Turnover at a major D.C. government department is raising questions about local businesses, political contributions and influence in city politics.
Five hundred years ago, Andrea Palladio designed some of Italy’s most iconic buildings. But his influence extended across an ocean, into the architectural DNA of the United States. Architect Roger Lewis joins us to discuss how and why Washington’s iconic buildings reflect– and sometimes rebel against– Neoclassical architecture.
- Roger Lewis Architect; Columnist, "Shaping the City," Washington Post; and Professor Emeritus of Architecture, University of Maryland College Park
An Architectural Tour of the Washington Area
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MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. We're shaping the city with Roger Lewis. Today, we're exploring Washington's architectural DNA. D.C.'s iconic public buildings and museums were designed and built centuries apart -- the White House at the turn of the 18th century, the Capitol in the mid-19th century, the Supreme Court and the National Gallery of Art in the 1930s and '40s -- and yet, all of them share a kind of timeless quality, a classic look that feels thoroughly American but also Roman and Greek, a pedigree that stretches back to an architect of the Italian Renaissance.
NNAMDIAndrea Palladio never set foot in America. He died 200 years before this country was born, but his writings deeply affected Thomas Jefferson and others designing buildings across America's architectural history. You can see Palladio's original work on display at the National Building Museum, and joining us to discuss this is Roger Lewis. He's an architect and the columnist with the "Shaping the City" column for The Washington Post. He's professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. Roger, good to see you again.
MR. ROGER K. LEWISGood to see you. Thank you. And belated Happy New Year.
NNAMDIBelated Happy New Year to you also. We're also interested in your contributions to this conversation. What are your favorite museums, government buildings in our region? What structures do you find most intriguing or representative of different schools and styles of architecture? Call us at 800-433-8850 or make that comment at our website, kojoshow.org. Many of the iconic buildings of Washington, as we mentioned, were built centuries apart. They don't seem to be, obviously, of any time period. In fact, they feel almost timeless. They're speaking in an architectural language that stretches back to antiquity. Tell us, Roger, what that has to do with Andrea Palladio, who he was and where he worked.
LEWISWell, Palladio was an Italian architect, a Renaissance architect. He essentially -- his life spanned most of the 16th century, which was a pretty vibrant and productive period in the -- during the Renaissance in Italy. He was an architect who -- I should say he made himself an architect -- I'm not a historian, but I've -- having gone through the wonderful exhibit at the National Building Museum, I know a lot more than I did before I went through the exhibit about his life. He was very interested, first of all, in Roman antiquities, which at the time were being explored -- and one of the things that happened in the Renaissance was that architects and scholars sort of rediscovered Roman classicism, the great reservoir of works that were not -- they didn't have to go very far to find them in Italy. And he and others explored them, they did some excavations, they drew them, they measured them.
LEWISAnd he was among those who did analysis and studies of Roman antiquity, and he, like so many others, also decided this was really the language, a universal language, an antique language, after all, that was worthy of being continued. So he began to design buildings using the vocabulary and grammar of Roman classicism. Grammar being, let us say, how you put words together. The analogy in architecture is how you put the components together. The vocabulary are the actual motifs and elements, the specific things that that make up classicism and he -- but he did one other thing that we have to mention at the outset here which is -- which really made him famous is he wrote a big treatise, "The Four Books of Architecture."
LEWISHe was very -- by the way, he was very smart. I mean, he not only was talented, and an able designer, but he knew how to market. And this book really put him on the map. It became a book consulted by many people in Europe, ultimately England and finally the United States. And as you mentioned, Thomas Jefferson was one of his disciples.
NNAMDIThat book was part historic study, part how-to manual, part advertisement for his building empire. How useful is that book in the contemporary architectural environment?
LEWISWell, I think the book -- I think we still greatly admire and respect what that book has to say, and I think students of architectural history and theory continue to look at "The Four Books." I've taught theory, and we've had students look at that book because it is an extraordinary treatise. It made these wonderful drawings of both Roman precedents but also his own work. I mean, the book, as I said, was a marketing tool. It was his portfolio. It was his brochure.
LEWISThe -- so we still look at that because one of the things about classicism is that it teaches two things. I mean, there's a history of the components, the language itself, but also, it teaches great lessons about composition that are not necessarily dependent on style. So you can design with things -- you can -- make compositions that are like, in many ways, Roman or Palladian buildings. That is, they can express symmetry. They can have plays of solid wood, etc., while being of almost any style. So we still look at Palladio very carefully because, among other things, he teaches a lot about composition.
