Friday, June 11, 2010

"Dispatches from the Capital - An Architectural Digression""

Years ago, when I started wrtiting a weekly commentary in a Toronto newspaper, the editor asked me, “What name do you want to use?” This came as a surprise. I was not aware I needed any name other than my own. I immediately complied with what was apparently the expectation, and I made one up.

Early Washington seems to have been confronted with the same issue, only it was in the architectural arena. Judging by the way our nation’s capital looks, it would appear that some building contractor asked the city’s designer,

“How many columns do you want to use?"

This seems to have caught the city’s designer off guard. As with me and my nom de plume situation, the designer seemed unaware that he needed any columns at all. Like my newspaper editor, the building contractor quickly set him straight.

“All the great capitals have columns. London. Paris.”


“They were copying Rome, which was copying Greece. Greece is the cradle of democracy. The later capitals wanted to say, “We’re democracies too.”

“And they said it with columns?”

“It's the democratic structural support of choice. So, how many columns should I order?”

“I don’t know…ten?”

“For the whole city?”

“Not enough?”

“'Ten’ is one building.

“One building?”

“What am I saying? It’s one side of one building.”

“You need them on more than one side?”

“Think about it. Suppose some French diplomatic is taking a walk and he comes up to the “no columns” side of the building. He goes, ‘Sacre bleu! No colombes!’ What are going to say, ‘Go around, they’re on the other side’? It’s embarrassing. As a new nation, it’s important that we don’t look like hicks.”

“But it’s hardly an American style of architecture.”

“What’s the American style of architecture?"

“I don’t know. Log cabins.”

“You want a capital full of log cabins. ‘Excuse me. Where would I find your president?’ ‘In the log cabin with the presidential seal on it.’ Yeah, that will impress the great nations of the world. 'Have you seen the American capital? You can burn the whole place down with one match. No need to attack them with soldiers. Send in beavers.'”

“We really need columns.”

“Trust me. I’m giving you the 'emmis’ here. And it’s not because I make columns on the side. So, how many are we talking about? Think ‘Big Numbers.’”

Fearing humiliation before the great nations of the world, the designer of Washington orders, like, ten thousand columns. The rationale?

“We’re way more democratic than Greece. We’ll prove it. We’ll out-column them.”

And they stuck ‘em up them everywhere. In front of government buildings. In front of museums. In front of galleries. The train station – fifty columns. McDonalds has golden arches?

“Give ‘em some columns.”

A shoeshine stand?

“A couple of columns. What would it hurt?”

What you end up with is what we see today – an American capital, screaming the classic symptoms of chronic overcompensation, the Founding Fathers, masking serious self-worth issues by going overboard with the columns. An "Edifice Complex", if you will. Manifested by acute "Column Envy." (My observations here may be influenced by the fact that I’m a guest at a psychoanalysts’ convention.)

It’s like a short person parading around in a stovepipe hat. He thinks it makes him look taller. In reality, he simply looks ridiculous.

I can imagine what that old French diplomat would say, or a current French diplomat, for that matter. Actually, he probably wouldn’t say anything; being a diplomat, he is required to be diplomatic. But I can imagine what he’s thinking.

And I translate:

“Mon Dieu! Am I in Athens? No, wait, it’s Washington, D.C. Hoh-hoh-hoh-hoh-hoh-hoh.”

“Zose crazee Americains. Zey almost had me fooled.”


PG said...

You are right when you observe that the whole job of a capital city is to knock the socks off the other countries when they pay a visit.
We just visited Venice and if you think Washington is 'ungapatchked' you ain't seen nothin' yet. The Doges Palace is so fancy-shmancy and encrusted with gold, that other nations' ambassadors grovelled humbly to the power of this city for centuries. After all, if you have so much gold that you can afford to plaster it all over the walls and ceiling, you must be doing something right.
Needless to say, Ottawa is a rather humble berg whose claim to fame is a long river which freezes over in winter allowing the citizens to skate to work.
This tells you everything you need to know about Canada as a world power.

Fred said...

Had you taken my advice and visited the U.S. Patent and Trademark Museum and Gift Shop, you would also have seen columns without any building at all.

And speaking of (Freudian) psychology: have you seen the Martha Washington Memorial? It is a 200 foot deep hole in the ground.