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Architecture: Comparing Paul Philippe Cret and John Carl Warnecke

Two architects, with two very different legacies in Washington, D.C., are in the news. French-born classicist Paul Philippe Cret is the subject of a new exhibition at the Museum of the Americas, and John Carl Warnecke, who came to prominence during the Kennedy Administration and built two large office buildings near Lafayette Park, died April 17 at the age of 91.

These works capture the pragmatism of Depression-era and wartime Washington, a city determined to remain grand, but with nothing to spare on frippery. But as scholar Elizabeth Grossman has argued, Cret's aesthetic also coincided with the New Deal concentration of power into federal Washington, and it influenced federal design for years to come. The Federal Reserve Board Building projected a lean and mean classicism just as Washington politicians, burned by a drastic financial collapse, sought to regulate the economy with more central power.

The comparison of Cret's later style to Speer's authoritarian pomposity isn't fair from an ideological point of view -- Cret's political instincts were democratic to the bone. But these late works display an aesthetic of concentrated power, a look that accentuates the massive, the orderly and the blank. To go any further in the direction that Cret took the Federal Reserve Board Building would lead to an architecture that is merely mute and thuggish, buildings such as the Export-Import Bank near the White House, which embody Hannah Arendt's terrifying definition of bureaucracy as "the rule by Nobody."

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John Carl Warnecke, who had several high-profile Washington commissions in the late 1960s and '70s, tried to contain some of the forces that architects, such as Cret, unleashed with their stripped-down classicism. In two buildings that have long blighted part of the city's most historic square, you can see an architect trying to build for a country that, if it was to be ruled by Nobody, wanted a Nobody With a Smile. Standing on opposite sides of Lafayette Square, the New Executive Office Building and the National Courts Building are overscaled brick behemoths, with elongated rectangular windows and a timid effort at ornamentation along their cornice lines.

They were built in the late 1960s as part of an effort to preserve historic buildings in Lafayette Square while shoehorning in more federal office space. But each feels like an intrusion, a blank mass of brick too big to be part of the historic neighborhood. Warnecke tried to dress them up a little, with window bays that seem to pay homage to Victorian townhouses. But there is something comical about them, as if Warnecke wanted to build something austere but didn't trust his instincts. "Don't try to please everybody," Cret warned.

Building them probably helped preserve blocks of smaller-scale historic structures, which can't be said of Cret's OAS. building. Its construction led to the demolition of an important house designed by Benjamin Latrobe, the nation's first professional architect. But while Cret's building led to the destruction of historical material, it replaced it with something substantial. Warnecke's buildings preserved history (with a few exceptions) but added to it in a way that destroys the ambiance, the fantasy of the place.

If they could be quietly erased from the skyline, Washington would look more like Washington, which is to say it would look more like the Washington that Cret helped design.


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