NNAMDIHow did Palladio's ideas come to affect American architecture and the buildings we see here in Washington?
LEWISWell, as I mentioned, he was -- the first thing that happened was that people who own property and architects in England, in particular, fell in love with Palladianism. I'm gonna call it Palladianism, which, again, people can see very clearly the (word?). And -- so buildings were constructed in England, villas and estate structures or estate manors, I should say, following the Palladian, if you will, the Palladian credo. And Americans, including Thomas Jefferson, they -- who had either traveled there or who had gotten hold of the books, and I should mention one other thing that happened is a lot of pattern books were made based on Palladio's "Four Books of Architecture."
LEWISSo this -- in effect, he provided a kind of recipe book that was very, very understandable, and it was familiar -- people, even in the 1700s, they understood the components. The vocabulary was not strange. So it was very easy to bring it to America. In fact, that's part of the theme of the National Building Museum exhibit -- Palladio and His Legacy: A Transatlantic Journey. This was the language, if you will, that was brought to the United States, particularly suitable, it was believed, for civic buildings and great governmental buildings for a new democracy.
NNAMDIThomas Jefferson designed the Virginia State Capitol, and that building, apparently, set the template for public buildings in America so that was the direct line to Palladio's influence.
LEWISExactly. In fact, probably a lot of listeners don't know that Jefferson actually submi7tted a design anonymously for the White House, which was very much based on Palladio's Villa Rotunda in Vicenza, in the Veneto near Venice, Italy. So if you look at Palladio's design of the Villa Rotunda and then look at Jefferson's scheme for the White House -- he didn't win the competition, by the way -- and then go look at things like the University of Virginia or the Jefferson Memorial, you see right away the common DNA, the genealogies.
NNAMDII was about to say when we talked about the Palladio style, what are we talking about?
LEWISWell, that, again, the classicism of Palladio is best understood by seeing images, pictures which we don't have here, but his buildings essentially were symmetrically organized and planned. And elevation, they -- he was very fond of using temple fronts, that is putting porches or porticos on the fronts of buildings that were derived from Roman temples. He used arched openings. He would use -- very systematically composed facades. I happen to have one -- we're, Kojo and I, looking at a couple of drawings here in the studio, and I think anybody without any training at all would recognize the Palladian influence. If you go look at parts of the White House, if you go look at the north facade of the National Gallery of Art, the Supreme Court, if you look at the White House, Union Station, you will see those are Palladian influenced buildings.
NNAMDIAs Roger is doing -- even as we speak, during the course of this hour, he is going to mention a few of his favorite local buildings. Structures that best embody innovative thinking or classical forms. We're gonna to compile those buildings and post them on a map on our website, but we'd also like your suggestions. What are your favorite churches, museums, government buildings in our region? What structures do you find most intriguing, most playful or representative of different schools and styles of architecture?
NNAMDIAs we said, we'll compile the recommendations on a map, and who knows, maybe we can come up with our own unique architectural walking tour of Washington. So call us, 800-433-8850, with your favorite architectural styles of buildings in the area. Or send us an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, a tweet, @kojoshow, or go to our website and make your contribution there. You make your comment there, and that's kojoshow.org. We're talking with Roger Lewis. He's an architect and the "Shaping the City" columnist for The Washington Post. He's also professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park.
NNAMDIAs we're saying, Roger, many of our most iconic buildings in downtown Washington demonstrate the direct influence of Palladio, buildings like the Capitol or the White House, but perhaps the best example of the tension in Washington's architectural landscape might be the Museum of Art.
LEWISThat's right. I mean, it's the top -- I made a little list here. It's the first thing on the list. There's probably no place that's more informative about the kind of tension and the evolution of architecture in -- particularly after the 19th century than to stand between the National Gallery of Art Building, the East Building and the West Building. The West Building, the one - the largest building designed by John Russell Pope is, again, very classically styled. It exhibits the kind of symmetry and the elements we've been talking about, and then immediately to its east, we have I.M. Pei's East Building of the National Gallery designed and built in the 1970s, which is clearly not a classically styled building at all. Which is not to say that it doesn't have attributes that are small C classic, particularly things like the play of solid wood and the juxtaposition of walls that are opaque versus walls that are -- places that are transparent and so forth. But that -- there, you can see perhaps more clearly than anywhere else how different these two ways of approaching architectural design really are.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones. Here is Anne in Reston, Va. Anne, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANNEHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. My comment was that I found one of the best ways to see the wonderful architecture of Washington is to participate in some large march that's taking place in Washington. For example, before the Iraq War started, there were four huge peace marches in which the police closed a lot of streets. And you can walk in a wonderful march, support some event that you are fervent about, but also see the fabulous architecture of Washington at the same time.
