The Great Indoors

Join me on a mostly indoor architectural tour of some of the capital's most impressive buildings.

Architecture of the East Building: Variations on an Isosceles Triangle

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Idler on February 25, 2009

Famed architect I.M. Pei's love affair with geometrical forms is evident in the repeated use of triangles in the East Building. Actually, the triangle-based layout of the building was an ingenious answer to a challenging problem that Pei faced -- an oddly-shaped site across from the old (now West) building of the National Gallery of Art. The limitations of the site presented multiple challenges. Somehow he had to link it visually with the old gallery, and yet it had to fit in with the surrounding buildings on the Mall as well. With nearby heavy hitters such as the Capitol dome to contend with, the new museum also needed to stand out somehow, to make its own architectural statement.

Enter the simple isosceles triangle, used to divide the essentially trapezoidal site into two sections, the larger triangle containing the gallery per se, and the second triangle housing offices and a research center. While the older West Building is a forthright, four-cornered building, almost staid and predictable in its traditional right angles, Pei’s building reads differently from each perspective, presenting complex, almost shifting triangular shapes. The East Gallery is now widely hailed as one of the finest modern buildings in the country.

Within the triangular components are – you guessed it – more triangles. Entering the main building, the visitor enters a world of almost animated fractal geometry, with the interplay of light and shadows creating interesting resonances within the larger space. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to speak of harmonics here, as the building seems to resonate, particularly in the large, brightly lit atrium, which features a strategically placed mobile by Alexander Calder. Calder designed this mobile specifically for this space, and it’s wonderfully successful, always in perpetual slow and stately motion, powered only by the air currents in the building.

Another feature that is striking is the roof over the atrium, an impressive array of interlocking triangular shapes. The glass ceiling casts triangular shadows on the marble walls and onto the tiles of the triangular-tiled floor. If anything, one could fault the almost obsessive use of triangles in the building.

But I can’t. I love it.

On a number of occasions, I’ve come into the East Building not to see anything in particular (though I may browse through an exhibit or two), but to just stroll in the atrium and look around. The atrium and upper levels are particularly restful, cool sanctuaries on a hot summer's day.

My most recent visit was to see an exhibit (which runs through March 22, 2009) entitled, "Pompei and the Roman Villa." Alas, it seemed that nearly everyone in town had had the same brainwave of the ideal way to spend a Sunday afternoon in February, and the exhibit was packed. I walked quickly through what seemed like the cramped exhibit space (it isn't, it just seems that way in contrast to the atrium), coming out with relief onto the mezzanine level of the gallery.

There I found a bench overlooking the atrium and simply sat waiting for my husband to emerge from the exhibit. I happily contemplated the shadows cast from the ceiling, the lovely way the staircases and walkways traversed the open space, and the infinite leit motif of triangles. Really, I have to say that at times the building itself upstages almost everything else.

Outside, across a street paved with cobblestones, is another delightful feature. There are seven glass tetrahedron sculptures in the plaza, each catching myriad reflections of the surrounding buildings, the sky, and people standing next to them. These playful structures are a huge hit with children, who often play a sort of fun-house-mirror hide-and-seek among the sculptures, but they also have a very practical purpose, serving as skylights for a subterranean concourse level that lies between the old and new galleries. In fact, the fountain next to the tetrahedrons flows down to form a glassed-in waterfall visible in the gallery cafeteria below.

While I’m not a big fan of the large museum cafeterias in general, I’ve always thought the subterranean waterfall in the National Gallery’s cafeteria is one of the nicer surprises on the Mall.

A second favorite surprise, by the way, can be seen in the Sculpture Garden next to the West Gallery. There, if you walk slowly by an outdoor sculpture by Roy Lichtenstein entitled, "House 1," you’ll find it.

Sorry, but I’m not telling. It is, after all, a surprise.
National Gallery of Art and Sculpture Garden
4th and Constitution Avenue NW
Washington, D.C., 20565
(202) 737-4215

Some "Old Red Barn!"

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Idler on February 21, 2009

The National Building Museum may suffer a bit from a rather dull-sounding title, but that certainly beats what it was once pejoratively nick-named: "Meigs' Old Red Barn." It seems that back in 1887, many felt that architect Montgomery C. Meigs had gone overboard in constructing a vast new government office building, with some fifteen million bricks used in its construction. Meigs' task had been to construct a fireproof building to house a burgeoning Pension Bureau, a much-needed building after the Civil War. However, when one former Civil War general was asked for his opinion of the building, he reportedly replied, "I have but one fault to find with it: it's fireproof."

