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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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.