The Magazine

Washington by Design

What the look of the nation's capital tells us.

Jun 16, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 38 • By RICHARD STRINER
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Washington from the Ground Up

by James H.S. McGregor

Harvard, 352 pp., $29.95

AIA Guide to the Architecture of
Washington, D.C.

by G. Martin Moeller Jr.

Johns Hopkins, 400 pp., $19.95

The architecture of our nation's capital will never stop fascinating people, as two recent books about the city attest. The AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington, D.C. is the latest in a series of highly selective guidebooks produced since the 1960s by the Washington chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Washington from the Ground Up is part of a series of books about cities of the world by a scholar who writes about urban history.

James McGregor's Washington from the Ground Up is a fine undertaking, a concise account of the city that integrates geography, history, and design. "From the ground up," the author discusses Washington's terrain and topography as they relate to its urban development.

McGregor is principally concerned with the evolution of the city (both planned and haphazard) and the growth of its federal component, its "monumental core." Two chapters on the U.S. Capitol building alone--admittedly a very interesting story--consume a quarter of the book. McGregor's strategy is to start with iconic federal buildings, then write about the precincts surrounding them. In this way the book expands its geographical coverage: from the U.S. Capitol to Capitol Hill, from the White House to Lafayette Square, then Federal Triangle, Foggy Bottom, the Mall. At last, the book reaches outlying precincts and neighborhoods.

The architectural history, as such, is often technical; readers at ease with architectural terminology will follow the descriptions of buildings more easily than others. But even casual readers will be captivated by McGregor's commentary on the European precedents that guided so many of the architects, artists, and planners who shaped the city. This commentary is interwoven with summaries of historical trends and events that illuminate the cultural landscape of Washington.

In covering architecture, McGregor handles the issues of aesthetic judgment and subjective taste fairly well. Writing of the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building, he cites the influence of modernist "brutalism," a style that, he notes, "has been widely praised and widely criticized." Taste polemics can be perilous business, and McGregor has a light touch when it comes to these matters.

The historical treatment throughout the book is good, but McGregor--a professor of comparative literature at the University of Georgia--would have managed to avoid some mistakes if he had circulated his manuscript to a wider network of scholars, especially historians.

Some of the errors appear to be typos: He writes, for example, when discussing the colonial history of the mid-Atlantic region, that "Virginia colonists shipped some twenty pounds of tobacco to England" in 1620. (In fact, they sent in the neighborhood of 20 tons in 1620, according to historian Alden T. Vaughan.) Other errors appear to be Freudian slips: He refers to a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington that "duplicates one that has hung in the White House since the beginning of the eighteenth century." (He means the 19th century, of course.)

A number of the errors seem to flow from unexamined premises. Referring to the British Proclamation of 1763, which halted colonial settlement at the Appalachian mountain line, McGregor writes that "everything west of this line would remain Indian land in perpetuity." No, the proclamation's language forbade any further settlement beyond the line "for the present," according to the British historian Ian R. Christie. A few of the errors appear to have been caused by simple haste: The first capital of the Confederacy was not "Mobile, Alabama" but Montgomery. Other errors are scattered through the volume, and it's a pity. Perhaps the mistakes can be corrected in a second (or the paperback) edition.

McGregor also lapses into unsustainable generalizations. Toward the end of the book, he states that "with the exception of a few days during the Civil War when the capital threatened to become a battleground, and a long weekend in the 1960s when riots tore through its central neighborhoods, the city has scarcely felt the exhilaration of great national movements or the cold breath of disaster." The mind reels: How hasty can analysis become? Surely the march of the Bonus Army in 1932, and Franklin Roosevelt's inauguration in 1933, brought the force of great historical events to the nation's capital. And many more examples could be given, including the examples from the War of 1812 that McGregor himself includes in the early chapters.