NNAMDIRoger, what would you recommend as the best way to do that when you're participating in something like a march?
LEWISWell, marches are one way to do it. But of course, when you -- most of the marches tend to be -- take place around the monumental core. So you're actually going to see only a very limited number of buildings, many of which are very classically inspired. I should have mentioned also the Federal Triangle, where you have this entire ensemble of classically styled buildings. But you'll see something quite different, for example, if you march up and down Massachusetts Avenue, where you will see a number of embassies. You'll see -- well, you'll see a number of very nice homes that were built in the 19th century. Some of them are classically styled, some of them are Victorian in style. They're asymmetrical. They're picturesque. They're more gothic, in fact.
LEWISBut then you'll see things like the Finnish Embassy, which is a beautifully done, contemporary building. You'll see the Brazilian Embassy, which is a giant glass cube. You'll see the Italian Embassy, which is built with masonry but nevertheless a quite modern building. You'll see a variety of materials. Or if you walk K Street. I wanna mention, you know, many of the commercial office buildings, some good, some bad, some indifferent, but a walk along K Street from Georgetown to the convention center, well, you'll see, again, a tremendous diversity of buildings...
NNAMDIYou give people advice about what to do when they're walking on the streetscape in Washington, D.C. (unintelligible).
LEWISYeah. Well, that -- well, I'm giving myself away. If you're not on a bike or walking, you're not gonna see very much. And that's part of the secret to getting -- you know, taking it all in.
NNAMDIOn to -- Anne, thank you very much for your call. On to Eric in Washington, D.C. Eric, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ERICHey, good morning, Kojo. I love your show. And, Mr. Lewis, thank you so much for your commentary. I'm enjoying it very much. One of the buildings that I see almost every day from the river, because we do architectural tours from the river on a boat, is the Roosevelt Building on the campus of Fort McNair. And I'd love to hear your comments about the architecture of the building if you have a moment.
LEWISWell, I -- the Fort -- Fort McNair is actually a -- first of all, a very nice ensemble of buildings. I mean, I have not spent much time over there, but it's -- again, it's very traditionally styled buildings. I don't have a whole lot to say about the providence of those buildings and -- or -- I'm always reluctant to try and put a label on buildings stylistically speaking. For example, I always tell people that modernism or modern is not really the style defining word nor is classical. I mean, you can do all kinds of things with these words. The -- Fort McNair is a -- it's a wonderful ensemble. I mean, part of the greatest thing about Fort McNair is the urban space that is framed by these buildings. And I often tell people sometimes, the most important things are the voids between and around and in buildings as opposed to the fabric of the buildings themselves.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be continuing our conversation, Shaping the City with Roger Lewis. Inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. We're talking about the influence that Andrea Palladio has or had and still has on buildings in Washington even though he lived during the 16th century. And we're inviting your calls about the buildings you find particularly interesting in terms of their architectural style in Washington. 800-433-8850. You can call us now, or go to our website, kojoshow.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're discussing iconic buildings around Washington and the architectural style that influenced them in general. But in particular, Andrea Palladio, who lived in Venice in the 16th Century and how his work has influenced what we see in Washington. We're talking with Roger Lewis. He is professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park, and the "Shaping the City" columnist with The Washington Post. Roger, another example, and I'd be interested in how you'd characterize these architectural styles coexisting, would be Union Station and the bicycle station right next to it.
LEWISWell, again, that's kind of an analogy to the National Gallery situation. The -- I happen to know the architects who did the Bicycle Pavilion. I've been in the Bicycle Pavilion. It's a very nice little -- for those who haven't seen it, it's a little glass pavilion, all glass, transparent. In fact, it's a good -- it's even more radically different...
LEWIS...from what we're talking about, you know, it's -- it would not be Palladio's cup of tea. Let us put it that way. (laugh) But it's a very beautifully detailed little pavilion that I hesitate to describe the shape. It's sort of an arched -- it's rather organic looking. I mean, it's kind of -- looks like something that nature might have concocted as opposed to...
