Visiting D.C.

Jenny and I spent a few days in Washington D.C..  It was our first visit so we had no trouble keeping ourselves busy. The weather was sunny and cold, pleasant for walking around and exploring. We hopped on and off the metro, a  very impressive and convenient system. And the platforms might be my favorite of the many monumental spaces we visited.  It reminds me of Boullée’s Bibliotheque Nationale, and has a functional dimension that makes the coffering compelling.  The stylistic vocabulary of the city is primarily borrowed, very obviously and unapologetically.  The national mall is a sort of Disneyland, in endless stacks of marble and granite, but not without exceptional moments.

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Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial was remarkable in person, definitely living up to its hype.  The moves/gestures are so simple but generate such impressive experiential effects. It even coheres within the tropes that the rest of the memorials utilize – made of stone, comprised of inscriptions, utilizing sightlines and geographic orientation using axes shared with other monuments.  It plays by the rules but is totally unique within the ensemble of the mall.  I came across  this picture of Lin’s competition entry, and it pretty much blew my mind for its simplicity and lack of representational virtuosity.  I have to hand it to the judges who selected it, and whoever helped make it happen in the face of the design’s initial lack of public support. Lawrence  Halprin’s FDR memorial was pretty good too, having some very Halprinesque moments.

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The Jefferson Memorial was my favorite of the classical revival structures that litter the mall.  It retains some of the genuine simplicity that I associate with classical buildings.  There are so many versions of the Pantheon in D.C., nearly all of which trade on its iconic features as integrated into 20th century pragmatic buildings.  The Jefferson memorial is like a genuine pagan temple, complete with a huge statue in the center.  The thresholds between indoor and outdoor space are porous, although the division between center and periphery is clearly articulated. It isn’t a building that just borrows the appearance of classical antiquity to make a statement about cultural inheritance, but instead holds true to the classical model for a space of mythological reverence.

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On any given trip something has to be wrapped in scaffolding for repair.  On this trip it was the capitol building.  I.M. Pei’s East Wing of the National Gallery was also under construction, so all of the exhibition halls were closed.  We took a minute to step in and explore the central atrium, which was pretty cool in itself, but I was disappointed not to be able to see what was in their collection of contemporary art.

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We spent our last afternoon walking around Georgetown.  The weathered residential texture was a nice change from all of the monumentality of the mall, and the mostly banal fabric of the downtown area. Despite all of the classical references of the mall, Georgetown was the first area that made me feel like I was in an actually old place, with all the attendant imaginative potential.

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