But he is a dynamic city, and more and more it is a city of significant architectural interest. The just-published sixth edition of the American Institute of Architects’ “Guide to the Architecture of Washington, DC” documents its urban and architectural vitality, especially when read side-by-side with previous editions.
Since 2006, when the AIA published the fourth edition, the author of the book has been G. Martin Moeller Jr., a brilliant and knowledgeable guide. In his introduction, Moeller notes 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’s team) and the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial (by Frank Gehry), both of which have had a major impact on the symbolic core of the city.
It also includes lists of chapters that would have raised eyebrows in 2006. Gentrification and rapid development have created a new map shortcut for the city, defining new neighborhoods such as the Near Southwest, Capitol Riverfront, and NoMa/Union Market. These places existed, sure, but they weren’t considered nightlife hubs and they weren’t bristling with cookie-cutter modernist condo buildings. Now the guide includes them on his walking tours, which not only include newly built structures, but also the chance to rediscover forgotten or neglected sites such as the 1907 DC Waterline Pumping Station along the Capitol Riverfront and the 1923 cold store now converted into the Museum of the Bible in the Near Southwest.
Moeller’s inputs go far beyond design, engineering and materials. He is interested in the larger story of Washington – its social, symbolic and political history. He has opinions although his opinions are eminently reasonable and often entertaining. The Library of Congress’ historic 1897 home, known as the Thomas Jefferson Building, had a long gestation after it was authorized by Congress in 1873, during which “architects continued to tinker with the design like teenagers trying on different outfits before a date. .” I was happy to see that a favorite detail from the 2006 edition has been carried over to the current edition: in the former Franklin Square neighborhood, now home to The Washington Post, one of many porn long closed and now forgotten. have a sign saying “Fine Coal Purveyors”.
Moeller’s 20-page introduction to the city’s development and architecture is as deft a sketch as it gets. All the central tensions are there, between an ambitious and founding city plan and the demands of organic development, between governmental grandeur and the commercial and residential domesticity of the city, and between the different architectural styles deemed appropriate to the dignity of the capital. (classic or northern European, marble or brick, traditional or modern). He concludes his essay with a response to Charles Dickens’ famous indictment that Washington was a “city of magnificent intentions.” Perhaps it was, but as Moeller writes, “What the city perhaps lacks in truly avant-garde works of architecture, it makes up for in prosperous neighborhoods, landscapes cohesive streets and an overriding civic order.”
Visitors to Washington can experience some of it, especially if they learn to ride the subway (stand to the right, please). But there’s something about Washington’s symbol that makes it hard for people to recognize the reality of its city life, even as they experience it, enjoy it, and Instagram it to all their friends at home.
Like other cities across the country that participated in the great urban regeneration of the 21st century, Washington better exemplifies the American ideals of living and thriving together than most of what is commonly referred to as the Heartland. It has invested in its public domain, in libraries and parks; its public transport infrastructure may need improvement, especially since the pandemic, but it is far superior to what is available in most small towns, villages and suburbs; and he controlled and moderated rapid development to ensure habitability and emphasize beauty (again, imperfectly, but still well enough to be exemplary for much of this country). He is also diverse and, for the most part, happy and vibrant.
None of this can be easily reconciled with the common symbolic sense of Washington, especially if that symbolism is rooted in idolatry of a mythical 19th and early 20th century Washington, a timeless Founding Fathers theme park, marble columns and all the usual epiphenomena of patriotism. The real city, as Moeller’s guide makes clear, is in a constant state of change, tension, conflict, and sometimes (thankfully) resolution and compromise.
The former P Street NW house of the Carnegie Institution for Science, designed by Carrère and Hastings, was sold to Qatar to become an embassy, which is deeply regrettable given Qatar’s human rights record. Again, one of the sleekest recent buildings on North Capitol Street, a 2016 mixed-income residential building that appears as a set of staggered boxes (designed by Sorg Architects), is aimed at low-income veterans prone to housing insecurity. . Some of the city’s most intriguing cutting-edge structures – two libraries designed by star architect David Adjaye – are located so far from the tourist hub of Washington that tourists rarely visit them, making them all the more possessed of those who need it most.
The symbolic truth of a city like Washington is much richer and more complex than the latticework of avenues, squares and streets designed by Pierre L’Enfant and monumentalized in the first decades of the last century. The first city was built with slave labor, and in 1863, when Thomas Crawford’s 19-foot “Freedom” statue was raised atop the Capitol dome, the nation’s preeminent symbol of democracy was crowned of works of art made by slaves (“incredibly enough,” notes Moeller).
It remains a city of deep inequality and entrenched neighborhoods of poverty, remote from both symbolic Washington and the Washington of wealth and privilege. Yet when snow shuts the city down, or people flock to its parks for impromptu Fourth of July fireworks, or the setting sun catches the top of the Jefferson Memorial as you cross the Potomac River, it illustrates both the beautiful city (the movement that influenced its design so much) and the beauty of the city (that rudimentary quality that makes you glad you don’t live anywhere else).
Moeller pays attention to all of these infuriating complexities. Visitors (and residents) who want to experience a much richer history than the usual double-decker tour bus pieties will benefit from spending time with this guide. Put it in your bag, take the metro to a stop you’ve never gotten off from, and start walking. The lessons learned will be much richer than a walk on the Mall or on Pennsylvania Avenue.
AIA Guide to Washington, DC Architecture
By G. Martin Moeller Jr., Johns Hopkins. 383 pages. $59.95