The Capitol Addition That Takes Too Much Away

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Over time, the U.S. Capitol has taken on two very different faces. What was once deemed the back side of the building -- facing the Mall -- became a grand, ceremonial front, with the addition of dramatic stairs, terraces and landscaping that emphasized its prominence on a hill. To the east, the old "front" of the Capitol became, by contrast, more modest, accessible and pastoral. Before ground was broken for the new Capitol Visitor Center in 2000, you could stand on the east side and imagine cows and sheep grazing, as if in the foreground of a romantic landscape painting.

This duality -- grandeur and authority vs. simplicity and openness -- also expressed an ideal of government. To survive, a republic must have authority, tradition and ceremonies. But it must also have its yeoman side, which allows the people to wander the halls of power as equals with their legislators.

The "truth to power" side of the Capitol, the East face, has been demolished by the new Visitor Center, a tragically misconceived and overscale addition, which opens today. The East face has become something entirely new, with a false and slick pomposity created by an impressive promenade over an imposing bridge, which seems to cross a kind of moat. It is a historical and aesthetic jumble, a nonsensical place and a gross disfigurement of one of this country's most important and iconic buildings.

Since the killing of two Capitol policemen in 1998, when long-standing plans for some kind of visitor facility were jump-started by new security concerns, the Visitor Center has ballooned in size and cost. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, led to major revisions in the plans, as did demands from Congress for new office space and other add-ons (a theater, media studios, a tunnel to the Library of Congress). A construction budget pegged at $265 million in 2000 grew to $621 million, and the building swelled to a colossal 580,000 square feet.

In an unsuccessful effort to limit the visual impact of the new space, it was placed underground. Entry for most visitors is down two sloping walkways on either side of the old East Capitol Street alignment, which is now elevated on a bridgelike structure . Elevators for handicap access have been placed on either side of the bridge, rather like guard towers. The power of the old landscaping -- an 1874 masterpiece of design by Frederick Law Olmsted -- is lost amid the visual clutter.

The lesson that Washington never seems to learn -- and alas, will confront once again if ill-conceived plans for a Vietnam Veterans Memorial visitor center proceed on the Mall -- is that there is no such thing as an underground building. The need for access, and egress, elevators and skylights means that even below-grade buildings intrude on the landscape.

The intrusion of the new Visitor Center is extreme, and creates a cacophony of historical suggestions. Where Olmsted once had a loosely aligned allee of tulip poplars, there are now formal lines of spindly trees leading to the underground entrance. Where Olmsted's allee both framed and obscured the view of the East front -- an elaborate peekaboo with the Capitol that made it seem farther away -- the new bridge makes the entrance rigid and formal.

The effect is French, more Versailles than Washington: a tightly controlled procession down a linear axis, now framed by the elevator-guard towers. The "moat," the below-grade well where visitors enter, adds to the weird historical cacophony. Is this a grand baroque avenue? Or a medieval defense device?

For those who don't remember the old landscaping, this grandiloquent new view of the Capitol might not seem so bad. And anyone who has visited the Capitol during the dog days of summer, or the cold of winter, will be grateful for the chance to wait indoors for a tour. But the loss of green space, the loss of old trees, the loss of the gentle, democratic approach to the Capitol is huge. The East front feels as if it has been chewed up by ramps and walkways and bridges, like the entrance to a badly designed airport.

The building itself, designed by RTKL architects (a huge international design firm that has, among other things, designed many of this area's shopping malls), is a perfect exemplar of bureaucratically conceived and executed architecture. It grew by fits and starts, reflecting the two prevailing political impulses of the past decade: fear of terrorism and growth of government. Eventually, the dog (the visitor center) was being wagged by the tail (everything else).

Although an effort was made to match materials from the old Capitol, including the rusty-colored sandstone from the Rotunda (with which the underground center connects), the resulting aesthetic has all the sterility and polish that people expect from hospitals and airports. Initial fears that the subterranean space would be dark haven't proved true. Skylights allow light to flood in, and frame dramatic views of the Capitol dome.

But unless you're lucky enough to break out of the well-designed visitor holding tanks, your experience of the Capitol will be almost indistinguishable from a trip to the Newseum, Mount Vernon or many other of our increasingly homogenized historical sites. The Rolodex of contractors for these kinds of facilities has grown far too small. Ralph Appelbaum Associates has designed the exhibitions -- "they're considered the rock stars of the museum world," said Visitor Center spokesman Tom Fontana -- which includes interactive touch screens and a "Wall of Aspirations," by now a familiar and kitschy tic from this New York-based firm, which also did similar exhibitions for the Newseum.

For many visitors, the shopping-mall-like familiarity of the interior finish, the new bathrooms, oversize signage, elevators and the generic, smooth polished surfaces, will be comforting. Like visiting the old Capitol, but better. And perhaps that's a good thing. Defenders of this addition, the ninth and by far the largest in the history of the building, can point to the obvious fact that the Capitol has always been a work in progress. The original, masonry wings of the first Capitol were as appropriate to the late 18th century as the iron-supported dome was to increasingly industrialized 19th century, when it was finished in 1866. Just as we've gone from an agrarian country to an industrial one, now we're a service economy, and the Capitol is defined by a huge new service wing: clean and efficient, with a huge cafeteria.

And one might argue that the old duality of the building, the grandeur on one side, the rural approachability on the other, has been replaced by a new duality, more appropriate to the Internet-television-virtual reality age. We now have a Capitol, and a HyperCapitol, where everything is better presented, cleaner, more dramatically framed. Like the world seen on television, things that were once far away -- the dome, the statue on top of the dome -- have been brought up close, through models, or interactive screens. The skylights don't just frame views of the building, but exaggerate them, by increasing the distance between the viewer and the dome's top from 287 feet (from the old plaza elevation) to 323 feet (from the floor of Emancipation Hall). Even buildings near the Capitol, the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress Jefferson Building (both built after Olmsted's landscaping), have been given new drama when viewed from the below-ground entrance to the Visitor Center.

Popular enthusiasm for the new HyperCapitol might well dispel the long years of grumbling about its cost and delays. Changes to the Capitol have always been controversial. Even the dome, which is now its iconic feature, was deemed by some critics as too overbearing when it was designed in the mid-19th century. A country that for more than two centuries has swung between left and right, radical and reactionary, has always been fundamentally -- and properly -- conservative in relation to this enduring symbol of its government.

But, despite years of delay, you can't help but think that a grand and essential building was changed too quickly, too radically, without sufficient thought and planning, and with little real understanding of how much was at stake. The loss is enormous. Who knows whether the United States will ever again be rich enough, or smart enough, to undo the damage.

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