NNAMDIA pod, yeah.
LEWISYeah. I mean, there are no columns, there are no arches, there are no pediments, there are no rusticated stone. It's essentially an all metal and glass structure, which we now can generate very easily because we have computers and things that can draw these or represent these things. I like it. I mean, I think it's a nice contrast. I think one of the things...
NNAMDIIs that one of the good ways...
NNAMDI...to look at architecture when you see contrasts that close together?
LEWISYes. I think one -- yeah, I think one of the -- every architect -- every time he or she is dealing with adding something new next to or on to something old is do you go with analogy or contrast? You see this again handled very well over at judiciary square. There's a -- there's been -- they've renovated one of the old courthouses -- courthouse buildings, which is the building that faces, actually, the National Building Museum. It's on the axis of the museum, and they've built this glass cube. I don't know if you've seen it.
NNAMDII've seen it.
LEWISThat is intentionally juxtapose stylistically to the existing historic building, which was probably the right thing to do. They could have tacked on a kind of pseudo-Roman portico. I think it would have never looked quite right. And so I think very often, going with contrast is, in fact, the right strategy.
NNAMDIDraws attention to it. Here is Tom in Washington D.C. Speaking of contrast, Tom, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MR. TOM GROOMSHi Kojo. Hi, Roger. This is Tom Grooms. (sp?)
GROOMSAnd talking about contrasts, I was thinking about the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in the White House. I don't think there's been a more controversial building in Washington than the building of the Old Executive Office Building at the time and its attempt to over time redo it to be a classical building. So I was wondering your thoughts about that building.
LEWISWell, first of all, you know, I think we've -- you and I both know that there was a period when it was in jeopardy. There were a lot of people that thought it was dreadful. This is the building immediately west of the White House that's sort of classically styled, French-inspired late 19th century structure, gray, hundreds of columns...
GROOMSEight hundred to be exact.
LEWISHow many is it?
LEWISEight hundred. I knew it was hundreds. I didn't know it was 800. It certainly wins the prize for the most columns embellishing a facade. I've always like the building. The building has a kind of robustness and exuberance. I'm certainly glad they never tore it down. I think it's a -- I know they’ve done a lot of retrofitting of the interior. And again, it's a building that in part works because it is so different from the White House. It is -- I think what's wonderful about this city and many other cities is that they're not all of one style or all of one language. And that building to me is one worth keeping.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Tom.
NNAMDIWe got an e-mail from Mark who says, "A visiting friend once joked that 10,000 years from now when our ancient city is being dug up by archeologists, they will logically conclude that D.C. was actually an old Roman outpost representing Rome's conquest of the new world. But seriously, if President Jefferson had not been so enamored of classical Roman architecture, what sort of American-born architectural styles might we have been able to see in Washington today?" Intriguing question.
LEWISWell, very hypothetical. I mean, I think one of the things that -- I think it's a good question and I suspect that they will be a little confused. I always remember, was it Theodore Bikel who did a recording many years ago called Digging the Ruins where he does this spoof, a satire on archeologists, and they're giving up a place that's obviously Washington, but they've misinterpret – and their interpretation of the city is it was named Pound Laundry, (laugh) Washington. So the possibilities for misinterpretation are particularly profound, particularly in a place like Washington or Pound Laundry if you wanna listen to Theodore Bikel.
LEWISI think the -- I think it's hard to predict where -- what people are going to find in the future. But I think the thing that we like to think we're doing is that we're documenting all of this and that -- in fact, there will be some kind of archive, although, my -- I also believe that all the CDs and DVDs that we're making will be unreadable in 10 years. Actually, that's a more serious rub, is whether anybody will be able to interpret anything.
NNAMDIThat's true. Way down the road -- the rate at which technology is moving. We move on to Joshua in Vienna, Va. Hi, Joshua.
JOSHUAHi. How are you guys today?
JOSHUAI have two questions. One is regarding the Federal Reserve building, which is one of my favorites in the city. I think it really reflects, you know, American strength and I really admire details, but I don't really know how you classify that architecturally. My second question was, do you think that Palladio had any influence on the Canadian Embassy, which is also one of my favorite buildings? It does have, you know, the domes and the columns, and so I'm just curious on your comments on both of those buildings.
