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Architecture

Capitol revisions and security mania

In today's D.C., big projects don't yield big results

Emancipation Hall is part of the new underground Capitol Visitor Center. It contains a lot of marble but not much else. Emancipation Hall is part of the new underground Capitol Visitor Center. It contains a lot of marble but not much else. (TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)
By Robert Campbell
Globe Correspondent / February 15, 2009
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WASHINGTON - If you're an architect who doesn't have a single bright idea, here's what you do.

Impress everyone by spending $621 million. Make every room twice as big as it needs to be. Finally, slather every available surface with a thick, gooey coat of warm-toned marble.

It's hard to know where to begin to castigate the new US Capitol Visitor Center here. Things go wrong right at the start, when you sprain your shoulder opening one of the huge bronze doors, which look like something out of a Hollywood vision of the Roman Empire. Why are they so hard to open? You've got it: they're blast-proof. Once again, government security has been thought more important than public convenience.

The Visitor Center is now the only way for members of the general public to enter the Capitol. Huge as it is, it's entirely underground, so at least it doesn't interrupt the view of the Capitol's East Front.

You get to the Center by walking down one of two long ramps, which bring you to those implacable bronze doors. Why are there two ramps instead of one? Is it just a way to spend more money? No, the reason is actually architectural. The architects believe so strongly in the concept of symmetry that they've provided two of everything, like mirror images of each other. When you get inside, for example, you have your choice of the north or south gift shop, the north or south coatroom, the north or south balcony, and so on.

As for interior architecture, there really isn't any. The main room, the enormous Emancipation Hall, is totally beiged out with all that marble. As many have noted, it feels like an empty, cavernous shopping mall. There are weak hints of columns and beams, just enough to make you remember what genuine architecture looks like. The only modernist elements, and the best things in the building, are the skylights (a symmetrical pair, of course), elegantly detailed in glass and stainless steel. They offer, as you look up and through them, a magnificent view of the Capitol dome high above.

The architect was the large international firm RTKL, in collaboration with Alan Hantman, then the appointed architect of the Capitol.

I visited only the public part of the Center. Another large portion is devoted to extra space for members of the House and Senate. Word on the street is that those two bodies got into a competition as to which would get more out of the new building, while the cost ballooned to more than $1,000 for each square foot of floor area.

My advice to architecture groupies is to traverse a new pedestrian tunnel, which now connects the Visitor Center with the Library of Congress. The tunnel itself is a total bore, but at the end you explode into the fantastic interior of the library's original building, with its great domed stair hall and vaulted reading room. At last, you're in the presence of architecture.

Critics sometimes sniff at the flamboyance of the library, which is vaguely modeled on the equally flamboyant Paris Opera. The architects, Paul Pelz and J.L. Smithmeyer, won the job in an architectural competition in 1873. They were immigrants from Prussia and Vienna respectively, and today they're virtually forgotten. Maybe as designers they go a little over the top. But after the Visitor Center, they remind us that passion, invention, and joy are actually possible in public buildings.

Dealing with security, with the threat of terrorism, is now an obsession in Washington, not only at the Capitol. Sometimes it's done well. Philadelphia landscape architect Laurie Olin, for example, has created a low car-bomb barrier that entirely circles the Washington Monument, but you never notice it because it also serves as a comfortable dark granite seating bench. And at the National Museum of the American Indian, vehicles are blocked at one corner by a handsome sculptural pile of "grandfather rocks." I'm not sure what those are, but they're an improvement on Jersey barriers and steel bollards.

The worst example of security mania is the FBI headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue. Unbelievably, raw plywood barriers are now installed at the tops of outdoor stairs that once led into the building. A ramp to an underground garage is blockaded by orange traffic cones (one of which was lying on its side), steel bollards, and a bright red metal barrier with the word "STOP" painted on it. The effect is like a pile of bright toys in a daycare center. The FBI has always been the ugliest fortress in Washington, but it has now outdone itself. These clowns are making us safe?

I also visited the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, not to check security this time, but just to see what it looked like after its recent total interior renovation. The new interior is bright but painfully vacuous, plastered everywhere with donor plaques (even the original Star-Spangled Banner exhibit is now presented to us courtesy of Ralph Lauren). But I fell in love with two semi-architectural displays I'd never seen.

One is Julia Child's kitchen, which was moved here from the famous cook's Cambridge house in 2002. TV screens just outside the kitchen show us Child performing in her old PBS show, with her unforgettable personality again on display.

The other exhibit, which dates from 2001, is one of the best things I've ever seen in any museum. It's the history of a house built in the 1760s at 16 Elm St. in Ipswich, Mass., and moved to the museum when it was about to be demolished.

The physical house is here, with period furnishings, and with parts of its wallpaper and plaster peeled off to show you the brick chimney and construction of heavy timbers. Also here is a long wall of fascinating information about how the house grew and changed over the years, and about the many people who occupied it during the centuries. There's a wealth of old newspapers, period fabrics, family photographs, and even such improbable delights as a recording of radio crooner Bing Crosby singing an appeal for war bonds during World War II.

A very modest piece of architecture, 16 Elm is so deeply anchored in the culture of its times and people that you begin to sense the house itself as a living thing. It's a richer experience than the Capitol Visitor Center.

Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.

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