From an incomplete composition of brick buildings and informal gardens into an ordered landscape of white classical temples, the image of Washington, D.C., was transformed by visionary planning and implementation in response to the political and artistic movements of the early twentieth century. The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts was created by Congress in 1910 as an independent design review agency to guide the ongoing work of representing national ideals in the design of the capital city.
The establishment of this seven-member, presidentially appointed commission on design can be traced to the Senate Park Commission of 1901, whose grand plan focused on the Mall as the symbolic core of the capital—and the nation—and proposed that it be a formal, public space framed by monumental architecture to express the political aspirations of the American democracy. Comprised of distinguished architects, landscape and urban designers, artists, and lay people, the Commission of Fine Arts has worked for more than a century to promote excellence in design through changing power politics, pressures of public opinion, and prevailing aesthetic sensibilities to achieve a built environment that reflects, with grace and dignity, the history and ideals of this country. Like many other undertakings in the nation’s capital, there have been exemplary successes, difficult compromises, and even blunders—whether in the design of American coins, federal buildings, overseas cemeteries, or the always-controversial national memorials.
This comprehensive history explores the evolving role of the Commission of Fine Arts in the context of the artistic, social, and political circumstances that fostered the commission’s creation and the subsequent trends that have informed its decisions. As design philosophies and styles changed over the century, the commission also shifted its emphasis—from Beaux-Arts architecture and planning principles to the modernist pragmatism of midcentury, the urban redevelopment and historicist trends of the late twentieth century, and to the contemporary era characterized by issues of security, sustainability, and information technology. Organized chronologically by the periods of the commission’s leadership, this illustrated book includes original essays by William B. Bushong, Arleyn Levee, Zachary Schrag, Pamela Scott, Carroll William Westfall, and Richard Guy Wilson.
Civic Art: A Centennial History of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts provides many glimpses of the fractious, inspired, and often messy process that defines democracy in action in Washington, as revealed in the work of the commission since 1910.