- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 9, 2002

"Let our aqueduct be worthy of the Nation; and, emulous as we are of the ancient Roman republic, let us show that the rulers chosen by the people are not less careful of the safety, health and beauty of their capital than the emperors who, after enslaving their nation, by their great works conferred benefits upon their city which, their treason almost forgotten, cause their names to be remembered with respect and affection by those who will drink the water supplied by their magnificent aqueducts."
Federal bureaucrats do not write requests for proposals like that anymore. Then again, there haven't been too many civil servants like the remarkable Montgomery C. Meigs, either. Proud, incorruptible, visionary, pious, stubborn and humorless, a designer of distinction and an engineer of genius, Meigs had as much to do with the built environment of Washington D.C. as anyone since Pierre Charles L'Enfant.
In a 40-year career as an Army engineer in Washington beginning in 1852, Meigs surveyed, designed and willed into being the capital's first reliable water supply system, supervised the erection of the Capitol's massive iron dome, and put his deep affection for classical Italian architecture to use in his career-capping design for the Pension Building, now the site of the National Building Museum at 9th and G Streets NW.
Montgomery C. Meigs and the Building of the Nation's Capital (Ohio University Press, $49.95, 212 pages, illus.) edited by William C. Dickinson, Dean A. Herrin and Donald R. Kennon, tries to capture in a series of 11 scholarly essays the many sides of this multifaceted man, from his engineering feats to his architectural influences to his epic battles with contractors, congressmen, critics and his own superiors.
Particularly strong are essays by Harry C. Ways, former chief of the Washington Aqueduct, on Meigs' crusade to provide potable water to city residents, and a survey by William C. Dickinson, a management consultant, focusing on Meigs' "unique skill for executing large and complex public works projects."
Well illustrated but relatively short, this book leaves a reader hungry for a full-scale biography of a man who knew virtually everyone who mattered at a critical time in the nation's development. (His first assignment for the Army Corps of Engineers was under fellow West Pointer Lt. Robert E. Lee; he once rejected a job application from 20-year-old James Abbott McNeill Whistler as a draftsman, leaving the young man free to pursue a rather more successful career in art.)
And despite his high reputation today, Meigs was embroiled in controversies throughout his career. Now recognized as one of Washington's great spaces, the vast central atrium of the Pension Building attracted harsh critical comment in its day. Told that Meigs had designed the building to be virtually fireproof, Union war hero Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman reportedly replied: "What a pity!"

Why Architecture Matters (University of Chicago Press, $37.50, 386 pages, illus.) is a collection of columns by Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin. While most of the selections concern buildings and issues affecting the Chicago area, anyone with an interest in the built environment will find this an accessible and enlightening collection. Subtitled "Lessons from Chicago," the collection offers far broader insights regarding architecture and urban planning than apply strictly to any one city. Mr. Kamin's topics are relevant across the country; the book includes forays into other cities and buildings of international renown.
The comments regarding skyscrapers, and the impact of architecture on the civic consciousness, are thought provoking and timely. Although the columns were all written pre- September 11, Mr. Kamin addresses the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center as well as the Oklahoma City bombing.
And there are enough salient points about the role of the skyscraper as a landmark on the horizon, as a symbol of culture and as a monument to commerce to enable the reader to understand why terrorists might seek to destroy such icons: " … one cannot measure a skyscraper by technical achievements alone. The best ones, like the Hancock Tower and the Empire State Building in New York, transcend engineering and become civic art, oversized embodiments of their cities. They appear on postcards and souvenir plates, in the backgrounds of television news sets. Certainly, Sears and Hancock dark, muscular and even a bit menacing vividly express Chicago's identity … "
Billing himself as an "activist critic," Mr. Kamin claims that, "Activist criticism is based on the idea that architecture affects everyone and therefore should be understandable to everyone. It analyzes architecture as a fine art and as a social art, placing buildings in the context of the politics, the economics, and the cultural forces that shape them. Activist criticism invites readers to be more than consumers who passively accept the buildings that are handed to them. It bids them, instead, to become citizens who take a leading role in shaping their surroundings. Its fundamental purposes are these: to stop hideous buildings and urban spaces from disfiguring the landscape, and to introduce constructive alternatives into the public debate."
Mr. Kamin's musings range from public and private housing, "fake history" (and the Disney-ization of civic buildings) to the suburbanization of the city. There is even a segment on sports venues critiquing Comiskey Park, the Chicago Stadium, and the United Center, enjoyable reading particularly in light of the success of D.C.'s MCI Center and the recent progress in luring a baseball team to the D,C./Virginia area. And his thoughts regarding the disappearance of the suburban yard and the tract mansion phenomenon are as relevant in Reston as they are Chicago.

A final offering concerning our nation's building record is Leland M. Roth's American Architecture: A History (Westview Press, $79.95, 606 pages, illus.) At over 600 pages, 50 of which are notes, chronology, indices and glossary, this hefty book is less a solid read than it is a resource for students and/or architects. The black and white photos, drawings and maps reinforce the image that this could be a survey course textbook, but that would be selling the book short. Mr. Roth's prose achieves a reasonable balance aimed at the scholarly (without being dry) and the knowledgeable general reader (without being too simplistic).
The book is organized into 10 chapters, roughly following the historical stages of our country's development. "The First American Architecture" covers indigenous buildings and shelters. "Europeans in the New World, 1600-1700" shows the sources of early architecture", "In the Latest Fashion, 1690-1785" covers the emergence of Georgian and vernacular styles and so on, up to "Responses to Modernism,1973-2001." This last chapter draws heavily on the writings of Robert A.M. Stern, who neatly categorized much of Post Modernism, with its myriad pluralistic takes on Classicism. There is a coda regarding the destruction of the World Trade Center, neatly summarizing the structural collapse and its implication for future tall building design.
The organization of the chapters seeks to forge a relationship between what Mr. Roth called "the impact of interrelated changes in conceptual imagery, style, building technology, landscape design, and town planning theory." This concept, the idea of some sort of gestalt in design has been used before, notably with Christian Norberg-Schulz's "A Concise History of Western Architecture," but it's a holistic view that worked well there and serves well here, too.
Broad periods of history provide the framework for understanding how architectural styles emerged and support the theory that the way we build is an outgrowth of social, political, economic and cultural factors far beyond stylistic fashions. In a country with such a hodgepodge of roots, Mr. Roth provides an extensive survey that helps explain and document our American architectural history.

Ellen Sands is an architectural designer and critic.



Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide