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.

The Washington Monument scheme rivals the Capitol Visitor Center in perversity. Over the last thirty years, the Park Service has offered one proposal after another for construction of such a facility. In 1993, review panels--meaning the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission--"approved an underground visitor facility. At that time it had nothing to do with security," says the Park Service's John Parsons. "It would provide a better understanding of the monument and the man. Also, having people waiting around in the heat and the cold didn't seem like the proper way to host our guests." Roughly four years ago, the tunnel was added to the package. The quarantine routine, in short. In the decade since 1993, the Park Service has had difficulty funding the project, but "9/11 changed everything," as Parsons puts it. The bad idea of digging up the Mall suddenly gained prestige when it could be presented as part of a terrorism prevention package.

The latest Park Service proposal, which comes before the planning commission on January 9, is focused on the dignified little classical lodge located five hundred feet east of the Washington Monument, facing 15th Street, which was built with stone left over from the great obelisk's construction. The lodge, beneath which the visitor center was to be excavated under the 1993 scheme, is presently a film and souvenir shop with restrooms. An ugly snack-bar shed is tacked onto the rear. The Park Service no longer proposes to dig under the lodge. It wants to renovate it, remove the shed, and build a new addition housing a security-screening room, a stairway and elevators to the underground facility, and a pair of secure exits.

This addition is now conceived as a sort of scaled-down rendition of I.M. Pei's glass-and-metal pyramid at the Louvre (a minimalist entry pavilion to a stark sunken concourse). Admittedly, the truncated pyramid is slightly less preposterous than the previous design by the Park Service's architects, Hartman-Cox, which resembled the front portion of a glass cabin cruiser with a sunken masonry hull sticking out the back of the lodge. Such schemes conform to the harebrained preservationist dogma of historical correctness, which stipulates that an addition to an old building should be readily distinguishable--for documentary rather than esthetic purposes--as well as "of its time," meaning stylistically "contemporary" and, in all likelihood, ugly.

The visitor-center plan also inserts a sixty-foot-long tapering tunnel skylight in the Washington Monument landscape, thus affording a view of the obelisk from the underground facility, where visitors will have access to exhibits, restrooms, and a bookstore while they wait for their timed-entry admittance via the corridor to a sunken elevator lobby. The corridor will offer photographic vistas of the monument grounds during a July 4 celebration and the like. The proposed lodge addition and skylight are completely inappropriate to the Washington Monument and its setting, and the scheme has run into stiff opposition from the Commission of Fine Arts. But Congress may well have this white elephant built anyway.

ON THE OTHER HAND, the Park Service's Washington Monument plan includes a reasonable security-oriented landscape design. Conceived by Philadelphia landscape architect Laurie Olin, it consists of low, unobtrusive granite-faced walls integrated with a network of paths configured as two interlocking ovals embraced by a third, with the network centered on a circular stone-paved plaza around the obelisk. Together with retractable bollards placed at a few strategic junctures, the walls would prevent vehicles from venturing within four hundred feet of the monument.

A berm would face the low wall on the monument's western flank so the wall would not disrupt views of the landscape from that direction. Apart from minor regrading, no change in the landscape east of the monument will be necessary. (The sooner Olin's design rids the monument of its current double-ring of Jersey barriers--those interlocking concrete slabs which usually serve as median walls along turnpikes and freeways--the better.)

While this landscape plan might not be the whole security solution, the Park Service's obsession with distance-screening could end up increasing risk. Don Hawkins, an architect and member of the watchdog "Committee of 100 on the Federal City," notes that hundreds of people could be trapped in the underground visitor facility in the event of a terrorist assault, while only around seventy-five could be expected to be in the monument. A sensible alternative, Hawkins maintains, would be to locate the screening operation in the small vestibule at the east entrance to the monument, with a security door between the vestibule and the elevator lobby. (This would rid the monument of the wretched little pillbox of a screening facility presently marring its east façade.) The old west entrance, presently walled in, would be reopened as an exit with secure doors on each side of its vestibule, so that only one door would be open at a time.

It's a simple solution--far too simple for the Park Service, which caught the prairie-dog fever decades ago. After all, these are the folks who gave us "The Pit"--the humongous cavity dug smack in the middle of the marble floor in Union Station's grand concourse a quarter-century ago. The Pit, as it was commonly known, was the centerpiece of an utterly calamitous and extremely expensive conversion of Daniel Burnham's great Roman railway station into a Park Service-administered National Visitor Center, conceived as the tourist gateway to the nation's capital, and to which unattractive new train-station facilities were tacked on as if an afterthought.

The Pit boasted what bureaucratic visionaries called a "Primary Audio-Visual Experience" consisting of a nine-minute blitzkrieg of 5,500 slides of Washington projected onto a hundred panels on an enormous concave screen to the sound of the Star-Spangled Banner and other melodies. On the inauguration day of the "experience"--July 4, 1976, the nation's bicentennial--the slide-projection system malfunctioned, and The Pit closed ignominiously two years later. During the 1980s, Union Station was removed from Park Service jurisdiction and redeveloped.

FROM A DESIGN STANDPOINT, the fundamentally unarchitectural character of subterranean sprawl is what's most noteworthy. The Capitol Visitor Center entrance is fairly innocuous, and its configuration is essentially a landscape exercise. Indeed, the maximum possible fidelity to Olmsted's landscape design and preservation, whenever possible, of trees removed from the visitor center construction site are high priorities. The entrance is approached by pairs of gently inclined paths flanking a ground-level promenade. The promenade, an extension of the East Capitol Street axis, leads to the plaza that will replace the parking lot in front of the Capitol. The descending paths either follow the contours of the egg-shaped plots Olmsted situated on each side of the promenade, or run straight alongside it, converging at the sunken visitor center entrance. (On the pavement above, the architect's renderings show inappropriate boxy structures housing elevators for the handicapped.)

Visitors are screened on the entrance level, then descend into a "Great Hall," where the ticket booths will be located, and from which they will proceed to the various displays and diversions before entering the Capitol. The Great Hall's ceiling will be thirty feet high and will include two huge, thirty-by-seventy-foot skylight panels--again, located to each side of the promenade that runs above--offering views of the Capitol dome. The Great Hall will be clad in sandstone similar to the Capitol rotunda's, but renderings indicate its architectural décor will be another tawdry exercise in pidgin classical--that ineptly articulated, lifeless, "modern" classicism that has plagued official Washington for decades. (The Rayburn House Office Building is a prime example.)

The Great Hall's architectural sterility may be mitigated by the display of Capitol artifacts. But here, and to a still greater degree in the case of the large exhibition gallery, the documentary preoccupations widely shared by a rapidly propagating and essentially parasitic curatorial class eager to "interpret" our monuments for us will have a deadening effect on Americans' experience of the Capitol.

Must the presentation of Washington's great monuments be calibrated to the all-too-brief attention spans nurtured by television and video games? Must computerized monitors posted at proposed new entryways to the White House precinct add the spice of "interactivity," along with the inevitable frustration of frequent breakdowns, to our visits?

In the "Comprehensive Design Plan" for the White House and President's Park published by the National Park Service in 2000, one encounters such buzzwords as "interpret," "interpretive tools," "interpretive activities," "interpretive media," ad nauseam--particularly in connection with a $57 million multimedia White House "museum and education center." Having mastered the semiotics of history and culture, the curatorial types and the tour guides they instruct must "interpret" artifacts like the Capitol, Washington Monument, and White House for the clueless masses.

The White House, in fact, already has a visitor center on Pennsylvania Avenue, just across 15th Street from the Ellipse, which occupies a handsome and spacious ground-floor Commerce Department room that was once a patent-research library. (For many visitors to Washington, this facility must substitute, for the time being, for a White House tour, because only students, active-duty servicemen, and veterans have been allowed inside--on tours arranged by congressmen--since September 14, 2001.) Unsurprisingly, the Park Service wants to burrow two floors under this center to create a sixty-thousand-square-foot complex containing theaters, a shop, a lab, research facilities, storage rooms, plus museum exhibitions and "educational rooms" equipped with the latest interactive gadgetry--and then construct a tunnel from this facility across 15th and E streets to a "vestibule" accommodating a stairway, escalator, and elevator to be dug just outside the White House's south fence.

The tunnel route has not been determined. And please don't call it a tunnel, says Ann Smith, the Park Service's White House liaison. She speaks instead of "an underground corridor with a moving sidewalk and skylights"--one wonders where on the Ellipse they will find a propitious spot for the latter--"and not anything that one would feel to be confining." In fact, she adds, "there would be a whole streetscape," which suggests that the participation of two Walt Disney Imagineering executives in the work-group meetings for the White House design plan didn't go for naught.

Driven by the familiar bureaucratic turf-expansion imperative, the curatorial class, which acts as though guidebooks and introductory brochures were somehow passé or at least radically inadequate, just can't leave well enough alone. Three decades ago, the Park Service disfigured the lower portion of Richard Morris Hunt's superb Statue of Liberty pedestal in New York Harbor by adding two broad plinth-like terraces, one recessed above the other, that originally enclosed an American Museum of Immigration, along with a small Statue of Liberty exhibit. When nearby Ellis Island underwent restoration during the 1980s in order to serve, appropriately, as the venue for an immigration museum, the Park Service, instead of restoring the statue's pedestal to its original state, installed a--you guessed it--Statue of Liberty museum. This museum (currently closed for security reasons) is devoted to the process of the statue's design and construction as well as a gaggle of banal documentary themes such as a "Century of Souvenirs," "The Image Exploited," and "The Statue in Popular Culture."

THE LAST THING LADY LIBERTY needs is a museum to speak for her. What's more, we can appreciate the Washington Monument without the benefit of subterranean exhibits explaining "the monument and the man." We might even appreciate it more if we entered it at ground level like human beings rather than scuttling in through a tunnel like rats (as Vincent Scully might say). Indeed, the experience might even be worth braving "the heat and the cold." And the Vietnam memorial experience would hardly be enhanced by strolling through a chamber housing a jungle-warfare diorama, heated and humidified to a sweltering but historically accurate degree (a visitor-center feature now under consideration).

The point is that a visit to Washington is already an emotional experience, grounded primarily in classical architecture's powerful symbolism and profoundly anthropomorphic character--and it should stay that way. In the Capitol rotunda, with its soaring dome and rich decoration, in Latrobe's magnificent old House chamber (now Statuary Hall), in the Senate halls and committee and reception rooms covered with Brumidi's sumptuous murals--and now closed, like Bulfinch's fine old Senate chamber, to the public--one unconsciously imbibes the classical unity of beauty, truth, and goodness.

This is the experience that the Capitol Visitor Center will seriously compromise. Though the facility is intended to "orient" visitors, it will end up disorienting them--robbing the act of entrance of its monumental significance, funneling visitors up a stairway flanked by escalators and burrowed under the grand ascent to the central porch. Entering the Capitol will be like exiting a glitzy subway station.

MOREOVER, it is odd to hear Washington insiders speak admiringly of the subterranean galleries in the African and Asiatic art museums in the Smithsonian precinct on Independence Avenue, not to mention Pei's Louvre pavilion, all reached by downward-winding stairs. What has become of that instinctive sense of the primacy of the architectural experience of ascent? This primacy was no secret to Latrobe or his successor Thomas U. Walter or even that sylvan romantic Olmsted, each of whom designed tremendous exterior stairways at the Capitol.

Were you to tell a Greek or Roman or Renaissance architect that our World War II Memorial--the Mall's monument to America's greatest military contest--will consist primarily of a plaza sunk six feet deep, he would think you were joking. The erection of a building conceived as a "non-object"--as with the proposed "see-through" glass-and-mirrors entry pavilion to the Vietnam memorial visitor center--would utterly mystify him. A huge subterranean appendage like the Capitol Visitor Center could only provoke disbelief. Indeed, the Capitol and Washington Monument visitor center designs read as unwitting memorials to Timothy McVeigh and al Qaeda. And whether they really will lay security concerns to rest, or simply introduce new ones, remains an open question.

Let's pretend Congress suddenly regains its sanity while the Capitol Visitor Center remains little more than a gaping hole in the ground and rethinks this pharaonic fiasco. Secure underground meeting and briefing rooms are the dream of all official Washington these days, and they are going to get built somewhere in the Capitol's vicinity. So, go ahead and dig the legislative bunker, but skip the Great Hall, the auditorium, the theaters, cafeteria, and big gallery. Let the Capitol itself serve as the great exhibit.

The key to a new, secure public entrance might well lie in Latrobe's unrealized plan of 1811 for a grand pedimented gateway complex, or propylaeum, for the west front of the Capitol. Such a gateway could endow the lower portion of that front with a monumental scale lacking in Olmsted's terraces, gorgeous though they are. Behind the propylaeum, whose massive, heavily rusticated stonework would testify metaphorically to its "hardened" screening facility, would lie an enclosed court with grand flights of stairs--perhaps Olmsted's could be retained--leading up to the terrace directly beneath Bulfinch's portico.

Indeed, our leading classical architects--including the Philadelphians John Blatteau and Alvin Holm--should have been invited by the architect of the Capitol to study this problem at the outset. Instead, an unexceptional corporate firm, RTKL Associates, was retained as a result of its work on perimeter security that merged with the Capitol Visitor Center project. There was no competition or solicitation of alternative conceptual schemes for this tremendous commission.

MONUMENTAL WASHINGTON is also threatened with lots of unfortunate little changes on security grounds. To establish an adequate blast perimeter, the Park Service wants to eliminate on-site public parking at the relatively remote Jefferson Memorial. Visitors' vehicles will be routed to a lot a few minutes' walk away, which will surely be the end of most nighttime visits to the memorial, even if the lighting at the off-site lot is beefed up. So much for one of those little amenities that enriches Washington.

Likewise, the Urban Design and Security Plan for the city, an effort coordinated by the National Capital Planning Commission, proposes a row of granite bollards at the foot of the stairs to the Lincoln Memorial. They will almost certainly be installed. Must security-oriented design really be so ham-handed? At least the preliminary streetscape design for the 1600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, indefinitely closed to traffic since the Oklahoma City bombing, is unobtrusive--but it's also pedestrian (in both senses) and insignificant. If for security reasons this block must be closed--with streetscape alterations, however, permitting its eventual reopening--why can't it be redesigned to contribute to the grandeur of monumental Washington, as with the pro bono classical scheme offered by Franck Lohsen McCrery, Architects?

The short answer is that official Washington has long since ceased to reach for new grandeur in the capital's monumental core. It merely aims at establishing cordons sanitaires against terrorist fanatics, preserving the archaeological integrity of "historic vistas" and "cultural landscapes," avoiding litigation under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and commissioning the occasional modernist architectural misadventure. How unworthy of the most prosperous, most powerful nation in human history. How unworthy of the capital of the free world.

A regular contributor on architecture to The Weekly Standard, Catesby Leigh is a critic living in Washington, D.C.