Clare and I spent this weekend in DC. She lived there for some time after college and fell in love with the place, and I had never been. So, I booked a cheap flight over Christmas and we went. I was able to see the US Capital, and Clare introduced me to her friends and her old haunts. Though cold, it was a lovely weekend.

US Capital Building.

The most interesting thing about DC, and the one detail that made it so different from any other city I’ve ever visited (besides Beijing), was the architecture in the Capital itself. The buildings that house nominally all of our federal government services were unlike anything I would expect to see elsewhere.

Landmarks are designed and built to send a message for a certain time and place. The Empire State Building demonstrates sheer size, strength, and will, the Golden Gate conveys elegance and class, the St. Louis Arch, a sleek, progressive metaphor of unity between two halves of a continent.

Washington, DC landmarks communicate “Eternal”. Everything in the capital is not only intended to last forever, but to tell the world of its immortality. Each and every building, statue, metro station, bridge, tells the world that this is the center of everything, never to be tampered with, always to stand up as the best and brightest – built on tradition with a spirit of progress.

Some of the architectural styles stand the test of time better than others. The Metro and Hubert H. Humphrey building are testaments to Brutalism, while the capital is Neoclassical. The Thomas Jefferson Building is a breathtaking Beaux-arts, across from the James Madison Memorial Building – a pragmatic, simple Modernist.[1]

Clare stands at the base of the Washington Monument.

Each generation of architects made their own mark. Each and every structure is a snapshot of the best and brightest minds of its generation. It was the most fun part of my experience, this juxtaposition. The Capital is a complex tapestry of snapshots proudly chronicling how each era of American architects understood the world. Each building says strength, beauty, immortality – and they all say it with pride, bellowing to the world, “We are here. We are great. We are, forever.”

Even when the cynicism sneaks in – whether it be in the experience of monuments commemorating the needless casualties of inflated military prowess, the casual forgetfulness of racism and white supremacy, or the phallic memorials of long dead rich white men – the fact remains that these great structures are a testament to the very best of us. And though the causes and commemorations all-too-often age with less grace than the monuments that represent them, the monuments themselves are truly magnificent.

  1. I’m no architecture nerd, so my menial knowledge of this stuff is pretty inscrutable. If anyone has anything to add to this, I’d love to know more.  ↩