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Architecture Review

Capitol idea is not a capital idea

D.C.'s big new visitors center is misconceived in truly massive ways.

February 02, 2009|CHRISTOPHER HAWTHORNE | ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

WASHINGTON — With half-a-trillion dollars of stimulus spending on the way and real-estate developers mired in what could turn out to be a decade-long slump, the federal government has emerged in recent months as this country's only viable patron of large-scale construction, at least for the foreseeable future.

So here's an idea: How about taking a careful, critical look at Washington's recent architectural track record?

A good place to start is D.C.'s new Capitol Visitor Center. In fact, when it comes to the aesthetic and financial perils of government-sponsored architecture, you could hardly invent a more perfect cautionary tale than the one embodied by this grandiose complex sunk into the east side of Capitol Hill.

Designed by RTKL Associates, the firm that produced the master plan and much of the architecture for L.A. Live in downtown Los Angeles, the complex opened to the public last month. (RTKL developed the project in collaboration with the former architect of the Capitol, Alan M. Hantman, who filled that post from 1997 to 2007.) Stretching out its considerable bulk underground beneath the Senate and House chambers, the complex is meant to give the hordes of visiting school groups and other tourists a place to gather while they wait for official tours.

In the past, those visitors often queued in the open air -- hardly a recipe, as anyone familiar with Washington weather in February or August knows, for an enjoyable introduction to the wonders of the legislative process. The complex also was planned to address security concerns after a deranged man opened fire inside the Capitol in summer 1998 and killed two policemen. Its design was fortified after the 9/11 attacks.

In theory, then, the visitors center was poised to solve a couple of significant problems in one architectural stroke: protecting the Capitol building while also smoothing access to it. An important urban-planning issue also was at stake. When the Capitol was new, the eastern facade served as its front door, but over time, as the National Mall to the west grew in architectural and civic prominence, that entrance began to be overlooked. The goal of the new building was to restore some sense of grandeur, or at least ceremony, to the east side of the Capitol without cluttering the above-ground landscape.

As the architecture of the complex took shape, members of Congress began to treat the project as if it were their own private basement clubhouse.(There is no earmark, after all, like an earmark on which congressmen can prop up their own feet.) They added recording studios, extra meeting rooms and even a tunnel to the Library of Congress. As the size of the project grew -- settling finally at a massive 580,000 square feet -- construction costs climbed from an early projection of $265 million to a final tally of $621 million.

Now, aboveground, protruding skylights and elevator shafts -- none designed in a particularly self-effacing style -- make it all too clear to pedestrians on the east side of the Capitol that they are walking atop a gigantic new bunker. Once inside, the effect is no more encouraging. Beginning with its central gathering place, Emancipation Hall, nearly every room in the complex is cavernously over-scaled -- which is not easy or inexpensive to do when you are building underground -- and draped in a range of buttery materials and colors seemingly more appropriate to a law firm or investment bank than a government complex. Where the building doesn't glow, it shimmers, and where it doesn't shimmer, it gleams.

The result is an architectural combination uniquely suited to Washington: marbled pork.

The architects also have taken the idea of symmetry to absurd extremes. To be sure, the existing Capitol Building is a model of axial symmetry, its dome sitting atop a House wing to the south and one for the Senate to the north. But, underground, the visitors center shows slavish dedication to a mirror-image ideal. Like Noah's Ark, it makes a point of having two of everything.

There are a north gift shop and a south gift shop, a north orientation theater and a south orientation theater and north and south skylights opening up dramatic views of the Capitol Dome from the floor of Emancipation Hall. There are even north and south coat-check rooms. It turns out that if you are designing a building twice as large as it needs to be, symmetry provides excellent cover.

I visited the center the day after Barack Obama's inauguration. Washington was still packed with visitors, and many decided to spend the morning on Capitol Hill, touring the building that had played such a prominent role in the inaugural proceedings 24 hours earlier.

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