LEWISWell, the Federal Reserve building is well named because it is -- it was -- it's a classically inspired building but it's a reserved classicism. There was a period in Washington you can see where -- or what's sometimes called stripped classicism, where architects became interested during the second Renaissance revival of the late 19th and early 20th century, that is after the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which -- you know, the City Beautiful Movement. This -- there was great interest in doing more classically inspired architecture. But there was also influence from Europe, particularly, to reduce the ornament on buildings. So you got -- there are a number of buildings in Washington, and I think the Federal Reserve building is one of them, that are classical, but they are somewhat stripped of a lot of the ornamentation. I mean, you can contrast that with the Old Executive Office Building that Tom Grooms mentioned a few minutes ago.
LEWISNow, the Canadian Embassy, that is clearly a modern building, it is -- in many, many ways. But it's -- Arthur Erickson -- it's -- the late Arthur Erickson, who was the architect, has essentially taken this very unusual building and its overall geometry with the great courtyard in the middle framed by the building itself, which is already an unusual gesture for an embassy and for a building. But then he imported -- he decided, well, we've got -- we're in Washington, I better a put a little rotunda in and some -- a few classical columns. So he is – he's kind of inserted quotations, classical quotations into the building, which a lot of people have questioned whether that really worked. But that's what you see at that building. You see a very modern, a very radical idea, if you will, for a Washington building, but then in it are these quotations.
NNAMDIJoshua, thank you very much for your call. You, too, can call us, 800-433-8850, with your favorite iconic buildings in Washington in terms of their architectural styles. 800-433-8850. If the number is busy, then you can go to our website, kojoshow.org. We got this posting from Robert on our website, "I studied architecture at UDC, and I lived in the city for many years and want to mention the old Pension Building, now the Building Museum, as one of my favorite buildings." Another we got from Richard in D.C., who says, "The Building Museum, Pension Building itself is one of my favorite D.C. buildings with its magnificent piers and open space." I think the Pension Building or the Building Museum is a big favorite with a lot of people.
LEWISWell, it's hard not to love it. I mean, particularly the interior and...
LEWISWhat perhaps some people would be interested in going back to Italy is that it was -- it's somewhat modeled on the Palazzo Farnese in Rome, which stands near the Campo de' Fiori. It's not a replica of the Palazzo Farnese, but it has some of the same motifs. The Pension Building is -- first of all, to me, it's an amazing building, the National Building Museum building. If you haven't seen it, it's worth going there just to see the building, if you haven't visited. Just the scale of it, the size of it, the trying to imagine it being built in the days before they had the kind of technology and equipment we have today is itself very, very instructive.
LEWISAnd, of course, it's one of the great interior spaces, not just of Washington. It's one of the great interior spaces of America. A place that's -- as -- favored by so many people and so many institutions for having very big parties and galas and dinners and all kinds of other events. And the scale of things, the columns that are -- the interior columns and the height of the space inside of them. I -- to me, the most amazing part of it is the inside, which is not to belittle the exterior with some of the wonderful -- sculptural friezes that encircle the building. It's a great building.
NNAMDIIn many ways, you consider the 1980s as kind of a low point in terms of local architecture and buildings. Then, Washington architects began playing around with some of the hallmarks of classic design, but they did it in a way that some people would consider very kitschy.
LEWISWell, that's the word. Postmodernism is the term that's used to describe what a lot of architects were doing, particularly here in Washington, from the late '70s until the early '90s. I mean, I -- without going into all the reasons why this strategy or this philosophy of design took route, basically, what was happening is architects were building what were essentially modern buildings in their systems of structure, in their environmental control systems. But they decided that it might be appropriate to embellish these buildings by, in some way, again, quoting historical precedents by putting, in particular, the vocabulary of classicism into play. In my way, I put it as they were kind of using decals.
LEWISThey were taking things like pediments and split Corinthian or Ionic or Doric columns and deploying these elements, pediments. There's an office building in Washington, for example, at the corner of E and 13th, perched on its parapet are a bunch of just pediments, just sitting up there doing nothing. They're just purely...
NNAMDII know the building.
LEWIS...hood ornaments. Anyway, I -- it was a period -- short-lived happily. I think by the early '90s, architects realized this was probably not the way to build buildings. These kind of pastiche add-ons really seemed very flimsy and superficial having little to do with what the buildings were about.