Such problems are a shame, since McGregor has produced a fine volume. Many parts of this book make excellent reading; the chapter on Pierre L'Enfant and early Washington is especially good, and the chapter on the local and social history of Washington is outstanding. This is a book by a man who truly knows and loves Washington.

The book's physical character, however, is another matter. Granted, this is a compact production and not a coffee table showpiece. The typography, though, is rather hard on the eyes and the stingy dimensions of the well-chosen illustrations (with the exception of some full-page maps, architectural plans, and urban prospects that form an appendix at the back) make the color photography less successful than it should have been. Perhaps the problem is mostly with the quality (digital or otherwise) of the images themselves. In any case, perusal is a squinty experience.

Such is not the case with Martin Moeller's AIA Guide: The typography scans very easily and the high resolution of the black-and-white photographs enables the images to hold their own within dimensions that are almost as small as (or smaller than) the ones in McGregor's book. The overall comparison here should be an object lesson to book designers.

Moeller is the senior vice president and curator of the National Building Museum. His new iteration (the fourth edition) of the AIA Guide uses walking-tour coverage of city precincts to handle the issues of geography. Where McGregor's book features chapter-length essays, Moeller has followed the guidebook formula with separate individual descriptions of buildings below each numbered photograph. The numbers correspond to locations in the walking-tour maps. The descriptions of the buildings, consisting of one or more paragraphs, are short essays that synthesize architectural analysis, historical commentary, and design criticism.

Moeller writes in a captivating manner that makes his work entertaining. His judgments on matters of aesthetics are debatable--endlessly debatable--as is usually the case with the pronouncements of architecture critics. By turns, he is both judicious--deferential to the "judgment of the ages"--and assertive in rating the "success" or "failure" of buildings.

His historical sense can embrace the ironic; writing of the building that sits just west of the White House--known successively as the State, War, and Navy Building, the Old Executive Office Building, and the Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building--he notes that while the building was "widely reviled as a symbol of Gilded Age excess" for years, it is "now, at long last, widely beloved as a welcome exception to the sedate architecture more typical of the nation's capital." In other words, the building can be said to have "attitude," which the taste of the moment tends to favor.

Compare this treatment to Moeller's dismissive account of the Jefferson Memorial. After noting the "bitter debate" about John Russell Pope's design--which drew the ire of militant modernists--Moeller seems to side with the detractors. Let him speak for himself:

Frank Lloyd Wright and other prominent architects were scandalized by the retrograde design, and argued that the famously erudite and progressive Jefferson would have preferred a memorial that reflected the technology and ethos of the era in which it was to be built. President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed the scheme through, however, and the result is a neo-Pantheon that is stranded on the far shore of the Tidal Basin, cut off from the life of the Mall itself. The best aspect of the reactionary structure is the glimpse of Jefferson's statue through one of the side openings.

Every one of these pronouncements could be challenged or turned on its head. For example: Would Jefferson have scorned Pope's classical design, his reuse of the Pantheon form? Who knows? But as everyone knows who has the slightest familiarity with Thomas Jefferson, the third president, together with most of the Founders, embraced the world of classical design, which he found to be compatible with (if not deeply expressive of) Enlightenment "progressivism," and he used the Pantheon form both at Monticello and the University of Virginia--hence Pope's design, which saluted the taste of Thomas Jefferson.

Is the Jefferson Memorial "stranded," somehow, or cut off from the life of the Mall? Tell that to the visitors who flock to the Tidal Basin at cherry blossom time and rent paddle boats from which to gaze upon the Jefferson Memorial.
The definitive book about Washington will never be written, and this is exactly as it should be. Definitive judgments on the buildings of the city will never be delivered by critics. The city as a work-in-progress will change, and then go on changing. It is up to preservationists to see that the changes are guided in a way that is enlightened. These two books are new grist for the mill.

Richard Striner, professor of history at -Washington College, is the author, most recently, of Father Abraham: Lincoln's Relentless Struggle to End Slavery.