By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 2, 2010; E06
Anyone in love with a city has a perfect vision of it. As we walk its streets, we try to blot out everything that is discordant, the facades that don't match our fantasy, the cars that are too new or too old to fit the perfect moment of our private urban bliss.
It's a safe bet that for many Washingtonians, the impressive "House of the Americas" at Constitution Avenue and 17th Street NW is part of their perfect Washington. It was completed in 1910 by Paul Philippe Cret and Albert Kelsey to house the Organization of American States (or the International Bureau of the American Republics as it was originally known). It has the impressive facade, the rich carving and detail, and much of the Beaux-Arts splendor that defines the Washington that emerged in the first decades of the last century. That Washington, a city of white marble palaces with splendid staircases, overawing halls and ornate assembly rooms, still rules how many people think of today's Washington. Its self-confident and exuberant aesthetic still governs.
We are in the midst of a series of anniversaries and public events devoted to that fantasy city. On Thursday, OAS's Art Museum of the Americas opened an exhibition devoted to Cret's design. On May 18, the National Capital Planning Commission is sponsoring a lecture on the 1910 Height Act, which has kept Washington a city of low-rise buildings, cautiously deferring to the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument. And on May 15, the National Building Museum opens an exhibition devoted to the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, the oversight body that still comments on changes to the city's monumental core.
The House of the Americas made Cret's reputation and he went on to have a major impact on Washington, designing the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Federal Reserve Board Building, the Connecticut Avenue and Duke Ellington bridges over Rock Creek Park, and the grimly beautiful Central Heating Plant in Southwest.
Born in France in 1876, the lower-middle-class Cret made his way to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and in 1903 to Philadelphia where he taught at the University of Pennsylvania, an essential new center of American architecture. Among his students, over the years, was Louis Kahn.
The OAS exhibition opened last week, only a few days after news came of the April 17 death of John Carl Warnecke, whose grave site design for his primary patron, President John F. Kennedy, helped define one corner of sacred federal ground. But while Cret helped build the ceremonial Washington that has provided B-roll for innumerable tales of power and romances of democracy, Warnecke was a more complicated figure, responsible for some good ideas (mixing preservation with new construction) and some lousy buildings. Cret and Warnecke both struggled to adapt classical styles for contemporary times, and if the former succeeded and the latter failed, it is, in part, because of the role that power and self-confidence plays in the prevailing architectural fantasy of Washington.
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Among the items on display in the Cret exhibition is a handwritten document called "Ten Commandments for Architects." "Don't try to please everybody; try to please yourself first of all," reads Cret's first commandment. That was in 1940, well after he earned the stature to insist on fidelity to his vision.
When designing the OAS building early in his career, he hewed close to the program, incorporating an eclectic assemblage of Central and South American native styles into his fundamentally classical style. The building is loaded with allegories and references that manifest the OAS goals of promoting trade, unity and political cooperation between the states of North and South America. It is a grand building -- and open to the public, though they might not guess it -- but it is also easy to read: On the 17th Street facade, there's a bald eagle and a South American condor, and images of George Washington, Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín.
Inside, the building becomes more exuberantly eclectic. Aztec and Mayan motifs are embedded in the floor of the tropical patio. Palm trees grow beside long, formal staircases, leading to a grand assembly hall, lit by three elegant chandeliers, where the ambassadors of the member nations once gathered.
The exhibition is devoted more to the building than to Cret, though it does feature early sketchbooks (written in French), including one documenting a visit to Mexico in 1908. It gives a good sense of Cret's early facility as an artist and draftsman. But the focus on the OAS building leaves the majority of Cret's career unexamined, including the fascinating shift in his style -- noticeable in the Folger Shakespeare Library.
In the period between 1929 and 1932, when Cret was working on the Folger, his style became more restrained, more austere, more alert to contemporary trends, resulting in a building that some have joked is best called "stark deco." That leaner and blanker style would define his work thereafter, reaching an almost brutal, Albert Speer-like barrenness in the Federal Reserve Board Building, and the tower he built for the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.
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.