NNAMDIThe 1980s architecture in Washington. Here is now is Aaron in Bethesda, Md. Aaron, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
AARONOh, yeah. I love the classical architecture in D.C., but one of the buildings that has most intrigued me ever since I was a child was the Scottish Rite building on 16th Street. And I was wondering if you can take -- tell me a little bit about that building, about the history. I've actually never been inside, but I've always wanted to go on a tour. And I can take my answer off the air.
NNAMDIThe Scottish Rite building, Roger Lewis?
LEWISWell, I don't know a whole about the building. I think I was in that building about 30 years ago.
NNAMDIIt's at 16th and what?
LEWISIt's at 16th and...
NNAMDISomething like R...
LEWISR, yeah, in the...
NNAMDI...I think R or S, something like that, yeah.
LEWISIt's an interesting building in part because it's kind of fundamentally a cube...
NNAMDI16th and S, that's what it is.
LEWIS...a huge volume, a huge cube then you can see the geometry of this building, again, with the classical elements that are the secondary elements. No, it is a very interesting building and I -- it's the second time this week someone has mentioned that building to me and I need to go back and take a look at it. I don't know a whole lot about it.
NNAMDIHere is an e-mail we got from Todd in Falls Church. "Being a newer resident of the area, summer 2006 I came, I find the Museum of the American Indian to be the most interesting structure on the Mall. Maybe that's because it's so different than the classic buildings, maybe it's because it's truly a great structure. What was the process, political or otherwise, for its design? Was there a debate in D.C. about a building that varied so greatly from the standard?" Oh, yes, there was.
LEWISVery good -- well, we could have a whole show about the...
NNAMDI(laugh) Oh, yes.
LEWIS...the National Museum, the American Indian Museum. Yes, there was a lot of controversy about that. I mean, I think the building -- I'm gonna hold off giving you my opinion of the building for a minute. But there was a lot of controversy both about how the building should look or how it should be designed and how what's in it should be designed, what the exhibitory should be. And the -- I don't think we'll talk about the exhibitory inside, but I think what you have here is a building that had many, many parents because part of the challenge for the Smithsonian was dealing with this multiplicity of Native American tribes that spanned the continent that had very different subcultures and very different, in fact, architectural traditions.
LEWISThe original designer, architect Douglas Cardinal, he's a Canadian architect, designed the building as you probably realize it. More than anything else, it is reminiscent of the Anasazi southwest structures that you see in the New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado area. That -- you could ask the question why should a kind of Southwest-looking building be sitting on the Mall and representing the North American, Native American cultures? How do some -- how does a Native American, who from eastern Canada or Florida, feel about this building? I always -- frankly, my opinion is that the building probably should have been more about trying to be a building appropriate for its side and for Washington and the Mall, which is not to say that it should be a particular style. But I've always felt a little bit unconvinced about this sort of Southwest imagery, and I'll leave it at that.
NNAMDIWell, we all favor its kitchen. We had the executive chef of the National Museum of the American Indian. Richard Hetzler was on here last week.
LEWISAnd by the way, the -- I wrote -- the cafe is great inside it...
LEWIS...and they have great gift shop, so...
NNAMDII love the cafe. By the way, the Scottish Rite's building is at 1733 16th Street on the corner of 16th and S Street. I did think it was 16th and...
LEWISSixteen and S, yes. And it's -- was designed in 1911 by John Russell Pope and Elliott Woods. I happen to have a book here which I opened up. And, of course, it's got this -- what's interesting about it that's unusual is the temple façade is elevated a full story above the ground level. So there is this very...
NNAMDIYeah, I can see it.
LEWIS...substantial base that you don't usually see. The ground must be 16 or 18 feet high, the base, which is unusual because it -- and that's the door through which you enter. It kind of implies that there's a level of it that's secretive and hidden and not open to the street. And the portico is elevated a whole story above this...
NNAMDIAnd adding to that impression is that you rarely ever see anyone entering or exiting...
NNAMDI...the building itself.
NNAMDIWe're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk about Washington's architectural styles with Roger Lewis and take your calls. If you've already called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your call. The lines are busy so if you have a comment, go to our website kojoshow.org and make it there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWhenever we talk about Washington architectural styles, a lot of people are interested. We know a lot of you are either on the line and have sent e-mails. And we'll try to get to those calls as quickly as possible. But first this, Roger. Compared to most European capitals, Washington is a relatively young city. Most of our iconic buildings are spring chickens compared to the churches and government buildings in cities like Rome or Paris. But our architectural tradition presents us with all kinds of divisions and limitations. You recently wrote about how European capitals approach their architectural history differently than we do, and I'd like you to talk about that.
