I’d never visited Washington D.C. before. The first thing that struck me about the city is its scale: It truly is monumental. Neo-classical architecture on steroids parades along Pennsylvania Avenue and within the Federal Triangle, while the baroque vision of Pierre L'Enfant has been realized in the vast grandeur of the National Mall and the broad diagonal avenues that radiate across the urban grid. One feels lilliputian in such a setting, the bloated scale of the most important buildings clearly signifying the dominion of Federal authority. The persistence with which style, form and materials have been regulated is a testament to the degree to which “we the people”1 have entrusted the stewards of the Capitol to use architecture as a means to represent the idealism and collective values of the Nation.
Of course, there is a certain irony that it is the pompous Classicism of ancient Rome that is the prevalent architectural vocabulary, but that is a subject for another day.
It may reflect my own biases, but the individual buildings that most impressed me by their quality are both of relatively recent vintage and modernist in expression: The National Gallery of Art’s East Wing (1978, I.M. Pei) and the nearby Canadian Embassy (1989, Arthur Erickson).2 Unlike such contemporary designs as the Ronald Reagan Building & International Trade Center (incongruously, also by Pei’s firm of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners), my two favorites were able to transcend the regulatory strictures of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation by utilizing unique modernist vocabularies. These are buildings that are of their time, that do not rely upon the crutch of historic pastiche, and that reinterpret the essence of classical space and architecture in their own ways.
Pei’s wedge-shaped East Building possesses a monumental presence achieved via sculpturally precise means with nary a Corinthian column in sight.
The Canadian Embassy is an abstract classical landscape rendered in Cubist fashion and framed by the building. I would characterize both buildings as noble, a trait that I find lacking in many public buildings today, particularly with those designs that are too clever or idiosyncratic for their own good.
1 “You people” is a more accurate statement. I am, after all, a Canadian with a view of the U.S. distorted through that peculiar lens.
2 Again, betraying my Canadian-ness.