It's hard to imagine today that this magnificent building could have aroused anything but admiration. A favorite site for inaugural balls and charity galas, the building is famed for its spectacular Great Hall, surely one of the most beautiful interior spaces in Washington. Measuring nearly 120 feet in length, the hall contains two sets of massive pillars -- some of the tallest interior pillars in the world, in fact. Meigs' vision was greatly influenced by his travels in Italy and in particular certain palazzos he'd seen in Rome. The Italian influence is evident, too, in the graceful gallery, with its rising tiers of arches, as well as in the central fountain, which mimics a Mediterranean courtyard on a grand scale.

However, rather than marble and other expensive materials, Meigs used far more prosaic materials, primarily red brick and terra-cotta. The Corinthian columns, for example, appear to be stone, but each consists of 70,000 bricks, plastered and painted to look like Italian marble. (In fact, if I hadn't read that they weren't marble, I would never have known.)

In some ways, the Pension Office was reminiscent of the military buildings that Meigs, the quartermaster general of the Army and a former designer of army barracks and supply depots, was so familiar with. It's a solid, four-square structure, but it has a noble aspect that is far from commonplace. In fact, Meigs designed a structure that went far beyond his initial commission, for he envisioned an office building that would be far superior to the cramped, dark, dingy work environments so common at the time.

Instead, he designed a building which was full of light and air, with dozens of details that made what could have been an impersonal government building into something of a temple. He was mindful of the fact, too, that he was designing a place that would be visited by many Civil War amputees, which no doubt accounts for the staircases of very wide and not-very-steep steps, more easily navigated on crutches.

The exterior of the building is graced by a long, terra-cotta frieze designed by Caspar Buberl, who reputedly modeled it on the Parthenon frieze. However, rather than Greek warriors, on Buberl's frieze American soldiers strike heroic poses, with representatives from every branch of the armed forces. There are cavalry soldiers on horseback, sailors in boats, artillery men with cannons, and rows of marching infantrymen. It's one of my favorite features of the building, along with the soaring interior columns and the cascading fountain in the center of the Great Hall.

During my most recent visit, I came to simply rest a bit during a hectic day downtown. There's a cafe in one corner of the Great Hall which makes a perfect spot to sit for a bit and read a newspaper or just to rest a while. Arrayed around the central fountain are several benches that are especially inviting

Completely restored in 1989, the former Pension Building now houses exhibits on architecture and urban planning, with various exhibits on each floor as well as a library and conference space on the upper floors. I spent a little time looking over one exhibit on an innovative Norwegian design project along popular tourist routes, which included a stereoscope film of the spectacular Norwegian landscapes that the innovative viewing platforms were designed to compliment.

The museum is free, though there's a box for a suggested donation at each entrance. One entrance is directly across from the Judiciary Square Metro station, which is just a few blocks away from the many shops, restaurants, and attractions of Chinatown and the Penn Quarter. The National Building Museum is well worth at least a brief visit, as it truly is one of the capital's grandest public spaces.

National Building Museum
401 F Street NW
Washington, D.C., 20001
(202) 272-2448

Grafting the Contemporary onto the Historic: The Kogod Courtyard

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Idler on February 23, 2009

In November 2007, a much anticipated new public space opened at the National Gallery of Art/Smithsonian Art Museum -- the Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard. The challenge had been to enclose a vast (28,000 sq. ft) outdoor space at the center of the massive Smithsonian museum. The building (1867) is one of the oldest federal buildings in DC, and originally served as the Patent Office. It was subsequently home to several government agencies over the years before being taken over by the Smithsonian in 1964. However, it was evident even then that the aging Greek Revival structure needed a complete makeover.

The renovation, which began in 2000, was predictably expensive and lengthy, but the results have been hailed as a complete success. Now the revamped National Portrait Gallery is at the heart of a once-shabby downtown neighborhood that has undergone a transformation into an area which now vies with the National Mall in terms of attractions and appeal.

In large part, the success of the building's renovation is due to the inspired idea to enclose its central open courtyard. The original courtyard at that point had become completely unusable, a jumble of overgrown shrubs and trees. The Smithsonian held an international competition to find the best plan, and settled upon a breathtaking design by the London firm Foster + Partners.

When I first set foot in the courtyard, I exclaimed, "This has got to be by the same people who did the courtyard at the British Museum", and indeed this is the case. The similarities between the Kogod Courtyard and the Great Court at the British Museum are indeed striking.

In both cases, a massive latticed roof seems to float above a vast space. In the case of the Kogod Courtyard, eight columns support the nine-hundred-ton roof, which consists of over 800 glass panels, no two of exactly the same size. However, the roof of the Kogod Courtyard is undulating, unlike the radiating design of the Great Court in London, but in both cases the effect is dazzling.

Accolades were heaped upon Foster + Partners' design, primarily for its successful grafting of a contemporary structure onto an old one in a manner that managed to enhance both. Condé Nast Traveler magazine cited the Kogod Courtyard as one of the new "Seven Architectural Wonders of the World," for example, while other awards lauded a successful marriage of the old and new.

