December 2, 2008
by Erik Bootsma
This morning the National Capitol Visitor's Center officially opened. While the ceremony was today to officially inaugurate this project, the Center or CVC as it is banally called inside
has been open to visitors for the past few weeks. I was able to take a tour through a friend here at Georgetown and frankly was unimpressed. While I had heard of horrific rumors about the content of the museum and the experience as a whole, I found it less offensive as I had thought, but then upon reflection found this milquetoast reaction to be the most distressing thing about the experience.
To begin with, the entire center is underground. While I understand that the architects wanted to avoid sullying the iconic profile of the Capitol, I wonder why architects today cannot make an addition to any building without it being political suicide? Because Modernism cannot make buildings that harmonize with their surroundings, and in fact make buildings that ruin anything they touch. Thus, to avoid an inevitable and justified public outcry, they push the building underground, hiding it from view and from criticism, or at least the need to criticise.
I ask, why do architects feel that they cannot make an addition to a building that won't elicit universal scorn, when for generations before architects were able to do just that. Both the Capitol and the White House have been added on numerous times, but yet the buildings were not ruined, but rather enhanced! This is because contemporary architects are so enamored with Modernism/Postmodernism/Deconstruction that the idea of making a truly sensitive and harmonious addition is both philosophically and technically impossible to them. This is because such an addition would necessarily be classical as the classical is the only mode of architecture that allows for both harmony and balance and beauty in a composition, while Modernism allows for only subjection, rejection and subversion.
Ok, so enough on the modernists. On to the building. As I said the building is underground, clearly for aesthetic concerns but ostensibly to allow for visitors to assemble to enter the building under cover and in airconditioned comfort. As Harry Reid said rudely, visitors during the summer come into the Capitol covered in sweat frankly stink. Two questions I have are this, couldn't a visitors center been constructed on the edge of the grounds like a gate house of some sort? This would allow visitors to go through security then roam the grounds as they wait in the shade of the trees of a beautiful park.
Second, why then has the security for the center been placed directly at the entrance, making visitors queue up in the open air anyway? After entering there is a massive area between the immediate security stations and the politically correct Emancipation Hall, why couldn't the security be placed further in the building to allow for visitors to be under cover?
Aesthetically the Hall of Emancipation, the only real "architectural" space of the addition is a sort of mishmash of pre-war Fascist modernist classical mixed with all of the charm of a standard shopping mall. The columns are stripped down lacking any real architectural treatment, while still being covered with luxurious marble constructed in such a man manner to make it clear that the surface is merely a facade. Light comes in through the immense skylights, which is nice but still has the feel of being inside a mall, as you can only see the sky above. Light fixtures are either bland modern or are off the shelf from Home Depot can lights, the worst sort of lighting possible. Decoration is nonexistent other than a few inscriptions of the most politically neutral sort. Thankfully, as BeyondDC had reported incorrectly, E Pluribus Unum was not translated to mean "From One Come Many."
The Emancipation Hall is as said, filled with all the most politically correct statues from the states, from Sarah Winnemucca, Sacagawea, to King Kamehamea, very few white males are represented here. While one may argue about the points of this, it says a lot about the confidence the artists and architects have in the culture of America. Now this being said, full size plaster model of Freedom, the statue that tops the Capitol dome, is magnificent to see right up close and thankfully provides some sort of focus to an otherwise banal experience.
The whizbang museum fits the standard sort of rambling multimedia experiences one comes to expect in today's culture of the short attention span. However the models showing the sequential growth of the site of the Capitol are really quite extraordinary. Not quite as impressive as the McMillan Plan models at the Building Museum, but nice nonetheless. But I may just have the bias to such things as an architect.
Before one enters the Capitol proper however, one is subjected to at 10 minute film in one of the two theatres in the center. Now I was expecting the worst, possibly a preachy type film about how bad America was, but thankfully not. But unfortunately the film as everything else seemed as beige and unoffensive as the rest of the center. It seems they have brought giving no offense to a high art. It seems that one is ashamed of saying that America is a great place.
Now the final criticism of the Center is the most damning in my opinion. The Capitol's original plan by Thornton have the two branches of Congress mediated by a central Hall, the Hall of the People. Now once upon a time, that Hall was the most hallowed and sacred space in our Republic, but as such was absolutely open to all. Anyone could wander into the Hall because in a very real sense it belonged to everyone. The ascent up the steps was an act of civic sacrament, like the Papal Procession climbing the steps of the Campidoglio in Rome, sacramentalizing such a place. But now, one doesn't enter the Hall from the grand steps, one comes in through the ground and rides a set of escalators to the rear entry, climbing only a secondary entry to the great Hall. One cannot say enough about the disaster of such a change architecturally. The entire meaning of the place, the sacredness of the space was because of the People entering it, that they were the core and the enervating heart of the country. Now, we are simply the janitors and visitors to our rulers who have closed off this place to be their fortress, surrounded by moats, guards and walls to keep us out.
Architecture is the expression of meaning in stone, we have killed our ability to have it in the heart of the Capitol.