Symphony Woods and sacred lands

6 minute read

Why is the controversy over Symphony Woods so heated? Because at least in part it’s about questions of “sanctity” and “violation”.

“Symphony Woods” is at risk of disappearing. Not the literal Symphony Woods, the trees on the Columbia Association property surrounding Merriweather Post Pavilion—as I’ve written before, the Inner Arbor plan proposed for that property would result in the removal of very few trees, fewer even than the previous Cy Paumier plan that’s been touted by some as more true to Jim Rouse’s vision. Rather what’s at risk of disappearing is a certain idea about what “Symphony Woods” actually is, and I think understanding better what that means is key to understanding the ongoing resistance to the Inner Arbor plan and related developments concerning CA and downtown Columbia. This post is a first attempt at such an understanding.

My personal thinking on this topic has evolved. As readers of this blog are well aware, I’ve been a big supporter of the Inner Arbor plan, and I remain a supporter. While I’ve tried not to demonize them, I have not been particularly sympathetic to those who opposed the plan, an opposition that in my opinion was misguided and not in the best interests of Columbia and Howard County. I even felt a touch of schadenfreude when I read that some current CA board members were upset about the Inner Arbor Trust referring to “Merriweather Park” instead of “Symphony Woods”—“reduced to arguing about a name”, I remember thinking.

But, but… as I myself drove by the woods on my way through Columbia and looked more into the Crescent development plan, I came to realize how small Symphony Woods the property was in relation to what I had traditionally thought of as “Symphony Woods”. I had been used to thinking of the entire area bounded by Broken Land Parkway, Little Patuxent Parkway, US 29, and the South Entrance Road as encompassing a relatively unchanging “Symphony Woods”. It certainly looks that way from the road, and also when I ventured into the area for events like Wine in the Woods and Symphony of Lights. So I was surprised and a bit disturbed to find that much I had thought of as “Symphony Woods” wasn’t really Symphony Woods at all, but simply undeveloped commercial property that had been originally acquired by Jim Rouse and passed down by the Rouse Company to GGP and now to the Howard Hughes Corporation, ultimately to be the site of the intensive development represented by the current Crescent proposal.

My consternation didn’t end there. In reviewing the Crescent plans I compared them to current maps of the area and went looking for Symphony Woods Road, what I thought of as the current and future boundary between the Crescent development and Symphony Woods itself. But there is no Symphony Woods Road in the Crescent plan—or if there is it is reduced to a mere stub of what it once was. In its place is a ring road named “West Crescent” after the development itself. It’s another symbolic encroachment on the idea of “Symphony Woods”, even if it leaves Symphony Woods (the property) itself undisturbed.

At about the same time I read an article by Peter Turchin (whose writings I’ve previously recommended) explaining why (in his opinion) Vladimir Putin and indeed the vast majority of Russians were so intent on wresting control of Crimea from Ukraine. In essence Turchin’s argument is that evolutionary dynamics since the invention of agriculture have favored those who defend their core territories-their “sacred lands”—with an intensity that is impossible to account for as a “rational” weighing of costs and benefits. In Turchin’s view Crimea is such a place for Russians, sanctified by a history that includes the Crimean war and the siege of Sevastopol, the Crimean capital.

The example of Crimea may be off-putting given Putin’s reputation as an authoritarian and corrupt leader. But (as Turchin writes in a follow-up post) almost all countries have their own sacred lands and sacred ground—consider for example the vehement opposition to building an Islamic community center near the site of the destroyed World Trade Center towers.

I believe that Symphony Woods—or, if you will, “Symphony Woods”—is in a strong sense “sacred land” for some Columbians, especially including many Columbia “pioneers”. It is in the heart of Columbia, and because of its location is not seen as being part of any one village (as, for example, Lake Elkhorn is part of Owen Brown) but rather as part of Columbia as a whole. And because of its ownership by CA it both literally and symbolically belongs to all Columbians in a way that a commercial development like the Mall in Columbia (or, for that matter, the Crescent development) never could. Note also that much of the opposition to the Inner Arbor plan is couched in terms of sanctity and disgust, honor, invasion by an alien presence, and so on—“deeply disturb me”, “bizarre sights”, “Disneyesque”, “disrespect”, “betrayal”, “a threatening … insect looming over the pathways”—a clear sign that more is at work here than a measured weighing of pros and cons.

So where do we go from here? My first thought is for myself: Whether I agree with Inner Arbor opponents or not, the distress they express is for the most part sincerely felt and deserving of respect. (I say “for the most part” because in every controversy there are always people on both sides who enjoy controversy for its own sake, or for the opportunities it brings them to advance their own agendas.) It’s also good to remember that my own reasons for supporting the Inner Arbor plan are also in large part emotional and “irrational”. (For example, I’d like to see Columbia and Howard County be a site for good contemporary architecture. I’m sick and tired of the former Rouse building and Merriweather Post Pavilion being the only well-known examples of architectural distinction in the county—that was forty years ago, folks, and there are good architects other than Frank Gehry.)

My next thought is for the Inner Arbor Trust and the Howard Hughes Corporation: Don’t be so quick to discard the “Symphony Woods” name in pursuit of your own branding strategies. Names aren’t simply names: The one who names a place exerts (symbolic) ownership over it, and the one who renames a place is symbolically seizing ownership of that place from those who formerly called it their own. Yes, retaining the “Symphony Woods” name may be only a symbolic concession, but this is a situation in which symbolism is, if not everything, at least a great deal.

My final thought is for everyone: To wait and see what happens, especially in the case of the Inner Arbor, for which the need for additional funding means that the plan will be (can only be) realized in many steps over many years. The first phase of the Inner Arbor plan will be the Chrysalis outdoor amphitheater. As it happens, a “shared-use small outdoor amphitheater on CA land” was also proposed as part of the former plan, so in that sense the Chrysalis is in the spirit of an alternate approach touted by Inner Arbor opponents.

And maybe it will turn out that they and others will like it. It’s not uncommon for new works of architecture to be derided before being embraced—consider for example the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall, now almost universally praised but condemned before its construction as a “black gash of shame” and a “nihilistic slab of stone”. I wouldn’t put the Chrysalis and the other Inner Arbor features up there with Maya Lin’s design, but I think they are solid examples of good architecture, respectful of the Symphony Woods setting, and potentially great additions to Columbia and Howard County. They deserve a fair judgment on their merits, and I hope will receive it. In the meantime no more schadenfreude from me.