One of the features I like best about the courtyard is that it is relatively quiet. There is none of that dreadful "shopping mall echo" so often found in large public spaces such as this, primarily because the steel grids of the roof contain recycled denim that acts as an acoustical damper. Mention should be made of the landscaping design done by Kathryn Gustafson, too. She incorporated her signature "water scrims," or extremely shallow fountains flowing over four large rectangles. Children (and adults) delight in walking through these scrims, leaving damp footprints in their wakes.

The landscaping includes forty-eight full-sized trees (mostly ficus and black olives) as well as a variety of shrubs set into wide-rimmed planting areas. These marble structures double as low benches, while modern cafe tables and chairs are casually clustered near the museum's cafe and in various clusters near the trees. Free Wi-Fi is provided, making the Kogod Courtyard a splendid place to sit and enjoy "the outdoors" while indoors.

Indeed, this splendid courtyard feels like the great indoors, but with none of its drawbacks. Sit in comfort at the cafe on a cold winter's day and enjoy a glass of wine, as I did recently, and you'll wonder why more public spaces can't be given the "Foster + Partners/Gustafson treatment."

Perhaps they should.

Smithsonian American Art Museum
750 Ninth Street NW
Washington, D.C., United States, 20001
(202) 633-1000

A Temple to Invention, Restored and Repurposed

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Idler on February 23, 2009

Visiting the third-floor Great Hall of the National Portrait Gallery, it's instructive to reflect on the changes here since the building first opened in 1840. The original purpose of the Great Hall was to act as a "Temple to Invention" in the new United States Patent Office, with the galleries on the third floor constructed to house miniature models required of inventors. The building also served as the first national museum, and in fact the Declaration of Independence was on display in the Great Hall from 1841 to 1871. As many as 100,000 visitors a year came to see the wonders and curiosities housed in the Patent Office.

However, when the Civil War came, the Patent Office, like many other buildings in the city, was converted to a military barracks. From 1861 to 1863, the top floor of the Patent office served as a hospital for soldiers. Poet Walt Whitman, who served as a nurse during the war, tended to wounded soldiers there. "It was a strange, solemn sight," he later recalled, "the glass [model] cases, the beds, the forms lying there, the gallery above, and the marble pavement under foot." Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, was another who tended the wounded brought to the Patent Office.

In 1865, President Lincoln's second inaugural ball was held on the the top floor of the building, and the east gallery adjoining the hall served as a reception area. Sadly, in 1877 a fire badly damaged the upper floors of the Patent Office, and it was after this that much of third floor was restored in the highly ornamental Victorian style so popular at that time.

Fast forward to 958, by which time the building had been marked for demolition. Luckily, President Eisenhower, advised by a group of ardent historic preservationists, decided to turn the building over to the Smithsonian Institution instead. After a major restoration in the mid sixties, the building made its debut as the National Portrait Gallery in 1968.

By 2000, though, the building once again was in dire need of restoration. It took approximately six years and millions of dollars -- in fact the restoration budget ran considerably in the red and compromises had to be made -- before the old former Patent Office once again opened to the public. With this newest restoration, visiting the Great Hall today provides a glimpse back to the America of the 1870's, a time when a newly reunited nation was just beginning to sense the possibilities that lay ahead.

The Great Hall has a decorative scheme and architectural details that visitors to some of the other Smithsonian buildings, such as the Castle and the Arts and Industries Building, may recognize as belonging to the same era. Then, too, there are friezes by Caspar Buberl, whose work can also be seen several blocks away at the National Building Museum. The ornately decorated hall features a geometrically patterned tiled floor, a colorful stained glass skylight, access via a grand curved double staircase, and two long galleries on either side of the main hall, each containing an upper level with an elaborate iron balcony.

For the restoration, the colorful floor tiles were replaced with exact replicas from the original supplier in England, while the stained glass windows and skylight were removed and meticulously restored. The long side galleries now house two exhibitions of the portrait galleries -- "Bravo" and "Champions," portraits of famous American performing artists and sports figures, respectively.

As I looked out of one of the Victorian-era windows onto a modern-day street in downtown Washington, I felt a brief temporal shift. For just a moment, I imagined being in the hall in the late 1870's, when it had just been rebuilt after the fire. What a marvel it must have been for visitors at that time, worthy of Whitman's description, "the noblest of Washington's buildings." History seems to have come full circle, in a roundabout way, for the original plan set forth by Congress in 1836 had been to construct "a place to celebrate and present the achievement of the American people," and today the National Portrait Gallery seems to do that task most admirably.
National Portrait Gallery
Smithsonian Institution - Victor Building–Suite 4100
Washington, D.C.
(202) 663-8300

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