American Institute of Architecture publishes fifth edition of its indispensible guide to Washington, D.C.

Twenty years elapsed between the second and third editions of the American Institute of Architecture’s guide to Washington, D.C., and more than a decade between the third and fourth. But only six years after author Martin Moeller published the last version in 2006, he is back with the latest, the fifth.


The Newseum, included in the AIA’s new guide. (James P. Blair/NEWSEUM)

That meant substantially revising the old volume, a cherished local handbook to the architectural history of the District. There are almost 50 new entries, and a new focus on neighborhoods such as Logan Circle/Shaw and Capitol South where growth has been particularly dynamic. Moeller, who has authored the last two iterations of the volume, sees Washington architecture resurgent, after a period of low energy in the 80s and 90s.

“I’d say the city is much more self-secure,” in its identity, he says. “Despite the stereotypes, it has actually been a leader culturally and in architectural terms.”

Unlike some other AIA guides, Moeller’s book brings a critic’s perspective to the built environment, and while one might disagree here and there with his observations, he is a very judicious and reliable observer. Among the new entries is this take on the 2008 Newseum, designed by Polshek Partnership Architects: “Like the news itself these days, the Newseum comes at you as a barrage, with numerous elements vying for your attention.” The author finds the front of this building includes “a veritable catalog of curtain walls, each attractive in its own right, but with no apparent reason for the multiplicity of patterns and glass treatments.” Exactly so.

“I tried to be humorous or light about it,” he says. “I didn’t want to do anything that was over the top.” The book is a mix of personal observation, history and lot of noticing details in a way that will prompt readers to look more keenly at the buildings around them.

Moeller’s goal is to draw out “something that people could see but might not understand or appreciate, a detail, or a use of material that is innovative. At the same time I tried to think of some things that might be interesting about the building, but not tangible. A case that comes to mind: The fact that the Watergate complex was largely designed by Benito Mussolini’s architect. It is funny in a weird way, you don’t think of that connection and it opens up a variety of other questions about the relation of architectural history to political history. It gives people a little bit of depth and context.”

The AIA guide is all that, and it fits nicely in the glove compartment, or a backpack. Essential carry-along reading.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.

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