The word “dogmatic” sits at the top of a page in Dhiru A. Thadani’s small, beat up notebook. Below it is a cartoonish drawing of an adorable pup, whose tongue hangs eagerly out of his mouth. But he’s not just any cartoon dog: his limbs are connected to his body via metal hinges, and out of his back protrudes a wind-up mechanism. I chuckle as Thadani, 67, sheepishly shows me the drawing. Dog-matic.
We’re sitting in The Den, the lower level coffeeshop in Politics & Prose on Connecticut Avenue NW. Hanging in frames on the walls that enclose us are more of Thadani’s drawings, a couple notches more sophisticated than his notebook doodles. One is a floor plan of the Dumbarton Oaks estate in Georgetown, surrounded by dotted trees. There’s the United States Botanic Garden illuminated by streetlight on a pitch black night; another shows the H Street Streetcar chugging along in broad daylight. All of them are rendered with great precision in black pen.
The drawings come from Thadani’s recently published book, Washington Drawings: Abe to Zoo, which is exactly what it sounds like: a collection of D.C. drawings, one for every letter of the alphabet. An award-winning architect who has published several books on urbanism, Thadani has accompanied each drawing with a few paragraphs that dive into the history and context of the site at hand, often describing how it factored into Pierre L’Enfant’s plan for the District.
“I always joke that this is my iPad,” Thadani says as he thumbs through his notebook, each page filled with rapid scribbles, doodles, or precise pen drawings. “It has all my ideas, all my thoughts.”
A glimpse at Thadani’s notebook makes it clear that he makes sense of the world by drawing it, and Washington Drawings is a clear result of that process. Though Thadani grew up in Bombay, India (now Mumbai, but Thadani still refers to the city by its former name), D.C. has been his home for the last 50 years, ever since he relocated in 1972 to study architecture at Catholic University. During 2021, he got in the habit of taking evening drives from his Sixteenth Street Heights residence around the city. As traffic waned with the pandemic, he found ample time and space to take in the sights. Many of the drawings that ended up in Thadani’s book began in his car, where he’d sit at night and capture the view before him. “It’s my love story to Washington,” Thadani says of the project.
Washington Drawings hits many of the locations that a tourist would—“C” for the U.S. Capitol, “L” for the Library of Congress, “S” for the Smithsonian. Thadani is interested in iconic spots, but he’s also interested in telling their lesser-known stories. “A” is for Abe at the Lincoln Memorial, but Thadani notes that when the memorial was dedicated, segregation was alive and well, and any mention of Jim Crow laws or equal rights was banned. “O” is for the Washington Monument’s obelisk, and the accompanying paragraphs reveal that it was actually built 390 feet southeast of where L’Enfant wanted it due to unstable ground.
“I wish that a book like this, or any book on Washington that gives you that kind of background, would be given to every intern or politician that comes here, so that they can start to appreciate,” Thadani says. “The more people are educated about Washington, or any city that they live in, the more they’ll want to preserve it. If you’re ignorant about it, you say, ‘Oh, you know, let’s tear that down.’ A level of education is essential.”
Some drawings emphasize the District’s natural environment more than its built one. “R” is for Rock Creek Park and “X” is for Malcolm X Park. Both images are simple and serene, as Thadani knows those parks to be in real life. It was important for him to not only capture the beauty of the iconic, but also of the mundane, he says.
“Every city needs to invest in beauty, so that everyone can experience beauty, which uplifts the human spirit,” he says. “Even if it’s a little fountain in a park. You can go in the morning and see a rainbow when the sun hits the fountain, and it’s kind of magical.”
Thadani’s work as an urban planner has taken him across the country, and over the years, he’s gotten offers to relocate to cities across the U.S.—from San Francisco to Miami. Some of his loved ones live in India. But he sees no reason to leave D.C.
“I never tire of Washington,” he says. “You’re never bored. My father used to say something to the effect of, ‘boredom is a choice. Boredom is never thrust upon you. It’s a choice that you make to be bored.’ I’d say that in a city like Washington, if you open your eyes, you can never be bored. Every minute is wonderful.”
Washington Drawings: Abe to Zoo by Dhiru Thadani is on sale now. The accompanying exhibit is on display at Politics & Prose through July 30. dthadani.com. Free.