True to Its Words

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 2, 2006


As a child growing up in Washington, Sarah Luria played in the charmless stone and cement ring of the Benjamin Banneker Fountain, a failed monument that juts out from the failed and charmless space of L'Enfant Plaza. Luria was raised in the house her mother grew up in, and Washington, and the Mall especially, were her play space. The nation's capital was, she remembers, a city of ambitious plans and big failures, of grand spaces and great poverty. In 1968, when Luria was 8 years old, she watched the skies fill with the acrid yellow smoke and tear gas -- all too close to her family's home in Reno Park.

And then, when she was 17, she moved away. Soon after, her father, a CIA agent, took early retirement, and her parents retired to a sailboat. She began losing her connection to the city. Which makes it all the more impressive that Luria, a young professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, has just published one of the most lively and engaging books now available about Washington's urban design, architecture and interior spaces.

"Capital Speculations" is the successful fruit of a cross-disciplinary approach to writing about place that draws on everything from literature and politics to paintings and maps. She analyzes photographs and street plans, a painting of George Washington, and the layout of Frederick Douglass's furniture. Sitting in a noisy little cafe tucked into the massive pile of Boston's Public Library, Luria says that she isn't interested in the fashionable language of "reading" public space, or treating buildings like texts or metaphors. For her, the relation between buildings and words, in Washington, is much more tangible and real.

Washington, she argues, was planned big, too big, in a calculated effort to make people buy into a dream -- both in the real sense of speculating on land, and the political and emotional sense of supporting the new national project. And among the prominent people who bought into the city were writers who made private spaces for themselves every bit as speculative -- or experimental -- as the city itself. So her book begins big, with the efforts of the Federalists and George Washington to build "a new Rome," an almost absurd exercise in wishful thinking at the time. It ends with a detailed and intimate look at the domestic space of two men who made the new Rome their home, Henry Adams and Frederick Douglass. Weaving it all together is a powerful conviction that words and space are deeply connected.

"The Federalists, who had been arguing themselves to death through the Federalist Papers, wanted something that was going to appeal to people beyond thought," she says, in the characteristic clipped speaking style of someone who thinks much too fast to finish every sentence. The Federalists and other advocates for the new city, she argues, weren't just thinking symbolically -- big city equals big central government -- they were inviting people to participate in the most tangible way possible, by investing in land.

"You're going to come down this avenue and you're going to reach into your pocket and say, 'I'm in,' " Luria says. "Because it's going to be dazzling. You're going to see what this political system could look like, and you're going to buy into it because you physically experience it and you believe in its possibility of really coming to be."

Other scholars have noted the connection between the commercial and the political in Washington's development, but Luria develops the larger theme of speculation -- how people make big bets, not just on real estate but on ideas and political dreams -- over more than a century. Even the layout of the city's streets -- which can be read both as a conformist grid overlaid with liberating avenues or as a humble, foursquare city with grandiose, monumental avenues imposed on it -- reflects the political tensions inherent in building a grand, federal city. And often, individual buildings echo the same concerns. If the city was intentionally designed to be too big, so too was the preposterously outsize dome on the Capitol.

"It was made of pig iron, the same metal used in railroad tracks," she writes in a chapter that focuses on the imagery used by President Lincoln in his speeches and Walt Whitman in his poetry. The iron connection linking the railroads to the Capitol dome wasn't just an accident of materials. The railroads, she argues, were being sold to America as part of a new way of thinking about the Republic, as a vast coast-to-coast project linked by rail and telegraph cable. These "internal improvements," she says, were represented symbolically in the Capitol dome itself, the building of which Lincoln insisted continue despite the devastating strains of the Civil War.

"With the capital as idealized map of the nation as a whole," she writes, "the completed dome, and its inner structure of iron trusses and spans, would offer a climax to the vision of national infrastructure of internal improvements, of accelerated communication and trade leading to prosperity and political freedom."

Perhaps the most radical and moving thing about this vision of America is that it was imagined at a time when there was no certainty that the union would continue at all. And so it goes down in Luria's history as yet another example of how Washington comes to be as a matter of vast, oversize speculation.

* * *

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company