NR Digital

Our Hideous Capital

by Kevin D. Williamson

A vituperation against federal architecture

France’s greatest building is a church, Notre-Dame de Paris, while India’s greatest building is a royal mausoleum, the Taj Mahal. Our greatest building is a train station, Grand Central Terminal, a monument to a nation in motion, if one built for a future that never quite managed to arrive. It is adjacent to another of the great American monuments, the wildly exuberant Chrysler Building, and only a few blocks from the Empire State Building, the great symbol of American confidence built mostly by European immigrants and Mohawk steelworkers in just 410 days. These are the real monuments to a nation whose business is business, in Calvin Coolidge’s maligned phrase, and they are rather different from the accretion of marbled monstrosities 225 miles to the southwest.

Washington is a city full of monuments and monumental architecture. But monuments to what? The capital city’s federal architecture is rooted in classical forms. The Capitol is an aggrandized secondhand Roman design by way of the Paris Panthéon, while we have a Greek temple dedicated to Abraham Lincoln and a tribute to the father of the country that would have been familiar to both Freud and Ramses II. One can understand why the early Americans turned to classical forms for their buildings. They wanted to show that this new country of free men could hold its head high in the world and stand beside the pomp of any empire. They did not wish to be seen the way Napoleon would contemptuously regard the British, as “a nation of shopkeepers”—but we would do well to remember that that phrase did not originate with the little corporal but with Adam Smith in the seminal year 1776. George Washington abjured any title loftier than that of “Mr. President,” and we built him an obelisk four times loftier than those dedicated to Julius Caesar. It may have been that the Washington monument was intended to elevate the standing of General Washington, commander of the armies, but there is a discernible subtext: It is also a symbol of the ascendancy of his namesake city.

There is much that is striking, and not a little that is beautiful, in Washington—so long as you do not think about it too much or read the papers. It may be that those Roman columns once called to mind Cincinnatus and the other pillars of republican virtue. In the Age of Obama, they call to mind a different kind of Roman altogether: the one who declares the penitential words,  “Memento, homo.”

After its early period of Greco-Roman impersonations, Washington went through a flirtation with the Second Empire style, its striving after classical glory becoming outright aesthetic Bonapartism. The exemplar of this is what is now called the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which Mark Twain described as “the ugliest building in America.” Originally the State, War, and Navy Building, it was renamed the Executive Office Building in 1949, and Eisenhower’s name was added in 1999. Pity President Eisenhower, who seems to be a magnet for federal ugliness—see any Taco Bell–infested crossroads of the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Defense and Interstate Highways. Harry Truman bore Ike a grudge after the 1952 election, and he was no doubt smiling in the afterlife at the rechristening of the building he once described as “the greatest monstrosity in America.” While architect Richard von Ezdorf’s interior salutes Napoleon III, Alfred B. Mullet’s exterior, being composed of fireproof cast iron, pays silent tribute to General Robert Ross, the British commander who put Washington to the torch during the War of 1812. Somebody ought to endow an architectural scholarship in General Ross’s memory.

Washington’s next great experiment with publicly funded ghastliness coincided with the rise of Fascism, which left its mark on American government, in the overreaching ambitions of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, and on Washington’s buildings. The great stylist of the era was Paul Philippe Cret, whose famous/infamous tower looms over the University of Texas. Cret’s main contribution to Washington is the Eccles Building, home of the Federal Reserve. It is a masterpiece of what came to be known as “stripped classicism,” Greco-Roman forms debrided of ornamentation and rendered in the hard angles and overblown scale that characterized both the public buildings and the public policies of the 1930s. It is a style designed to dwarf the individual, to literally cast an institutional shadow over the pedestrians who simply get in the way while men of importance are chauffeured around. But the Federal Reserve is not entirely without decoration—it is crowned with a Roman eagle, suggesting that this is what the department of transportation’s headquarters would have looked like in Berlin if Hitler had won the war. Lenin said that the only question in politics is: “Who, whom?” Standing in front of the Eccles Building, there is no doubt about who is who and who is whom.

The more recent Dirksen Senate Office Building is a less competently executed example of the same principle. Senator Patrick Leahy observes: “The Dirksen Building looks like it was built by a committee of senators, which it was. I know ugly when I see it.” This building is a crushing, inhospitable presence, entirely inappropriate to its republican functions.

