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Yesterday, I posted some pictures of the new Capitol Visitor Center. And I have to say: I thought the building looked lovely. You could almost grasp how it could cost $621 million: those polished stones on the floor! That magnificent glass ceiling! Those simple light fixtures, bringing airy brightness to the underground building. The pictures almost made me—-a born and raised Washington-area person—-want to visit a tourist destination. Strange.
Washington Post writer Philip Kennicott has actually stopped by the CVC though, and he did not share my warm feelings for it. In this morning’s newspaper, he takes a verbal wrecking ball to the building. Kennicott bemoans the loss of the Capitol’s pastoral east side. He calls the addition an “enormous” loss. The entire review is scathing. Here’s a small piece.
For those who don’t remember the old landscaping, this grandiloquent new view of the Capitol might not seem so bad. And anyone who has visited the Capitol during the dog days of summer, or the cold of winter, will be grateful for the chance to wait indoors for a tour. But the loss of green space, the loss of old trees, the loss of the gentle, democratic approach to the Capitol is huge. The East front feels as if it has been chewed up by ramps and walkways and bridges, like the entrance to a badly designed airport.
The building itself, designed by RTKL architects (a huge international design firm that has, among other things, designed many of this area’s shopping malls), is a perfect exemplar of bureaucratically conceived and executed architecture. It grew by fits and starts, reflecting the two prevailing political impulses of the past decade: fear of terrorism and growth of government. Eventually, the dog (the visitor center) was being wagged by the tail (everything else).
Although an effort was made to match materials from the old Capitol, including the rusty-colored sandstone from the Rotunda (with which the underground center connects), the resulting aesthetic has all the sterility and polish that people expect from hospitals and airports. Initial fears that the subterranean space would be dark haven’t proved true. Skylights allow light to flood in, and frame dramatic views of the Capitol dome.