New Capitol Visitor Center: not a capital idea


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With a half-a-trillion dollars of stimulus spending on the way and real-estate developers mired in what could turn out to be a decade-long slump, the federal government has emerged in recent months as this country’s only viable patron of large-scale construction, at least for the foreseeable future.

So here’s an idea: How about taking a careful, critical look at Washington’s recent architectural track record?


A good place to start is D.C.’s new Capitol Visitor Center. In fact, when it comes to the aesthetic and financial perils of government-sponsored architecture, you could hardly invent a more perfect cautionary tale than the one embodied by this grandiose complex sunk into the east side of Capitol Hill.

Designed by RTKL Associates, the firm that produced the master plan and much of the architecture for L.A. Live in downtown Los Angeles, the complex opened to the public last month. (RTKL developed the project in collaboration with the former architect of the Capitol, Alan M. Hantman, who filled that post from 1997 to 2007.) Stretching out its considerable bulk underground beneath the Senate and House chambers, the complex is meant to give the hordes of visiting school groups and other tourists a place to gather while they wait for official tours.

In the past, those visitors often queued in the open air — hardly a recipe, as anyone familiar with Washington weather in February or August knows, for an enjoyable introduction to the wonders of the legislative process. The complex also was planned to address security concerns after a deranged man opened fire inside the Capitol in summer 1998 and killed two policemen. Its design was fortified after the 9/11 attacks.

In theory, then, the visitors center was poised to solve a couple of significant problems in one architectural stroke: protecting the Capitol building while also smoothing access to it. An important urban-planning issue also was at stake. When the Capitol was new, the eastern facade served as its front door, but over time, as the National Mall to the west grew in architectural and civic prominence, that entrance began to be overlooked. The goal of the new building was to restore some sense of grandeur, or at least ceremony, to the east side of the Capitol without cluttering the above-ground landscape.

As the architecture of the complex took shape, members of Congress began to treat the project as if it were their own private basement clubhouse.(There is no earmark, after all, like an earmark on which congressmen can prop up their own feet.) They added recording studios, extra meeting rooms and even a tunnel to the Library of Congress. As the size of the project grew — settling finally at a massive 580,000 square feet — construction costs climbed from an early projection of $265 million to a final tally of $621 million.

Now, aboveground, protruding skylights and elevator shafts — none designed in a particularly self-effacing style — make it all too clear to pedestrians on the east side of the Capitol that they are walking atop a gigantic new bunker. Once inside, the effect is no more encouraging. Beginning with its central gathering place, Emancipation Hall, nearly every room in the complex is cavernously over-scaled — which is not easy or inexpensive to do when you are building underground — and draped in a range of buttery materials and colors seemingly more appropriate to a law firm or investment bank than a government complex. Where the building doesn’t glow, it shimmers, and where it doesn’t shimmer, it gleams.


The result is an architectural combination uniquely suited to Washington: marbled pork.

The architects also have taken the idea of symmetry to absurd extremes. To be sure, the existing Capitol Building is a model of axial symmetry, its dome sitting atop a House wing to the south and one for the Senate to the north. But, underground, the visitors center shows slavish dedication to a mirror-image ideal. Like Noah’s Ark, it makes a point of having two of everything.

There are a north gift shop and a south gift shop, a north orientation theater and a south orientation theater and north and south skylights opening up dramatic views of the Capitol Dome from the floor of Emancipation Hall. There are even north and south coat-check rooms. It turns out that if you are designing a building twice as large as it needs to be, symmetry provides excellent cover.

I visited the center the day after Barack Obama’s inauguration. Washington was still packed with visitors, and many decided to spend the morning on Capitol Hill, touring the building that had played such a prominent role in the inaugural proceedings 24 hours earlier.

The way the Capitol Visitor Center handled those crowds offered a telling snapshot of its design flaws. Because its metal detectors are pushed right up against its front doors, all of us waiting to get in were forced to stand out in the cold. (Just like the old days!) After getting inside, I discovered that although the center’s two main floors were full of people, the lowest level, which include congressional meeting rooms, an auditorium and extra bathrooms, were entirely empty — one shiny, spotless and forsaken hallway flowing into the next. It was the worst of both worlds: a lack of gathering space where it was needed, entirely too much where it wasn’t.

The obvious response to those flaws is to lament that any building project the federal government touches turns to bloat.

But there is a slightly different lesson buried here as well. Many public agencies continue to see architecture as something that is added to any construction project, at great expense, as a kind of extra — a frill. (Local Exhibit A: the Los Angeles Unified School District.) It’s easy to imagine that many members of Congress feel that the architecture of the visitors center exists primarily in its most visible and ornamental forms — in its elaborate metal light sconces, in the skylights, in the satisfying clack of hard marble underfoot. In all the elaborate touches, in other words, that hang from the center’s structural skeleton and make the place appear so well-appointed.


For new federal construction spending to be effective both in practical and architectural terms, though, a very different lesson will have to apply. When it is operating at its highest levels, architecture makes a building more efficient, not less — and indeed builds impressive forms and even spatial complexity directly from that efficiency. Imagine if the Capitol Visitor Center architects had had the foresight, and the clout, to convince Congress that the lowest floor — the one I found so completely empty — wasn’t needed and then plowed some of the savings into Emancipation Hall and the other main gathering spaces, turning them from gratuitously handsome to architecturally remarkable. It’s the kind of imagining I fear we may be doing a lot of in the coming years, as the federal government builds and builds while the private sector’s bulldozers stay idle.

I may be assuming that RTKL and Hantman enjoyed more persuasive power in this process than they actually did. But here’s the fundamental point: Good architecture is not icing. It’s the cake.

--Christopher Hawthorne

Photos of the view of U.S. Capitol through skylight in the Capitol Visitor Center’s Emancipation Hall and of the stairs leading from the center to the Capitol Building. Credit: Capitol Visitor Center