Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A city of magnificent intentions

Washington, DC is like a European city with an American accent. It has a Parisian quality to it, with its broad avenues and neoclassical buildings, and what with the influence of French city planner L’Enfant it is understandable. It sits along the great Potomac River, like London on the Thames or Paris on the Seine. Washington was a planned city though; it took 200 years to fill in according to an ambitious design whereas the great capitals of Europe developed organically over many more centuries. Charles Dickens mocked it's slogan "The City of Magnificent Distances" and called it "The City of Magnificent Intentions", for it's broad avenues were muddy ruts and it's buildings were unfinished at the time of his visit. It is fascinating how Washington appropriates the forms of neoclassical architecture in ways that are so different from European and classical precedent.
Take the White House, although certainly a grand house was it really that much more elaborate than the home of a successful Colonial planter? Washington’s influence and that of his beloved Mount Vernon undoubtedly had something to do with that.
It was modeled on an Irish country house, and not a Versailles or a Buckingham Palace. This was to be the seat of the chief executive of the new nation.
The capital looks similar to St.Paul’s Cathedral in London and it borrows the dome of the great churches. In a church the dome would be placed farther away from the entrance where the 2 wings from a cross over the altar. At the capitol that axis is turned so that entry is in the center of the long side, and the dome marks not a crossing but the joint between two large meeting rooms. The dome is placed above the symbolic gathering place of the representatives of the people.
The Washington Monument takes the form of an Egyptian obelisk, only at a gargantuan scale, and it is a single obelisk when Egyptian custom was for obelisks to be paired. It represents the emerging American technical prowess of its time as it remains the tallest masonry structure in the world.
The Lincoln Memorial is a modified Greek temple to the man who saved the union, like the capitol it is rotated so that entry is through what would be the side if it were the Parthenon.
The Jefferson Memorial recalls the Pantheon in Rome that inspired Thomas Jefferson in his own designs for Monticello and the library of the University of Virginia.
Union Station recalls both Roman triumphal arches as befitting a ceremonial entry to the capital city; its arches frame a distant view of the capitol dome. The station also evokes the great Roman baths(large communal gathering places)for use as a railroad passenger terminal. These formal adaptations reflect the way in which America evolved from and sought to improve on the western democratic tradition.

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