"Washington in Maps 1601-2000," by Iris Miller

New York, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles—cities capture the imagination. Whether for their history, their culture or vibrancy, some cities loom large in the mind. And with the evolving change in national attitude toward urban living, many cities are on the rebound. The attachment is relative, of course. Modern urbanism, unlike that of the nineteenth century, is an acquired taste. There is a smorgasbord of "built environments" to choose from, and lovers of various cities are famously partisan. I know many people that love Boston and others that love Los Angeles but few that love both. Washington, D.C. is unique among great American cities being that it was created by the government. Apart from stately elegance, its flip-side exists as a sort of huge, quirky, company town with a cyclical movement of rootless movers and shakers who come and go with elections. All cities are subject to change, but Washington is dominated by this characteristic.

 

Washington has long held my interest because of its place in the history of surveying and land settlement in America. Several good books have been written about its founding and the people who built it. I know of no other American city that involved so many prominent people, famous surveyors, and such grand ambitions at its founding. Perhaps the closest comparison is Chicago after the great fire, but Chicago was built as a center of commerce, not as the seat of government.

At face value, Washington in Maps is another cartographic history in a well-established pattern—lavishly illustrated, large in format and quality print. But the book is more of a geographically illustrated social commentary than it is a book about maps. Author Iris Miller is a landscape architect in Washington, D.C. My inference from reading the book is that she is a person that cares about cities as places to live and work as well as how the cities' designs accommodate these activities. Her professional interest is evident in the essays that accompany the maps (I respect strong opinions about cities, as do many others who work in municipal governments). In this case, however, I feel that Miller is slightly misinformed, and her designer's attitude results in a bias that yields some rather disparaging comments about surveying and surveyors.

Aesthetics vs. Grids
First off, Miller is a not a fan of rectangular surveying—not just the Public Land Survey System, but rectangular street grids as well. She states that the "American surveyor's customary technique" results in too much regularity over the land. She prefers the European system of orthogonal streets because they "adhere" to the land. As near as I can recall, rectangular street grids were invented by Roman architects, not American surveyors. The Romans liked them because, when oriented toward the prevailing wind, they allowed fresh air to wash through the town. They were also orderly and easy to construct. Rectangular street grids certainly have not made New York, San Francisco, and many other American towns unappealing or unattractive, so why criticize surveyors for this perfectly acceptable land planning method?

While Washington in Maps is meant to be a history book—not a book on design—the historical writing provides some of its sharpest comments. Washington was initially designed by Frenchman Pierre Charles L'Enfant in the European style of the day. L'Enfant was assisted by Andrew Ellicott, then a well-known surveyor and one who ought to be better-known today. Ellicott, was in turn, assisted by Benjamin Banneker. When L'Enfant was dismissed from the project, the job of finishing the design and laying out the town fell on Ellicott. He didn't want it and had to be persuaded to take on the task by George Washington. Whether on his own or at the behest of the commissioners, Ellicott modified L'Enfant's design. Miller tells us that Ellicott "failed to grasp" the elements of L'Enfant's design and made changes that "affected the intrinsic character of the city, its buildings and streets." An examination of the maps reveals that he straightened out some roads and eliminated plantings that fell in the intersections. Miller's facts may be correct, but she fails to make her case that the city was harmed irreparably. Intersection improvements made since the invention of the car must have done much more harm to the city's design than Ellicott's changes. Why complain about this neglected American luminary now? Miller's comments come across as somewhat misinformed and more than a little snobbish.

Most of Washington in Maps deals with the construction of various public works projects such as streets, canals, water mains, parks, and other public places. Many of the maps are artistically attractive as well as technically competent. They are the kind of plans we are not likely to see in these days of rapidly prepared digital maps. It gives one pause to linger over these construction plans and compare them to the drawings being created today. Design today is fundamental in products from toothbrushes to computers to cars, yet it is almost wholly absent from contemporary site plans and surveyors' maps. It is a pity.

Washington in Maps is an attractive and interesting book. The author's profession provides the writer with a different perspective than most cartographic histories with which I am familiar. She writes well about the subjects of the maps as well as the maps themselves. Indeed, apart from the snobbish comments about surveyors, the author's approach is refreshing. Miller obviously cares for urbanism in general, and Washington, D.C. in particular. A book written by a professional person on a subject he or she loves is almost always a winner, but be advised, Washington in Maps is not for thin-skinned surveyors.

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