NNAMDIBut first, listen to this e-mail we got from Elizabeth. "I've always been bothered by D.C.'s architecture and I believe it's a problem for the city. Let me explain. Our colossal buildings are way beyond the scale of human beings and I believe the style is intended to convey a sense of government being superior to us as individuals. In short, they convey to me a distasteful sense of machismo akin to the giant sculptures in Russia or the Great Wall of China. They're big and impressive, but they're not fun to try to walk around them. Why is it that people seem to prefer to walk around New York? Is it because the scale of most of the buildings, aside from the skyscrapers of midtown or the financial district, are human scale, making the city warm and inviting despite all the brick and concrete?" Fire away up there, Roger.
LEWIS(laugh) Well, let's be fair. I mean, Washington has lots and lots of neighborhoods, where, like in New York, the scale is very domestic and not monumental. There are an awful lot of places in Manhattan where you walk around and you are walking among -- in between some very, very large buildings that dwarf the pedestrian. I think what you see in Washington is a kind of natural Western civilization tendency, I think, which is not limited to Washington or the United States, which is to make certain kinds of civic buildings monumental.
LEWISTo make them -- give them a scale, impart a scale of -- that expresses gravitas, that expresses importance that this is, you know, this is -- this building is not just another office building or another routinely used building. So it's -- and of course, the classical style, when you look at Roman temples and -- or for that matter, some of the even larger buildings, the Roman baths or these -- some -- the Coliseum. And these buildings were what inspired the renaissance architects and Palladio and then us subsequently to want to achieve the same kind of grandeur that they saw in Rome.
LEWISAnd of course, the other thing that I should mention is that, which goes back to Greece is the notion that there's somehow an equation between the democracy, idea of democracy in Greece, and this style of architecture, which, of course, is completely without validity when you consider that classicism was embraced by communist governments, fascist governments, banks. I mean, the -- everybody owns the classical style. And the notion that it somehow signifies one thing or another is pretty thin.
NNAMDIOur caller -- our e-mailer, Elizabeth, seems to feel that government buildings should show government being working partners with its citizenship. So I guess she would like buildings on a less grand scale, if you will.
LEWISWell -- and I think in recent years, actually, architects and governments have tried to do that. For example, we got a call earlier from Tom Grooms, who was -- is an architect with the GSA. GSA, for many, many years, starting in the early '90s, has made a very concerted effort to have its new federal buildings and courthouses designed, even though they're large and they're clearly civic buildings and they're monumentally scaled, to also make them transparent, accessible, inviting. I think the -- the District, when it built the new -- the Reeves Building at...
LEWIS...at 14th & U, again...
NNAMDIThe Wilson Building.
LEWISThe Wilson Building, I'm sorry.
NNAMDINo, I'm sorry. The Reeves Building.
LEWISThe Reeves Building. The Reeves Building.
NNAMDIThe Wilson Building at City Hall, I mean.
LEWISClearly, it is absolutely not -- there are no classical elements at all, but it's...
LEWIS...it's meant to be a building that you walk into easily.
NNAMDIIt's accessible, yeah.
NNAMDIHere is Barry in Washington, D.C., and not the Barry who constructed the Reeves Center. This -- that would be Marion Barry. This is first name Barry in Washington, D.C. Barry, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BARRYHi. I wanted to ask your guest what he thought about the influence of the green building movement, particularly the standards for gold and platinum buildings that require the maximum amount of daylight in their buildings, how that's affecting the facades of the building. Because I'm standing down here at the corner of 17th & H and I'm looking at two buildings, side by side, that could be from Dallas in the 1980s because they're all glass, and how that -- how he thinks that will affect the style of architecture in the future.
NNAMDIYes, especially asking it out of Mr. Daylight himself. (laugh)
LEWISWell, also, he mentions Dallas.
LEWISYou sound like you might be from Texas, which is where I'm from. I was born and raised in Houston. We have a lot of glass buildings.
BARRYI haven't lived there in 30 years, and I can't lose the accent.
