designed by Pierre L’Enfant, discuss how this city came to be designed as it is, and how the design of the city and then the buildings within the city are examples of wisdom in a crucial pivot point in history.

Full Description

Washington, DC is an ideal city to showcase public leadership in tandem with the immersion three hour pre-conference walk of the city as proposed by the Arts Leadership (AL) Member Community. The Public Leadership (PL) proposal encompasses, adding elements of what takes place within the buildings highlighted on the tour that influences public leadership.

“France played a prominent role in the success of America’s Revolutionary War. This set up France as an influence on this new country in many ways. Several French Nationals joined the Continental Army under George Washington and gave legitimacy to the idea of serious European support for American independence. Among these were Lafayette and Pierre Charles L’Enfant. Lafayette was famous for what he did during the war as a confidant of General Washington, and L’Enfant for what he did after the war as then-President Washington’s choice to design the new capital city of Washington D.C. 

Everything about the United States was unique in the world. It was a democracy; it had an elected president and citizens with rights and responsibilities. So, it is no surprise that the selection of a location for its capital would result from negotiations and compromise, as opposed to it being simply the location of the seat of royal power.

The Constitution outlined the U.S. capital as a District not exceeding 10 miles square, yet the exact location was not specified. However, the intention was for it to be centrally located within the new nation. A compromise between the northern and southern states was struck such that President Washington would choose a location from an 80 mile stretch of the Potomac River, settling, in 1791, on a location taken from parts of Maryland and Virginia.

By the time Washington had L’Enfant begin work on D.C., the French Revolution had succeeded. That grand examples of royal power and privilege had become property of the people was an important element in L’Enfant’s French/European-inspired design being an acceptable representation of this new democratic nation. Jefferson had already sketched out a simple federal town, but L’Enfant gave Washington a much more ambitious plan, which Washington fully supported.

L’Enfant was born in Paris and spent his childhood at Versailles, and the designs of Versailles and Haussmann’s Paris influenced him considerably, as can be seen in the combination of gridded and superimposed diagonal streets, and the use of monuments and important buildings to terminate vistas. L’Enfant’s genius was to take these monarchical forms and translate them to reflect democratic ideals. L’Enfant biographer Scott Berg said that “”The entire city was built around the idea that every citizen was equally important. The Mall was designed as open to all comers, which would have been unheard of in France. It’s a very sort of egalitarian idea.””

In March 1791, L’Enfant began designing the new city. He envisioned a grand capital of wide avenues, public squares and inspiring buildings, arranged around a centerpiece of a Great Public Walk. As opposed to dedicating the grandest spot for the leader’s palace, he placed Congress on a high point with a commanding view. Capitol Hill became the center of the design, from which diagonal avenues radiated, cutting across a gridded street system. These wide boulevards allowed for easy yet grand transportation and offered long views of important buildings and common squares.

As the country expanded, the location of the capital was an ongoing discussion as it no longer held a central location. However, President Ulysses S. Grant commenced a major public works campaign to make Washington D.C. a city worthy of being the U.S. capital. Streets were upgraded, sidewalks added, sewers and water mains installed, streetcar lines extended, streetlights put in, and thousands of trees planted. New office buildings, museums, libraries and other amenities followed. The city became a worthy and suitable capital, and relocation talk ceased.

John Cogbill is the chairman of the National Capital Planning Commission, which oversees development in the city. He stated that the Commission strives to remain faithful to L’Enfant’s original plan while meeting the growing demands of the  region. Cogbill stated “”We take [L’Enfant’s plan] into account for virtually everything we do,”” he says. “”I think he would be pleasantly surprised if he could see the city today. I don’t think any city in the world can say that the plan has been followed so carefully as it has been in Washington.””

The dominant style of architecture in D.C. is neo-classical. The White House, Capitol, Jefferson Memorial, Supreme Court building, the Library of Congress and other prominent buildings are neo-classical. Additionally, the Washington monument recalls the Egyptian obelisks placed at important points across Rome as major commemoration nodes. 

However, much like the Haussmann-inspired urban design, the choice of neo-classical as the predominant style of the important buildings might seem strange. It had long been the style of aristocratic power across Europe. Thus, the use of that style gave the new capital a presence that European powers recognized as representing legitimacy, while the buildings’ placement within the specific landscape of D.C. also communicated the unique values of a democratic nation. L’Enfant strategically reinterpreted neo-classicism as an architecture for the people.

This three-hour pre-conference walking tour will begin at the U.S. Capitol with an overview of the design of the city, and a brief history of its development. As we walk along the Mall from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, we will discuss how the decisions that led to the final design of the city, the employment and intentional enhancements of the natural topography, and the arrangement and design of the buildings, were made with deep consideration, and the application of true wisdom that contributed to the successful establishment of this new nation. We will discuss some of the buildings in more detail as we progress down the Mall. We will also discuss some of the interesting speculations on the secretive and deeper meanings of the urban design. We will discuss the wisdom lessons to be gleaned from this city, and from our forefathers who brought it into being. Furthermore, we will discuss how public policy acted on within the buildings such as the White House, U.S. Congress, Eisenhower Executive Office Building, and the Supreme Court influence how public leadership is enacted.

The Public Leadership Member Community serves and involves those who practice, study, and teach leadership in the public domain. This includes civic, governmental, military, nonprofit/NGO, political, and social organizations, and institutions typically characterized by a primary emphasis on serving the public good. Increasingly so, this also incorporates collaborative efforts between the aforementioned organizations and for-profit businesses. 

This pre-conference walking tour and discussion on wisdom and design is open to anyone interested in learning about the history and role of urban design and architecture in the collective of wisdom required to bring forth, and lead, a new nation.”

The target audience is leaders and others interested in the vital impact on the built environment on the concept and action of leadership.

The tour will progress from the U.S. Capitol building, down the main city axis of the National Mall, ending at the Lincoln Memorial. This walk will give participants an overview of the design and character of the core of the original urban plan of the city.

Reference Materials



Mark Roberson

Mark Roberson, California Baptist University

Mark Roberson founded the College of Architecture, Visual Arts + Design at California Baptist University. In 2013, Dean Roberson created and led CAVAD’s architecture program, which has since grown dramatically and achieved full NAAB accreditation. He speaks often to various groups on the future of architectural education, and continues to practice architecture. Mark has also been writing, speaking and presenting on leadership and specifically the connection between architecture and leadership.