The Magazine

Subterranean Blues

Washington digs itself into a hole.

Jan 13, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 17 • By CATESBY LEIGH
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THE SUBTERRANEAN SPRAWL of Washington has begun. By the presidential inauguration of 2005, ascent of the majestic stairs of the Capitol--the supreme achievement of American architecture and decoration--will be a fading memory. Instead, the public will descend to the Capitol Visitor Center, a vast underground complex adjacent to the building's east front, where they will be screened at a safe remove from the temple of democracy.

Since the attacks of September 11, a ghastly profusion of sewer-pipe sections, Jersey barriers, obese concrete planters, and retractable delta barriers has littered Capitol Hill. The long-planned Capitol Visitor Center (along with lines of sidewalk bollards) has become Congress's permanent answer to these ad hoc security measures. Serious digging got underway last August.

The project has been aptly described as a city-within-a-city, a security-quarantine/infotainment zone that can accommodate up to four thousand people at a time. The visitor center will include ticket booths providing timed-entry admission to the Capitol, along with two theaters showing orientation films. There will be a cafeteria that can accommodate six hundred, an auditorium for four hundred and fifty, gift shops, and a 16,500-square-foot gallery (with an exhibition designed by the man who gave us the Holocaust Museum's multimedia chamber of horrors).

As was to be expected, mission creep has bloated the expense and extent of this $370 million prairie-dog's paradise, which will sprawl over--or, rather, under--five acres (a larger footprint than the Capitol's). Politicians always need more space, of course, and they're getting plenty: Nearly one-third of the big dig's 580,000 square feet will contain underground briefing and conference rooms, House and Senate intelligence committee offices, and television studios. All in all, the Capitol Visitor Center promises to be a typical official architectural undertaking--typical, that is, of the modern curatorial mentality, which seems to regard the great buildings of Washington as archaeological specimens rather than as expressions of a living artistic tradition.

Misguided art-historical, documentary-educational, and preservationist dogmas all contributed their mite to the design of the Capitol Visitor Center. But a sheer lack of cultural confidence may be the principal factor behind this disaster in the making. What does it say of us that our first impulse these days is not to raise a building but to dig a hole? We doubt contemporary designers' ability to make a significant contribution to a truly great building like the Capitol, and we mistrust their ability to adjust Frederick Law Olmsted's surrounding landscape of terraces, greensward, and trees to an appropriately modified architectural composition.

That might make sense, if the tortured geometries currently being proposed for ground zero in Manhattan--and for the Corcoran Gallery addition in Washington--were our only option. But what of classical architecture in the grand manner? Believing that our connection with traditional architectural idioms is somehow irrevocably broken, we are treating Washington's foremost classical landmarks like rarefied artifacts--so fragile as to be accessible only by way of tunnels and skylit caverns. This formaldehyde formula is unworthy of a nation with any claim to a serious cultural life.

SUBTERRANEAN SPRAWL is hardly limited to the Capitol. It poses a clear and present danger to some of the most precious tracts of Washington's monumental core, which includes the Mall and its environs. Other underground projects in the neighborhood include the National Park Service's plan for a Washington Monument Visitor Center (complete with a long, subterranean corridor to the obelisk's interior) and a Park Service proposal for a largely underground White House "museum and education center" at the near-by Commerce Department building. Meanwhile, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund aims to create a sunken visitor center, to be located between Frederick Hart's sculpture of the three soldiers and the Lincoln Memorial precinct.