Regardless of whether L’Enfant Plaza is considered a “failed” or “successful” public space, it is definitely an interesting space. Conceived and constructed in the 1960s, the centerpiece of L’Enfant Plaza is the I.M. Pei designed L’Enfant Hotel. Its Brutalist-Modernist style is replicated throughout the plaza and while striking in form, that doesn’t make up for the lack of conceived space for ground-level business facades and other spaces of interaction. Plus, the Plaza and buildings were built under dubious circumstances — a sizable amount of row houses were seized via eminent domain and businesses were demolished in the name of “re-developing” southwest DC.
The “grand avenue” of the Plaza physically (but not visually) connects the isolated and unkept Banneker memorial park with the Smithsonian Castle. Unfortunately, the Department of Energy completely blocks what could be a stunning view of the Castle. This is a pretty desolate stretch of road, at least on weekends. In my mind, I’m imagining a North Korean police officer guiding “traffic.”
The Department of Housing and Urban Development building is distinct from its brutalist counterparts with its mirrored windows, curved facade, and green space contrast.
Both a freeway and a Metro train run beneath the Plaza, but the pedestrian traffic is limited. Since all of the Plaza’s spaces are conditioned to and reserved for enclosed office spaces, there is not much reason for an average Washingtonian to frequent L’Enfant Plaza, nor is it clear if the space was ever intended to be a public gathering spot.
The shopping mall located beneath the Plaza is a postmodern complement to a modernist-designed plan. Perhaps the buildings above are only thinly-veiled monuments to the brand of capitalism that the developers wish would thrive below.
L’Enfant Plaza is isolated from bustling parts of the city, but pedestrians have formed their own connecting paths where developers failed to consider organic movements. The above path links the Plaza with the popular fisher’s market at the waterfront below.