Greenbelt, Maryland: Utopian Nostalgic Space

Housing units in Greenbelt, MD in the Art Deco style.

The New Deal town of Greenbelt, Maryland was established in 1937 as one of the era’s so-called “green towns” which were conceived as prototypes for utopian communities throughout the United States. During the 40s and 50s, the town was run as a cooperative, but with eugenic undertones — prospective residents of the town had to complete detailed applications and non-Whites were not allowed to live in Greenbelt until 1963.

In a self-described co-op utopia, how do Greenbelt’s public, civic, and residential spaces reflect a notion of community? Also, is the concept of fostering community through space in Greenbelt a reflection of a contemporary reality or just nostalgia?

Greenbelt's public square and shopping center features an Art Deco movie theater, a co-op grocery store and "New Deal Cafe," and an out-of-place "massage parlor."

The spaces of historic Greenbelt — replete with Art Deco housing units, a town hall, and a central shopping center with a public square — remain inhabited and well-maintained in 2010, but with notable differences. The public square above had a few people relaxing on benches and others selling tickets for a Greenbelt film festival , but the area did feel a bit deserted for a weekend. Without a doubt, big box shopping centers nearby have eclipsed the services offered in this center, which was the commercial hub of days past. I believe that this central space is not a deterrent to crowds, but quite the opposite — it’s visually accessible and welcoming.

A pathway that connects the houses of Greenbelt, MD.

The historic area of Greenbelt’s housing units functions well today. The backyards of the housesĀ  face each other and are connected by sidewalks that wind through the neighborhood.

The door to an art deco housing unit housing approximately 4 units.

The buildings are clean and the symmetrical Art Deco design fits nicely with the green spaces. The town was featured in a 1939 film titled “The City” where it was portrayed as the remedy to the chaotic, dehumanizing rhythms of the metropolis.

The town hall of Greenbelt in Art Deco style with Constitution-themed reliefs.

In the civic areas of Greenbelt, green space dominates what could have been a paved central square. The town hall is understated in its monumentality and was certainly the architectural hallmark of the town when it was first conceived. The reliefs running along the side depict articles from the Constitution.

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L’Enfant Plaza in Washington D.C.

L'Enfant Hotel

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 L'Enfant Plaza

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.”

HUD Building

HUD Building, Washington D.C.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development building is distinct from its brutalist counterparts with its mirrored windows, curved facade, and green space contrast.

L'Enfant Plaza

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.

Mall underneath L'Enfant Plaza

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.

A pedestrian formed path descends from L'Enfant Plaza to the freeway and fisher's market 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.