By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 17, 2010; E02
Near the end of the documentary "Benjamin Latrobe: America's First Architect," a prominent architectural historian succumbs to the frustration that has dogged every effort to make sense of the man who helped give form to the White House, the U.S. Capitol and ultimately the whole history of civic architecture in America.
"He remains elusive to me, even in this spot," says Michael Fazio, a Latrobe expert but like all Latrobe experts, no fount of deep psychological wisdom about the hapless genius who finished so little but influenced so much. "This spot" is a plaque in a New Orleans graveyard that marks the site near where Latrobe's body was buried. As the film's host, New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger observes, Latrobe didn't go to New Orleans to die. But dying in middle age (of yellow fever) was just another bad turn of affairs in the life of a man who came to the United States after losing his first wife, only to build and lose a career, and descend ultimately into poverty and near oblivion.
Latrobe's work is a bit like one of those nearly inaudible melodies that religious composers used to embed in their music, as a kind of ground or foundation. If you know where to look, you can see his work directly; but even if you don't know what you're looking for, Latrobe's presence is felt in every sturdy neoclassical bank, in the Greek templelike facades of town halls and statehouses, and in the domes that cap off so many public buildings from Maine to Alaska.
As Goldberger makes clear in the hour-long film (which premieres Monday on WETA at 10 p.m.), Latrobe didn't just import classical ideas from Europe into the nascent American republic. He enlivened and adapted them, gave them an austere simplicity, and integrated them with interior spaces that had their own vibrant energies and flow. Unlike other learned men with pretensions to architecture, Latrobe wasn't picking details out of pattern books, arranging columns and pilasters copied from Palladio or Serlio. He was thinking in terms of volume and balance, about light and the ineffable qualities of the void contained by what was, for lesser architects, merely walls, arches, domes and ceilings, with some paste-on references to a foreign and distant tradition.
Latrobe emigrated from England to the United States in 1796, fleeing both the loss of his wife and a pile of debt. By 1798 he was building the First Bank of Pennsylvania (since demolished), which established his credentials as both a designer and engineer. By 1803, when Thomas Jefferson engaged him to continue work on the Capitol -- mired in political, economic and structural difficulties -- he was undoubtedly the country's premier architect.
But not an easy man to work with. Latrobe brought a level of detail and originality to his contributions, including his famous "corncob" capitals, a quintessentially American adaptation of the ornamental top of a column. These little references to a staple of American economic life still delight visitors today, as a bit of unlikely whimsy in an institution not known for grace or levity. But they are much more than that, signal proof that Latrobe was willing to impose American ideas on an almost sacrosanct aesthetic tradition.
Costs spiraled, journalists carped, politicians grumbled and pragmatism won out. Latrobe was forced off the project in 1817, leaving the historians interviewed in this film to wonder what Washington might have looked like if it had found better accommodation with its first architectural visionary.
It might, perhaps, have been filled with buildings like Latrobe's masterpiece, the cathedral he began building in 1806 for Catholic Bishop John Carroll in Baltimore. After renovations finished in 2006, the Baltimore Basilica is the best pilgrimage site for anyone who wants to understand Latrobe's vision. Forgoing any reference to Gothic vaults or the dark and often bloody emotionalism of Catholic aesthetics, Latrobe built a monument to the Enlightenment, posing as a cathedral. It is a radiant building, as bright as a New England meeting house on a sunny summer day, devoid of Baroque encrustation, and remarkable for its size and its grand rhythm of space. It is a building happy enough to make one forget about God.
Even this bright spot in Latrobe's career wasn't without controversy and conflict. The general pattern of brilliant starts and muddled endings continued for Latrobe, chasing him around the new nation, with stops in Pittsburgh and finally New Orleans, where he set to work on a public waterworks. Yellow fever struck, Latrobe was not immune, and when he died in 1820, at the age of 56, he was so poor his corpse was deposited in an unmarked grave.
After touring Goldberger and the cameras through Decatur House, a Latrobe work that has been both altered and restored since his death, scholar Sarah Luria says, "It is a story that gets repeated again and again." By which she means that the political, economic and cultural forces that ground down Latrobe afflicted many victims before and since. But this fast-paced and genial hour-long film can't afford to linger here even if this is where we desperately want to dig into the mystery of Latrobe.
Why is it that a man of such talent, such force of will, such imagination, failed in a land supposedly open to innovation, supposedly ambitious to set an ideal for posterity and build lasting structures of governance?
In 1806, Latrobe described the population of the muddy and notional city of Washington: "Distress and want of employment has made many of them sots," he wrote. "Most of them hate, calumniate, or envy each other, for they are all fighting for the scanty means of support which the city affords."
Failure isn't always a matter of deficient talent. This bitter observation by America's first serious architect suggests that he may have had a fatal abundance of vision, including a debilitating discernment into the real psychology and mores of his time. One wonders if Latrobe's downfall wasn't somehow related to his basic normality: that he wasn't a monomaniac visionary, but an ordinary man who suffered extraordinarily, and was unable to turn a blind eye to the slights and humiliations and compromises that dogged him throughout his career.
America's First Architect
(one hour) premieres Monday at 10 p.m. on WETA.