Washington: a symbolic city, a home

Building museum pays tribute to nation's capital

October 09, 2004|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

All eyes are on Washington these days.

With the presidential election three weeks away, daily revelations about the war in Iraq and a major league baseball team moving to town, one might argue that interest in the nation's capital couldn't be higher.

Against this backdrop, the National Building Museum today opens an exhibit that provides a new way to look at the capital - both as a center of world power and an evolving American metropolis.

Washington - Symbol and City, tells the story of Washington's physical development, from the monuments along the National Mall to the neighborhoods beyond. With models, drawings, building plans, maps, photos and videos, it offers a fresh look at the city where so many key decisions are made - and how well it works as a setting for the decision-makers.

"With the National Building Museum being located here in Washington, we feel it is both our privilege and obligation to examine and open for dialogue issues about our hometown - its history and its future," said Chase Rynd, the museum's executive director.

The exhibit is the successor to one with the same name that was on view at the building museum during the 1990s. Three years ago, museum staffers closed that exhibit to update and expand it. What they've opened is not a rehashed version of the old exhibit but an entirely new one, with a new theme, design and content. Scholarly yet accessible, it promises to appeal both to those who know Washington well and those visiting for the first time.

On one level, the exhibit works as a fact-filled overview of Washington, from its founding in 1791 to the present. Visitors learn, for example, that trains once steamed across the National Mall, that Constitution Avenue was originally a canal, and that most of the city was not built on swampland - contrary to popular belief.

The exhibit includes five large-scale models of Washington landmarks - the U.S. Capitol, White House, Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial and Washington Monument. All have been built at the same scale and placed in one gallery for easy comparison, and all are meant to be touched. Viewers will discover that the White House is smaller than the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials, while the Washington Monument towers over everything else.

But the exhibit is more than a three-dimensional Trivial Pursuit game outlining facts and figures. Its title is a reference to the two cities that Washington has become - the symbolic city created from scratch to be a permanent seat for the federal government, and the more organic, free-enterprise city that grew up to support it.

As curated by Don Alexander Hawkins and Portia James, the exhibit not only shows how Washington has developed but examines the tension inherent in its varied roles - as a national symbol and a living city - and how it's expressed in urban form.

For many years, Congress was a "reluctant ruler" of the District of Columbia, providing no means for building basic public services and facilities and avoiding involvement in local affairs.

"This lack of involvement meant that Congress convened in the equivalent of a frontier town for five decades," the curators note. "Congress approved public works for the capital only after realizing that its own convenience and safety depended on construction that the city alone could not afford," including schools, highways and a modern subway system.

As it matured, Washington also gained all the attributes found in other cities, from rowhouses and department stores to stadiums and museums. Photos and videos in the exhibit show that different neighborhoods have their own distinct architectural styles, that many religious groups created the finest buildings they could in Washington because it's the nation's capital, and that the number of monuments and memorials has increased greatly in recent years.

Of special interest is the exhibit design, by Robert Hayward Anderson of X-DESIGN, and the touchable models, made by Rebecca Fuller of RAF Models and Displays. The exhibit design is so thorough that even the floors and walls have been altered to reflect the city's shifting street grids. The models were commissioned largely to be learning tools for people with sight impairments, but they will be irresistible to others as well - and the guards won't yell at anyone for touching them.

The exhibit is at its most provocative when it addresses the challenges of building a city that can be a timeless symbol of democracy but also provide a pleasant, functional environment for those who call it home.

One comes away with the sense that while the federal government still has the upper hand in many respects, Washington has become more livable city in recent years - and can offer plenty of lessons to others.

The National Building Museum is at 401 F Street N.W., between 4th and 5th streets. It is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Admission is free. A donation of $5 is suggested. Information: 202-272-2448 or www.nbm.org.

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