LEWISYeah. Well, I -- it's been a little longer for me. I -- but my mother is from Philadelphia. I somehow missed getting the accent down in Houston. I think the -- I think it's a great question because, right now, the profession of architecture and people who build are very, very much committed, for the most part, to achieving sustainability, making buildings that have little or zero carbon footprints, reducing emissions. And part of -- one of the strategies for doing that is to bring as much -- capture as much daylight as possible so you can turn down the lights and use less power, use less electricity.
LEWISAnd I -- we've talked about this before in the show. We now have glazing technologies that are very sophisticated, very good at keeping the heat out in the summer and the heat in, in the winter. If you go online right now to the American Institute of Architects' website and look at the new Honor Award recipients that have just been announced, you will see that a tremendous number of the buildings that are being awarded have large, large amounts of glass. So...
NNAMDIIs that affecting the visual language of modern architecture?
LEWISYes. Oh, yeah. No. I mean, I think, right now, right now, looking at what's going on here and elsewhere, there's no question that whereas Palladio was using stone -- the materials of construction were stone and masonry -- today we are building buildings with skeletons of steel and concrete, but we are cladding them with a lot of glass, and it's partly because we love transparency, and it's partly because we wanna pour light into buildings -- daylight.
NNAMDIHere is Ryan in Gaithersburg, Md. Ryan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RYANHi. I'm a big fan of your show.
RYANNow, recent studies of ancient Greek statues have shown that instead of just being stone, they were actually pretty -- actually painted. I guess we could surmise then that the classical buildings of ancient Greece and Rome were also similarly painted. How does this new research kind of, you know, help us design and think about the neoclassical buildings we have in Washington, D.C.?
LEWISYeah. That's a good point. And the -- I don't know why it is, and there's probably some explanation. Again, I'm not a historian. We ought to get a historian in on this conversation. Obviously, some -- during the Renaissance, the architects decided not to paint buildings the way the Romans painted them. And I think part of it must have been that, of course, by the time these buildings were uncovered and studied, whatever paint was on them essentially had disappeared.
LEWISBut they -- but the archaeological work that's been done clearly shows that a lot of the image and the statuary, the buildings themselves, were polychromatic and they're finished. It would be interesting -- we'd have a very different-looking city, I must say, if back in the -- during the Renaissance and afterwards, the architects have said, oh, we -- we're -- if we're gonna be true to the -- to Roman antiquity, we better paint these buildings. So we might have had some -- a very -- a much more colorful city than we have now.
NNAMDIAnd final phone call from Natalie in Springfield, Va. Natalie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NATALIEHi, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. Hi, Roger.
NATALIEYeah. I want to just ask about your perspective on the influence of another famous theorist of architecture, Vitruvius, on Washington architecture, if you can just say something about it.
NNAMDIApparently, he was a big influence on Palladio.
LEWISYes, yes. Vitruvius was his predecessor. Vitruvius was a Roman engineer-architect-builder that -- back in, I believe it was the 1st or 2nd century A.D. I'm not real sure. I should remember this because I've taught Vitruvius. Vitruvius wrote the "Ten Books of Architecture." He was the first treatise writer. Vitruvius is credited with being the first person to ever commit to writing a set of ideas, rules, precedents, etc., on architecture, and we still study Vitruvius. Vitruvius is the man who said to make that architecture, you must achieve commodity, firmness and delight, which we quote all the time. No question about it, Vitruvius -- the Renaissance in part was -- resulted from the rediscovery of the Vitruvian legacy, and that is a good, good point to make.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid we're almost out of time. But we have a little enough time for me to read this e-mail from Alexander. "Let me speak for Metro," Alexander says. "I always remember the struggles to get the wonderful structure instead of what the other systems have. And we recall that Zachary Schrag, who wrote "The Great Society Subway" about the history of Metro, said the best three examples of modern architecture in Washington are the east wing of the National Gallery of Art, the terminal at Dulles," which I know Roger loves, "and the Metro."
LEWISWell, Metro is certainly worth citing as a -- as something that does, in fact, remind us of some classical buildings. I mean, the great, great vaults. That -- the vaults go back to Rome.
NNAMDIRoger Lewis is an architect. He writes the "Shaping the City" column for the Washington Post. He's professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. Thanks for all of your suggestions. We'll be compiling these suggestions and putting them on our website. Who knows? Maybe in the near future, we can have a "Kojo Nnamdi Show" "Shaping the City" walking tour. Roger, as always, a pleasure.
LEWISA pleasure for me. Thank you.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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