G. Martin Moeller Jr.’s book review of the AIA Washington, D.C. Architecture Guide.

The Washington Monument is reflected in a window at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, one of the additions to the American Institute of Architects' updated guide to DC.
The Washington Monument is reflected in a window at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, one of the additions to the American Institute of Architects’ updated guide to DC. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

In most parts of the world, including the United States, Washington, D.C. is just a symbol. It is the seat of the capital and the parliament building, a symbol of democracy. It appears in static form and is represented by a handful of buildings, including the White House, Washington Monument, and Lincoln Memorial. Washington rarely appears as a real city, with more than 700,000 people, except for reports (often exaggerated) of its urban dysfunction, which only reinforces it as a symbol of poor governance.

but it Yes A city, a dynamic city, it is increasingly becoming an architecturally significant city. The just-published sixth edition of the American Institute of Architects’ Guide to Architecture in Washington, D.C. documents its urban and architectural dynamism, especially when read in conjunction with earlier editions.

Since the AIA published its fourth edition in 2006, the author of the book has been G. Martin Moeller Jr., a kind and knowledgeable guide. In his introduction, Mueller noted that the new edition, the first update since 2012, includes 80 new entries, including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (Freelon Adjaye Bond Team) and Dwight D. . The Eisenhower Memorial (by Frank Gehry), both of which had a major impact on the symbolic core of the city.

It also includes a list of chapters that will catch your attention in 2006. Gentrification and rapid development have created a new cartographic shorthand for the city, defining new neighborhoods such as Near Southwest, Congress Riverfront, and NoMa/Joint Market. These places certainly exist, but they’re not seen as nightlife hubs, nor do they have cookie-cutter modernist apartment buildings. The guide now includes them on walking tours that include not only recently constructed buildings, but also opportunities to rediscover forgotten or neglected sites, such as the 1907 DC Water Master Pumping Station along Congressional Riverfront and the 1923 The Refrigerated Warehouse Building, now converted into the Near Southwest Bible Museum.

Moeller’s work goes far beyond design, engineering and materials. He is interested in the larger story of Washington — its social, symbolic and political history. He is opinionated, although his opinions are very reasonable and often funny. The historic 1897 location of the Library of Congress, known as the Thomas Jefferson Building, underwent a long gestation after it was authorized by Congress in 1873, during which “architects continued to tinker with designs, like teenagers trying on them before a date. Different outfits.” I was delighted to find that one of my favorite details from the 2006 edition has been preserved in the current edition: in the old neighborhood of Franklin Square, now home to The Washington Post, it is the place where many long-closed , one of the now-forgotten porn shops. There is a sign that says “Supplier of Premium Smut”.

Moeller’s 20-page introduction to urban development and architecture is the most deft outline sketch one can find. Between ambitious foundational urban planning and the urgency of organic development, between the grandeur of government and the commercial and residential life of the city, and between several architectural styles deemed fit for the dignity of the capital, there are all central tensions. here. Classical or Nordic, marble or brick, traditional or modern). He ends his article with a counterattack against Charles Dickens’ famous accusation of Washington as an “ambitious city.” Maybe so, but as Mueller writes, “The city may lack a great deal of truly avant-garde architecture, but it makes up for in thriving neighborhoods, cohesive streetscapes, and something beyond civic order.”

Visitors to Washington may find some of these, especially if they learn how to ride the subway (please stand on the right). But there’s something about Washington’s symbol that makes it hard for people to acknowledge the authenticity of its city life, even if they’ve experienced it, enjoyed it, and Instagrammed it to all their friends back home.

Like other cities across the country participating in the 21st-century mega-city renaissance, Washington better embodies America’s ideals of living and thriving together than many places commonly referred to as the heartland. It invests in public realm, libraries, and parks; its transportation infrastructure may need improvement, especially since the pandemic, but it is far superior to the existing infrastructure in most small cities, towns, and suburbs; it controls and moderates developed rapidly to ensure liveability and emphasise beauty (again, not perfect, but still good enough to be a model for much of the country). It’s also diverse and, for the most part, happy and vibrant.

None of this can easily be compared to the common symbolism of Washington, especially if that symbolism is rooted in the idolatry of the mythical Washington of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Founding Fathers’ timeless theme park, marble columns and all. A common side-phenomenon of patriotism. Real cities, as Mueller’s guide has shown time and again, are in a state of constant evolution, tension, conflict, sometimes (thankfully) resolution and compromise.

Carnegie Institute for Science The old P Street NW home by Carrère and Hastings has been sold to Qatar to become an embassy, ​​which is very unfortunate given Qatar’s human rights record. Then again, one of North Capitol Street’s most fashionable recent buildings, a 2016 mixed-income residential building, looks like an unbalanced set of boxes (designed by Sorg Architects) for low-income veterans with housing insecurity. This Some of the city’s most intriguing avant-garde buildings—two libraries designed by star architect David Adjaye—are far from Washington’s tourist hub and are rarely visited by sightseers, making them all the more in demand property of their people.

The symbolism of a city like Washington is far richer and more complex than the latticework of avenues, plazas and streets designed by Pierre L’Enfant and commemorated in the early decades of the last century. Early cities were built with slave labor, and in 1863, when Thomas Crawford’s 19-foot-tall statue of “Liberty” was elevated to the Capitol dome, the nation’s preeminent symbol of democracy was crowned with slave-made artwork (“Unbelievable enough,” Moeller points out).

It remains a city of deep inequality and entrenched poor neighborhoods, far from a symbolic Washington and a Washington of wealth and privilege. However, when snow covers the city, or when people flock to parks to watch impromptu fireworks on July 4th, or when the sun sets over the top of the Jefferson Memorial as you cross the Potomac River – it embodies the beauty of the city (sports had a big influence on its design) and beautiful cities (early qualities that make you happy, you don’t live anywhere else).

Mueller is wary of all this maddening complexity. Visitors (and residents) who want to discover a far more religious history than the usual double-decker tour buses will benefit from this guide. Put it in your bag, take the subway to a stop you never got off, and start walking. The lessons learned will be much richer than strolling down the mall or Pennsylvania Avenue.

AIA Washington DC Building Guide

Author G. Martin Moeller Jr., Johns Hopkins University. 383 pages $59.95

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