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What does it take to lighten up Washington’s streetscape? A ladder, a few hooks, and several hundred yards of cloth.

A city under construction is a city full of surprises—not all of them good, but many of them sublime. In case you hadn’t noticed, nearly all of downtown Washington right now lives in a state of feverish renovation. On practically every other street between Foggy Bottom and Union Station, you can hear the pounding of hammers and the buzzing of saws and drills. You can see concrete skeletons and 20-story cranes standing in the middle of deep holes, filling in the last remaining empty tracts with new commercial real estate blockbusters.

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It’s a stretch to call much of this activity architecture, because it’s “designed,” as it were, from some developer’s familiar kit of bigger-than-life office supplies. But on rare occasions, something appears amid all the noise and dust to jolt awake even the most jaded pedestrian. Remember how two years ago, Washington collectively gasped because architect Michael Graves wrapped the Washington Monument in blue ribbons that mimicked the mortar of its masonry? And recall how everybody sighed or cried when the stunt ended and the wrapper came down earlier this year? Graves took the functional element of scaffolding—some of the finest temporary metal framing anybody had ever seen, no less—and made a fashion statement of it. For the months that the monument’s scaffolding stood in place, visible for miles around, it seemed as though Washington, so pointlessly dour at times, had found a sense of humor.

The power of the great monument notwithstanding, Graves’ folly served as yet another reminder that the apparatus of construction can be more interesting than the final product. The enormous braces holding up the masonry of the old International Building at 14th and K Streets NW look infinitely more intriguing than anything that the renovation architect, Cesar Pelli, can cook up to bring the building into this century. Likewise the gigantic steel Z-frames supporting the historic façades at 6th and E Streets NW, where the National Research Council will soon make its home with the help of builder Miller/Long: The massive buttresses resemble the pieces of a big Erector Set, obscuring, for now, the basic lie of “saving” a historic streetscape while surgically removing the guts behind it.

Of all the strange new features on the streets of downtown, the finest ones are not intended but incidental. Among the strangest and most delightful is the billowing fabric blob that stands at the southeast corner of 18th and F Streets NW. The blob is actually a building that houses offices of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which hired Hitt Contracting to renovate its interior spaces. In the process, Hitt subcontracted a Maryland company called ASCO to hang 30- to 50-foot wide sheets of cream-colored reinforced nylon canvas from the top of the building to its feet. The result looks like a miniature version of the Reichstag after Christo wrapped it, in 1995. In the middle of the banal stone and tinted glass of Foggy Bottom stands this enormous, dressed-up thing, breathing and moving with each breeze.

The fabric on the FDIC building, says Andrea Fitch, Hitt’s spokesperson, holds in not only heat when the contractor replaces the windows, but any fallout from the interior that shouldn’t get into the outside air. Which is the same reason the streets of London, which is also flush with construction projects, have been littered with dozens of wrapped-up buildings lately, from Paddington to Piccadilly to St. Paul’s. London covers its blocks with a bit more panache than Washington—the wrappers are treated not as perfunctory items but as evening wear, in shades of turquoise and teal and silver and slate.

Builders here generally prefer basic black. For the past several months, the building at 2000 Massachusetts Ave. NW has stood draped in black across most of its red-brick body as it has undergone a face-lift. As the project progresses, the building seems to keep changing shape. In its temporary clothing, it becomes a mysterious figure, like the Kaaba in Mecca, and almost forbids us to come near.

Way downtown in the Gallery Place neighborhood, somebody has covered the upper three stories of a building at 7th and E Streets NW with a fine black mesh, as if the structure got caught in a big fishnet. The material appears to rub out the building’s shabbier aspects—the peeling paint and grime across its face—and creates ephemeral illusions: The wind activates the façade by making alternately light and dark waves ripple over it, and the way the mesh stretches from the upper cornice to the stone lintels around the bottom of the second floor gives the structure a new profile, quickening the whole corner.

The thick stone walls of Washington reinforce the severity of the city’s attitude. On days when you’re feeling expansive, you can appreciate their permanence and absorb their confidence. But they threaten to crush you when you’re in a vulnerable mood, leaving you feeling small, weak, and gasping for breath before their unyielding bulk. Amid these ponderous blocks, the sight of something soft and sheer brings formal relief to the terrific gravity all around. CP