Cahokia: The National Mall of the pre-Columbian United States
As an older, walkable city with a baroque street grid and no skyscrapers, Washington is sometimes thought of as one of the more European-like cities in America. That may be true, but I think our city can lay claim to an even more interesting title: The most distinctly Native American city in the country.
Obviously Washington is not Santa Fe. There is not a strong Native American cultural influence here. Physically however, Washington bears a strong resemblance to most of the large native cities that populated this continent before the arrival of Columbus.
The key similarity is the National Mall. Archaeologists have discovered that every large native city of any importance had an over-sized ceremonial center populated by palaces, government offices, historic monuments, ball courts, and religious pyramids. The National Mall may not have the religious importance that native centers had, but the basic idea was the same. They are all the ceremonial heart of the city and state.
Cahokia, the largest native city ever built in what is now the United States, had a ceremonial center. Tenochtitlan, the largest Aztec city, had one. Tikal, the most important city-state of the classical Maya, had one.
Meanwhile, no contemporary American city besides Washington has a ceremonial center the likes of the National Mall. San Francisco and Denver have monumental civic centers, while Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis, and a host of other cities have central plazas, but only Washington has a monumental core as large and central to the city as the Mall. Only the Mall is comparable in scale to the centers of the large native cities.
While cultural influences may ultimately trump urban layout, it’s certainly interesting that Pierre L’Enfant would unknowingly design a new capital city with such traditionally American features.
Luckily, there was no architectural establishment around to call it faux historic kitsch.