Architecture: The National Capital
Architecture: The National Capital
Public Architecture. American architecture did more than reflect Americans’ political and cultural aspirations; it would also help the nation achieve them. Modeled on the Maison Carrée, a Roman temple in Nîmes, France, Thomas Jefferson’s classical design for the new Virginia State House in Richmond would serve a dual purpose, he argued in 1785. Jefferson, whose preference for Roman classicism was influenced by the writings of the sixteenth-century Venetian architect Andrea Palladio, called the design for the new state capitol “very simple,” but added, “it is noble beyond expression, and would have done honour to our country as presenting to travellers a morsel of taste in our infancy promising much for our maturer age.” Furthermore, he asked, “how is a taste in this beautiful art to be formed in our countrymen, unless we avail ourselves of every occasion when public buildings are to be erected, of presenting to them models for their study and imitation.” Jefferson’s vision prevailed, and the Virginia capitol was built essentially according to his design.
Washington, D.C. Similar concerns gave even greater import to the architecture and design of Washington, D.C. As secretary of state, Jefferson took an active interest in the planning and development of this city, playing a key role in the political compromise of 1790 that heavily influenced the decision to locate the federal capital on the Potomac. Jefferson involved himself in the layout and building of Washington, supervising and advising Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the French architect in charge of designing the new city. Jefferson expressed his hope that the U.S. Capitol building would be “worthy of the first temple dedicated to the sovereignty of the people, embellishing with Athenian taste the course of a nation looking far beyond the range of Athenian destinies.” The orderly layout of the streets and buildings also conformed to classical ideals of rationality and uniformity. L’Enfant’s plan for the city, however, closely resembles the layout of Versailles—the seat of French absolute monarchy and the antithesis of republican ideals. Indeed, in many ways L’Enfant’s design betrayed the republican values it was supposed to symbolize. Everything in the city was designed to facilitate the display of authority and reinforce the majesty of government. L’Enfant planned the city around public buildings and monuments, while the “grand avenues” that extended across the city served little practical function. His plans for Washington left little room for the ordinary people to go about their everyday lives.
Problems. L’Enfant’s conception of the capital ultimately contributed to its failure to become a national cultural center. Without any means to attract commerce and people to it, the capital languished. Rather than becoming an American Athens, Washington became a cultural and social backwater, whose only reason for being was the business of government. Latrobe ridiculed the capital as a “Gigantic Abortion.” The implications of the design for American culture were not what its planners intended. Unlike European capitals, Washington did not become an acknowledged center for American cultural life. The result was a physical separation between American artists and politicians that contributed to a split between politics and culture in America and undermined public support for the arts. Artists remained scattered throughout different regions of the country, hindering the process of intellectual exchange within the artistic community. Thus divided, artists continued to maintain regional ties that often conflicted with and obstructed their efforts to establish a national identity and culture.
Gordon Wood, ed., The Rising Glory of America, 1760–1820 (New York: Braziller, 1971).