Should D.C. Break From Its Architectural Tradition?

Perhaps no American city is as defined by a single architectural style as Washington D.C. is by classically inspired architecture. Roger K. Lewis argues why the nation's capital needs to break from its historical antecedents.
May 30, 2012, 10am PDT | Jonathan Nettler | @nettsj
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Recent debates over Frank Gehry's non-traditional design for a memorial to Dwight Eisenhower have brought back to life a simmering debate over the "appropriate" architectural style for D.C., which is of course defined by classically styled government and civic edifices such as the U.S. Capitol and White House; the Supreme Court; Union Station; the National Gallery of Art West Building; the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials; and the Federal Triangle. Leading the charge against Gehry has been the Washington-based National Civic Art Society, who are "dedicated to the traditional, humanistic practice of architecture, urban design and the fine arts, advocating the humanist tradition as the unrivaled source of artistic forms and conventions." 

"People presumably associate classicism with stability, permanence, authority, elegance and grandeur," observes Lewis, but "National Civic Art Society members believe that modern architecture is devoid of these attributes. Thus, the society argues that Washington has been and should continue to be a city of classically inspired architecture." 

Rather than looking at the debate around D.C.'s architecture as an either/or proposition between modernism and classicism, Lewis argues that architecture's 20th century transformation has allowed both to co-exist.  

"In the 20th century, architecture underwent dramatic transformation. Innovative materials, machines and construction methods appeared. Unprecedented functional needs and building types emerged. New technologies and building systems were devised, enabling architects and engineers to address new physical, environmental, social and economic challenges unknown in past centuries. This is why so-called modernism encompasses so many styles, and why formulaic, one-size-fits-all classicism makes little sense and has less meaning today."

"Most Americans, including architects, appreciate historic architecture and are committed to its preservation. But I doubt that many want or expect 21st-century architecture to look like it was transplanted from the past."

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Published on Friday, May 18, 2012 in The Washington Post
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