From the time of its discovery America was referred to as the "New World". This was to discern it from the "Old World", a term allied to the old Europe, and its countries, which existed for ages, prior to the discovery of America. These old world countries, over time, colonized the rest of the known world, including Asia, Africa and finally, and unexpectedly, the Americas. Since this was their newest finding, and all of it was unknown to them, it makes sense that they would elect to refer to it as “new”. However that is not what I am after, this is just a brief introduction to my personal reflection on what happened to the prospect associated with shaping the "New World", in this particular case, the United States of America, its leader, the molder of the "New World".
Over the last three months, I have found myself residing in the very capitol of this "New World", I am referring to Washington D.C. Taking advantage of this opportunity, I have been discovering the way it looks, and reflecting on it. In particular, I have been contemplating whether it has truly taken advantage of the opportunity associated with being the "New World"? As we all know well, while the impact of this country on the world is phenomenally deep and powerful, its own history is mighty short, in contrast with those of the Old World. Keeping that in mind, without any intent to insult anyone, I wish to dedicate this blog to sharing my reflections. Commentaries welcomed.
During the first 1.5 months I resided in an old part of town. Majority of houses there are small and old in style, many also in their origin, at least by the “New World” criteria and its young time line. This neighborhood is charming. It does not pretend to be anything but what is was designed as, back in the time of its origin. In other words, it’s simple, sincere and genuine. No hot air about it.
Over the next 1.5 months I found myself residing right across the street from none other than the Supreme Court building. Every other day I embark on my run down the Mall. For those of you who may not know it, the Mall is a term used in referencing to a long and open stretch of land on both sides of which reside, by intent and design, the most important institutions synonymous with Washington D.C. as the capitol of the “New World”. These numerous buildings represent the government, the culture, the art, the history, the memories, the homage our nation pays to those who had perished in defense of this country, the ideals and values for “which it stands”, the world's peace for which it has fought abroad, and the great men who, over its short history, have shaped what this country has become. In other words, the Mall unveils to its visitors the very essence of the very pride of this United States of America, the leader of not just the “free” but symbol of the "New World". Thus, on my run I pass The Congress, the National Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Smithsonian Institution, several of its world renown museums and libraries - buildings within which reside this country's symbols of history, knowledge, heritage, culture, art and power, the government of this nation. In other word, most of the world’s famous buildings, monuments, sculptures, and other structures associated with the pride of this "New World", its relatively short yet impacting history, and its vast contribution to the world, our planet at large.
And thus, progressively but unquestionably, it hit me. If I was an alien, coming from another planet, new to this world, after touring the famous landmarks of the "Old World", and now finding myself in the "New" one, looking at all the architectural symbols our capitol is filled with, I would be asking myself: what is the difference between the "Old World" and the "New" one? Why is it that the buildings, the architectural structures containing what represents our nation's heritage, pride, cultural and political establishment, are looking so similar to those of the "Old World"? And it is not just the “Old World” as it is currently but the way it was millenniums ago, literarily.
If we sweep the very symbols of the DC architectural landscape with our eyes, and with open minds, we cannot but be forced to acknowledge the unquestionable influence of the ancient Egypt, the classical Greece and the antique Rome, even the medieval Europe, the “Old World”.
Yet, this capitol or the “New World” is supposed to symbolize the "New", new opportunities, new political, legal, economic, social, financial and all other such systems. And yet those who were entrusted with projecting these vital and mighty ideals and values have elected to embody them in impressively monumental yet traditional, ancient, classical and all but “New” looking buildings.
Indubitably these architects, and those who awarded them such once in a lifetime commissions, must had given a deep and long consideration to what kind of impact, sentiments, impressions, visions, feelings and emotional values these structures will project and ignite in the minds of the visitors coming to D.C. from all around the world, to see the “New World” with their own eyes.
It dawned on me, if we are the "New World", one that fought long and hard to liberate itself from the rulers of the "Old World", its mentality, its dominance, oppressing and exploitive colonialism, political and judicial systems and rule, why is it that in celebration of our newly gained freedoms and independence from the old monarchies, we had elected to erect the imagery that is so very deeply reminiscent, so reflective, so symbolic of all that is the Old, passé, so all but the “New”?
Where is the visual, symbolic, idealistic representation, the architectural, the artistic and spiritual declaration that radiates with the free, the innovative, the independent, the status-quo breaking spirit and courage, the projection of the strive for advance, leadership, ideological, intellectual, technological, scientific superiority, the vision for the future of not just the USA but the world this country has fought so very hard to become the leader of? We are the richest, the super power, the most advanced of all, we can achieve anything we choose to put our freed, brilliant minds, innovative talents, science, technologies, inventiveness to. So what happened to the "New"?
While distant from each other, shaped by contradictory, competing political, social, economic and cultural systems, surprisingly, the capitols of the USA and the former USSR are shockingly alike. Their politically, governmentally, ideologically and culturally inspired architecture, shrines, even the city planning reflected by the wide open boulevards lined on both sides by rectangular, unimaginative, pompous and boring buildings, embody all these two diverse nations stand for.
The buildings that contain much of the cultural and historic wealth and treasures of their nations, the very materials used to erect them, textures, chosen shades and a distinct lack of colors, all display shockingly surprising similarities. They both project nationalism, grandiosity, imperialism and irrepressible desire to impose, onto visitors from the lesser wealth or significance or smaller or distant countries, the arrogant sense of superiority and such a stagnated lack of imagination. Instead they wallow in a mighty sense of self-righteousness, stoic rigidity, constipated dullness, seriousness and a surprising lack of joy, vision, artistry, forward thinking, ingenuity, imagination.
Startlingly, at least in terms of architecture, I saw vastly more imaginative thinking, aspirations, risk taking, vision and entrepreneurial daring in Dubai, an emirate firmly ruled by rich, inbred families who are willing to loosen their strings of control only as little as they see fit, or can get away with. It is not just the amazing architecture but also the astounding city-like planning, as that, which is reflected by the Palm Islands, and the World Islands, and the winter skiing amidst a desert. Moreover, they are erecting some of the most breathtaking museums, enticing the most advanced international Universities, researchers, entertainment and sporting extravaganzas.
While at it, take a look at the astonishing developments, architectural, cultural, entertainment or city planning initiatives arising in China, under the very political and ideological system our “New World” had branded as the red peril (or whatever the lexis was), the foe of the “free” world (just in case you are confused, or do not know, that’s us), the Communism we had fought against for decades. And look now? Where would our “New World” be without their newly found affluence? Watch their booming economy, ambitious expansionism and clear aspirations for the very role we have played until now, the leadership and dominance of the world, the “Old” and the “New”.
However tempting, I shall refrain from spiraling into politics. This is not the topic of this blog. Nor am I endorsing communism. I have tasted its grip while growing up back in Eastern Europe, the “Old World”. I had my share, thank you. This reflection is devoted to the spirit of imagination, innovation, ideation and invention, and for the focus of this particular blog: how these precious values are reflected through the architectural realizations of the country called the “New World”. In my humble perception, something has gotten lost in translation. Are we slipping, losing it?