You Can See Forever

On a clear day, the view from the Capitol is capital

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The view looking east from the Capitol dome takes in the U.S. Supreme Court (left), Library of Congress, and the Capitol Hill neighborhood beyond.

Credit: Carol Highsmith

An urban street is like a textbook, and you can learn a lot if you read it carefully. One thing you learn from Washington's streets is that this city has seen lots of architectural fads come and go.

Like facadomy, for instance, the practice of preserving an old facade and putting up a new building behind it. It was all the rage a couple of decades back, and our downtown blocks are dotted with thin-sliced walls of old brickwork glued to the front of big new structures. Sometimes the juxtaposition is striking, but usually it just looks weird—or sad. 

Local architects discovered towers in the early 1990s, and for a while no new office building was complete without one. A few towers actually have clocks, but most function only as exclamation points, giving their buildings a presence (for better or worse) on Washington's crew-cut skyline. 

Next came buildings with wavy walls. Flat facades went bye-bye, and in their place rose walls—usually in brick—that rippled so insistently you could almost hear them snapping in the wind. Eye-catching, certainly, but prolonged exposure may leave you a bit dizzy. 

Washington's fad du jour? Buildings with all-glass facades. Their sleekness adds a welcome brightness to our streets, but they've become poignantly emblematic of the current economic crisis: Since they're transparent, you can't help noticing that many of them are totally empty.

The parade of architectural triumphs and near misses and jeez-what-were-they-thinking aberrations is enough to keep a building watcher happy for hours. But while the street-level view is enormously engaging, it's nice to see it all from a more elevated vantage point—like the top of the U.S. Capitol dome, where, thanks to some friends and a bit of serendipity, I stood just after sunrise a few weeks ago.

The climb is not for the faint of heart or the short of breath, involving steep staircases that switchback through a thicket of beams and girders between the inner and outer domes. The payoff is a couple of gasp-inducing moments. The first comes when you step onto the balcony that encircles the top of the Rotunda, just beneath a huge fresco showing George Washington enthroned on a cloud. The second occurs when, winded and wobbly-kneed, you find yourself in the open air, the dome-topping statue of Freedom over your shoulder and all of Washington below.

Standing on that breezy marble aerie, looking over the city in the early morning light, I saw as never before that the visual character of present-day Washington is as much the product of preservation as of new design. The former department stores converted to offices and apartments, the public market being rebuilt after a disastrous fire, the neighborhood business districts in the throes of revitalization, the government buildings looking like architectural time travelers from ancient Rome, the tidy rowhouses standing shoulder to shoulder on block after block—all of them testify to the efforts of people who worked hard to recycle and celebrate the places that make Washington unique. Thanks to them, the examples of recent fads and trends—the new buildings tricked out in bits of old brickwork and jaunty towers and rippling walls and glass skins—have a context they can fit into or flout.

Here's the really good news: What I saw that morning—the blending of new and old that makes for a lively, appealing urban environment—is happening in cities all over the country. I've known that for a long time, but it took the view from a dome to make it real. As I said, you can learn a lot on the street. But sometimes you have to step back—or climb high—to see what it really means.           

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