Exploring the architecture of Washington, beyond the National Mall

The Washington Monument is reflected in a window at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, one of the additions to the updated D.C. guide from the American Institute of Architects. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Throughout most of the world, including the United States, Washington, D.C., is merely a symbol. It is the capital and home of the Capitol, and a symbol of democracy. It appears fixed in static form, represented by a handful of buildings, including the White House, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Rarely does Washington manifest as an actual city, home to more than 700,000 people, except in reports (usually exaggerated) about its urban dysfunction, which only serve to reinforce it as a symbol of poor governance.

But it is a city, and a vibrant one, and increasingly it is a city of significant architectural interest. The just-published sixth edition of the American Institute of Architects’ “Guide to the Architecture of Washington, DC” documents its urban and architectural vitality, especially when read side by side with earlier editions.

Since 2006, when the AIA published the fourth edition, the book’s author has been G. Martin Moeller Jr., a genial and knowledgeable guide. In his introduction, Moeller notes that the new edition, the first update since 2012, includes 80 new entries, including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (the team of Freelon Adjaye Bond) and the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial (by Frank Gehry), both of which have had a major impact on the city’s symbolic core.

It also includes chapter listings that would have raised eyebrows in 2006. Gentrification and rapid development have created a fresh cartological shorthand for the city, defining new neighborhoods such as Near Southwest, Capitol Riverfront and NoMa/Union Market. These places existed, of course, but they weren’t seen as hubs of nightlife, and they didn’t bristle with cookie-cutter modernist condo buildings. Now, the guide includes them in its walking tours, which include not just recently built structures but the chance to rediscover forgotten or neglected sites such as the 1907 D.C. Water Main Pumping Station along the Capitol Riverfront and the 1923 refrigerated warehouse building now transformed into the Museum of the Bible in Near Southwest.

Moeller’s entries stray well beyond design, engineering and materials. He is interested in the larger story of Washington — its social, symbolic and political history. He is opinionated, though his opinions are eminently reasonable and often entertaining. The historic 1897 home of the Library of Congress, known as the Thomas Jefferson Building, went through a long gestation after its authorization by Congress in 1873, during which “the architects continued to tinker with the design like teenagers trying on different outfits before a date.” I was glad to find that a favorite detail from the 2006 edition has been retained in the current one: In the old Franklin Square neighborhood, now home to The Washington Post, one of the many long-shuttered and now-forgotten porn shops used to have a sign that read “Purveyors of Fine Smut.”

Moeller’s 20-page introduction to the city’s development and architecture is as deft a summary sketch as one can find. All the central tensions are here, between an ambitious, foundational city plan and the exigencies of organic development, between governmental grandeur and the city’s commercial and residential domesticity, and between the several architectural styles that have been deemed appropriate to the dignity of the capital (classical or Northern European, marble or brick, traditional or modern). He concludes his essay with a riposte to Charles Dickens’s famous indictment of Washington as a “city of magnificent intentions.” Perhaps it was, but as Moeller writes, “What the city may lack in sheer quantity of truly avant-garde works of architecture, it makes up in thriving neighborhoods, cohesive streetscapes, and surpassing civic order.”

Visitors to Washington may discover some of this, especially if they learn how to take the Metro (stand to the right, please). But there is something about the symbol of Washington that makes it difficult for people to acknowledge the reality of its urban life, even if they experience it, enjoy it and Instagram it to all their friends back home.

Like other cities around the country that have participated in the great urban regeneration of the 21st century, Washington exemplifies American ideals of living and prospering together better than much of what is commonly known as the Heartland. It has invested in its public realm, in libraries and parks; its transit infrastructure may need improvement, especially since the pandemic, but it is far superior to what is available in most smaller cities, towns and suburbs; and it has controlled and moderated rapid development to ensure livability and emphasize beauty (again, imperfectly, but still well enough to be exemplary for much of this country). It is also diverse and, for the most part, happily and vibrantly so.

None of that can be easily squared with the common symbolic sense of Washington, especially if that symbolism is rooted in idolatry for a mythic Washington of the 19th and early 20th centuries, a timeless theme park of the Founding Fathers, marble columns and all the usual epiphenomena of patriotism. The real city, as Moeller’s guide makes clear again and again, is in a constant state of evolution, tension, conflict, and sometimes (thankfully) resolution and compromise.

The old Carrère and Hastings-designed P Street NW home of the Carnegie Institution for Science has been sold off to Qatar to become an embassy, which is deeply unfortunate given Qatar’s human rights record. Then again, one of the most stylish recent buildings on North Capitol Street, a 2016 mixed-income residential building that appears as a set of off-kilter boxes (designed by Sorg Architects), is targeted at lower-income veterans subject to housing insecurity. Some of the city’s most intriguing avant-garde structures — two libraries designed by star architect David Adjaye — are located so far from the tourist core of Washington that sightseers rarely visit, which makes them all the more the possession of those who need them most.

The symbolic truth of a city like Washington is far richer and more complex than the latticework of avenues, squares and streets designed by Pierre L’Enfant and monumentalized in the early decades of the last century. The early city was built with slave labor, and in 1863, when Thomas Crawford’s 19-foot statue “Freedom” was lifted to the top of the Capitol dome, the nation’s preeminent symbol of democracy was crowned with art manufactured by enslaved people (“incredibly enough,” notes Moeller).

It remains a city of deep inequities and entrenched neighborhoods of poverty, remote from both symbolic Washington and the Washington of wealth and privilege. Yet when snow shuts down the city, or people pour into its parks for impromptu fireworks on the Fourth of July, or the setting sun catches the top of the Jefferson Memorial just as you cross over the Potomac River — it exemplifies both the City Beautiful (the movement that influenced so much of its design) and the city beautiful (that inchoate quality that makes you happy you don’t live somewhere else).

Moeller is alert to all of these maddening complexities. Visitors (and residents) who want to discover a history far richer than the usual pieties of the double-decker tour bus will profit from time with this guide. Put it in your bag, take the Metro to a stop from which you have never alighted, and start walking. The lessons learned will be far richer than a stroll on the Mall or down Pennsylvania Avenue.

AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington, DC

By G. Martin Moeller Jr.,

Johns Hopkins. 383 pp. $59.95 hardcover; $34.95 paperback

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