No other world capital so directly expresses itself in architecture as Washington, D.C. Its classicism was selected by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to reflect the ideals of democracy, reaching back to those of Athens and Rome. Between 1800 and 1950, the nation’s aspirations were carved in classical stone, with columns, capitals, balustrades, domes – the full armamentarium of classical embellishment – evoking a language of self-rule legible to every American.
That Promethean legacy of beauty and clarity has not been subverted by the new architecture that arose in the past half century or so to reflect a more nuanced, or maybe a more confused, idea of America. A century and a half of classicism implanted too much independence of spirit to be overthrown by an intrinsically chaotic modernism. Democratic classicism’s command of Washington’s spirit has only been strengthened as the “challenge” of such incoherence mounts in shabby counterpoint.
So how does the city of Washington inspire my writing? I do not claim that its classic architecture inspired my blog Architecture Here and There or my book Lost Providence. The shape of my architectural criticism was formed before it occurred to me to attribute it to the appearance of my hometown. But I do know that from way back I’ve preferred traditional to modernist architecture. Maybe this came to me by osmosis, growing up in D.C. Or maybe it came to me, without my even realizing it, as I sat at the Lincoln Memorial gazing down the National Mall past the Washington Monument to the U.S. Capitol. I have always wondered. Was it a chicken or the egg kind of thing? Either way, it is convenient for me to imagine a connection.
So how did this happen?
I grew up not far from D.C.’s monumental core, and often made my way on the L2 or L4 down Connecticut Avenue through downtown to the terminus of those bus routes at the Federal Triangle. A kid could do that in those days. I would disembark into a vast parking lot at 13th & Pennsylvania, a site filled in 1998 by the Ronald Reagan Building – the first classical building to rise in the city’s monumental core since the Federal Triangle was built between the administrations of Calvin Coolidge and FDR (except for John Russell Pope’s National Gallery of Art, completed in 1940). The federal government was, by the way, the last major American institution to throw in the towel and embrace modern architecture.
We lived in a modernist house in Wheaton – its flat-roof porch collapsed in a snowstorm – then, after a year in Philly, moved into a little Edwardian house on Porter Street in D.C. (as everyone else was moving out of it) and finally into a plain semidetached house (whose porch was nevertheless supported by fluted columns). Inside, all our furniture came from a store called Scan. On the other hand, my dad dabbled in sculpture, without deviating from the representational, and my mom was simply beautiful. So there was little if any coherent parental guidance in my aesthetic upbringing.
Frankly, I think Providence – which for some reason does not yet have a presence on Hometown Reads – inspired me more directly than Washington. I recall my first visit in 1984 for a job interview with the Providence Journal. After dropping off a shirt at the drycleaner in the Arcade, built in 1828 – the oldest indoor mall in America – I saw a street of such beauty that I instantly vowed to make this city my home. For those not familiar with the capital of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (the smallest state with the longest name), it was one of the few cities to throw urban renewal out on its ear. To this day it retains more historical beauty than any city of its size (or larger) in America. Much the same may, of course, be said of Washington.
At that time I had no idea I’d end up as the architecture critic of the Journal. I was hired to write editorials on almost every topic, and the occasional edit on local development triggered a deeper interest in architecture. To protect the beauty of Providence was, of course, my decided inclination. Naturally, my Washington-inspired preferences kicked in well before I actually started writing a weekly column on the topic in 1990. For a quarter of a century I was the only architecture critic on a major American daily newspaper to push ardently for classical architecture – not just for its preservation but to build it anew. No less outrageous from the point of view of the local, national and global architectural establishment, my column was unapologetically skeptical of modern architecture.
Since my ouster from the Journal in 2014, I have continued this crusade from my blog Architecture Here and There. Here is Providence. There might as well be Washington as anywhere else.
So, on behalf of #ReadLocalDC and its upcoming July 11 blog hop, I say let them blame it on Washington!
Thanks for reading! To return to the #ReadLocalDC Blog Hop on Ellen Smith’s website, click here: http://bit.ly/readlocaldc
I loved reading your perspective on DC’s architecture! Your post gave me a new outlook on the buildings in DC that I’ve always loved to visit. The Library of Congress, Lincoln Memorial, and Supreme Court are particular favorites of mine. I’ve always liked the details in the fluted columns and the marble steps but never really thought about how much I appreciate these things compared to the more modern buildings. Thank you for joining in with the #ReadLocalDC blog hop!
So interesting that you pushed for the preservation and new building of classical architecture — having grown up surrounded by Scan furniture. I miss Scan.
PS: For a good overview of the classical vision of Washington, you might want to Google the National Civic Art Society’s website and view their documentary film on the city’s creation.
The Founders would be pleased to learn how your architectural taste was properly shaped by the buildings and urban plan of Washington, since they expressed such a desideratum in their correspondence on the creation of our nation’s capital. Imagine a time when politicians cared about the aesthetic sensibilities of their fellow citizens!
My daughter leaves for Washington this week for a visit of the sites…we used to rush to the White House and Congress, in past trips. As a millennial she says – I have no interest in going there – and it makes my heart sad. But I do like to look at the buildings and wonder about how they were made and who designed them…Okay! So I sent her your column and perhaps while she is doing the night bus tour (which one simply has to do), some of the awesomeness of our capital city – and our great country – will sweep over her. It is my hope.
Lovely column. Mr. Downturn