There wasn’t much good to come out of the 1930s, but say this for the Fascists and their era: There was a sense of style. When he wasn’t working in Washington, Cret designed some impressive structures. Philadelphia is home to his Benjamin Franklin Bridge and the Barnes Foundation, and there is a world of symbolism in his lovely Detroit Institute of Arts building, the contents of which are likely headed to the auction block as that looted city liquidates its assets. But Washington brought out the worst in him. The white slabs of his Folger Shakespeare Library would make a good backdrop for a particularly bloody production of Titus Andronicus, but not much else.

The 1960s and 1970s saw the post-war giganticism not only endure but swell, while the New Deal’s sense of purpose, daft as it was, evaporated. What remained was a practically Soviet Brutalism, best exemplified by the 1975 J. Edgar Hoover Building, a structure so hideous that the FBI has been trying to get out of it for years. Words can hardly do justice to the building, an atrocious jumble of honeycombed beige concrete that hulks over the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and E Street. Architect Arthur Cotton Moore is a few aghast adjectives shy in his criticism: “It creates a void along Pennsylvania Avenue. Given its elephantine size and harshness, it creates a black hole. Its concrete wall, with no windows or life to it, is an urban sin.” It goes without saying that the cost of the building came in at double the original estimate, and its construction delays exceeded the entire construction period of the Empire State Building. Like the Federal Reserve’s home, the FBI headquarters expresses a clear insider–outsider mentality, as though it were aspiring to embody in concrete George Orwell’s “boot stamping on a human face—forever.” Perhaps not forever: A report from the Government Accountability Office recommended demolishing the building as one of four options for rehousing the FBI in a new, larger, and possibly more terrifying building.

Washington’s current architectural controversy concerns plans for a monument to poor President Eisenhower designed by Frank Gehry. I’m something of an Eisenhower-ologist, and as it happens I live in an apartment building designed by Gehry, whose best work is very good, being playful and surprising. “Playful and surprising” are not the words that first come to mind when contemplating the architect of the Normandy invasion and his sober-minded presidency. It would be hard to think of somebody less suited than the high-concept postmodernist Gehry to design a memorial, and an oversized one at that, to Eisenhower, a man who insisted on being buried in an Army-issue pine coffin even though in life he outranked George Washington.

But Washington isn’t building a monument to Eisenhower. It is building another grotesque monument to itself. In the early days of the republic, federal construction meant monuments to the national character and its aspirations, already imperial, while in Paul Cret’s day it meant monuments to the state, the declining character of which may be seen in the Hoover Building. But the planned Eisenhower monument is not even that: It is a monument to Washingtonians, to their newfound sense of sophistication and their taste for the finer things—it is not insignificant that the capital city is the nation’s leading consumer of fine wines. Walking through Washington’s collection of high-imperial cocoons and Albert Speer–worthy ministries of self-service, it is impossible to forget that whatever these block-filling headquarters, temples, and obelisks once stood for, they stand for something else now.

The most appropriate architectural monument to today’s Washington can be found at an office building in the suburb of Herndon, Va., which is now home to the North American headquarters of the Volkswagen division responsible for Bentleys, Bugattis, and Lamborghinis. As the nation’s richest city, Washington has been challenging such has-beens as Beverly Hills when it comes to the acquisition of luxury totems, and the makers want to be close to their customers—and to the officials upon whose favor they now utterly depend. One does not see too many exotic sports cars in Washington, but the streets are clogged with Bentleys and other luxury sedans, along with the ubiquitous Mercedes-Benz G-Class SUV, the $150,000 rolling cube that approximates a Federal Reserve building on wheels. Washingtonians amuse themselves in the city’s increasingly Los Angelic gridlock by trying to guess which princeling’s movements are causing it. It is in the Bentley showrooms and in the multimillion-dollar condos that one finds the real monument to today’s Washington. Standing among them, all one can do is think of architect Christopher Wren, buried in St. Paul’s, his masterpiece, and his clever epitaph: si monumentum requiris, circumspice. That and raise a glass of the Domaine Leroy Musigny Grand Cru to the memory of old General Ross, who might have been doing us a favor.

Send a letter to the editor.

Get the NR Magazine App
iPad/iPhone   |   Android