Seven Wonders: DC’s Beautiful Interior Spaces

In reading this excellent piece by my friend Justin Shubow yesterday in Forbes, which I urge you to bookmark and go read for yourself – after you finish reading this post of course – I was struck by a rather curious observation.  It seems the American Institute of Architects considers the West Building of the National Gallery here in Washington to be some sort of failure, aesthetically speaking. Given what the AIA considers to be a “successful” building, I suppose this is a bit like asking one of the Kardashians what it means to dress (or behave) like a lady, but there you are.

I decided to share with my readers some of the interior spaces here in Washington which I find to be beautiful and inspiring. Some of them are very grand; others simply have a line or curve to them that I find appealing.  Some will be familiar to you; others may not be familiar even to people who have lived in DC for a long time. So here they are, in no particular order.

Rotunda, The National Gallery of Art West Building

National Gallery

Despite the criticism of the AIA – they of bad taste and huckster values – this really is one of the most lovely spots in DC. It’s always been a terrific place to meet people, thanks to the large upholstered benches that surround the fountain, as well as the waiting areas off the Mall entrance, This is a refreshing and rejuvenating spot to come any time of year, whether in the blazing heat of summer or the frigid winds of winter, to just sit and enjoy the symmetry, the sound of water, and the interesting people. What’s more, it works so well as an architectural intersection, with staircases and hallways radiating off of it, that it never feels crowded, even though at any time there may be 100 people passing through it.

Main Staircase, The Army and Navy Club

Army Navy Club

There are grander staircases in DC, but something about the staircase at the Army and Navy Club on Farragut Square just appeals to me. It may be the combination of width and rise, or it may be the color scheme and the landings, but this feature of the club’s interior is something you will enjoy climbing, if you are ever fortunate enough to be invited there.

Music Room, Dumbarton Oaks

DOaks Music Room

Most of the decoration of this room, for which both Stravinsky and Shostakovitch composed chamber pieces, was taken from other places: the fireplace stripped from a château from France, the ceiling copied from a villa in Italy, etc. And yet the combination of antiques, low lighting, and north-facing windows gives a quiet, timeless quality to this room, which would feel just as much at home in a city like Madrid or Vienna. as it does in Washington.

Interior, Holy Rosary Church

Holy Rosary

Traveling to or from Union Station, you’ve probably passed Holy Rosary many times, perched precariously over the soon-to-be covered over stretch of North Capitol Street and 395.  What you probably did not know is that this last remnant of the old Italian immigrant neighborhood in downtown Washington is an absolute jewel of a building, beautifully proportioned and magnificently decorated in white and pastel shades of marble on the inside, like an Italian wedding cake.

Atrium, The National Building Museum

Building Museum

Because of height restrictions, as a general rule DC does scale best. This is an imperial city, not a fortified one. Architects over the years have found ways to impress by emphasizing the vastness of the spaces here, rather than emphasizing how tall a structure is (think Union Station, for example.) However this is one of those rare exceptions: a massive barn of a building, with the height to match. The central columns supporting the roof, which stand 75 feet tall and are 8 feet in diameter, would make a Byzantine Emperor proud.

Main Reading Room, Library of Congress (Jefferson Building)

Reading Room

If you’ve been here, no explanation is necessary. If you haven’t, no explanation is possible. This is the most beautiful library in the world.

Lobby, Omni Shoreham Hotel

wassho-omni-shoreham-hotel-lobby-1

There are grander, more luxurious hotels in DC, and more historic ones as well. Yet this one, which opened in 1930 and features an interesting mix of American Art Deco and Mediterranean Renaissance styles, has a lobby which has always appealed to me.  Perhaps because despite its vast spaces and broad arches, there is something human in scale about the place, which makes it feel very comfortable and civilized.  The cluster of seating areas in the lobby, the finishes, the bright but cheerful lighting, all make this a wonderful place to sit and people watch.

Obviously there are many other great spaces in the Capital and I have not attempted to name them all. What are some of your favorites? Share them with me and your fellow readers in the comments!

Seen And Unseen: Drones Reveal Architectural Splendor

One of the most intriguing technological developments of recent years for the commercial market has been the drone, or more specifically, the micro Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). These tiny, light, HD camera-wielding flying machines are used to make all sorts of fun videos such as this one. Drones have proven to be a huge hit with backyard air traffic controlers, pranksters, and aspiring action movie directors around the world.

Yet with all their modern, gee-whiz capabilities, these machines also have the power to make us pause and wonder at the achievements of those who came before us, particularly when it comes to the centuries of magnificent art and architecture sponsored by the Church. A recent post on ChurchPop.com brought together eleven astounding videos of Christian monuments around the world, including Mont Sant Michel in Brittany, Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, and the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, among others. Each was filmed, in whole or in part, using a drone, thereby bringing the viewer never before seen footage of these places. All eleven of these Catholic structures showcase the continuity and yet at the same time diversity of design in the Church across nearly a millennia in this sampling.

Now, before anyone jumps down my throat about either Utrecht or Canterbury Cathedrals, which are featured in the post linked to above, I would point out a few facts. Both cathedrals were designed and built by Catholics, for use by Catholics, long before they were later… appropriated by others. They were not torn down as so many others were. Thus, whatever may have befallen them on the inside, these two churches remain largely Catholic works of art on the outside.

Regardless, it must be said that the possibilities raised by drone technology are potentially endless, when it comes to the renovation and preservation of sacred art and architecture. Imagine, a parish needing an assessment of a leaky belfry could fly up a drone to shoot some video for potential contractors. A cathedral seeking to determine what shape the ceiling frescoes are in could film closeups of the surface for art experts located hundreds of miles away, without ever erecting a scaffold. Art researchers could take a look at carved ceiling bosses located high inside an ancient monastery chapel halfway around the world from the comfort of their own office.

Getting back to the point, such opportunities are wonderful moments to ask others to take another look at the Church they think they know. It is hard to watch the drone video of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela for example, and not want to visit its many ornate stone spires. Who knows what thoughts or experiences may cross such a pilgrim’s path on the Camino?

Technology is certainly a means for us to imagine the future. Clearly it can also be a way for us to better understand the past. And in the sacred context, by revealing the hidden splendor of these places it can bring before our eyes imagery which corresponds to the vision of the Psalmist: “I rejoiced when I heard them say, let us go up unto the House of the Lord.”

image

Here Be A Dragon

Architecture is a funny old game. Even with high-powered machinery, computer-aided drafting, and the like, projects sometimes drag on for quite a long period of time, and never completely come to fruition.  The same was certainly true of the work of some of the greatest architects of the past, who sometimes had to abandon what they had started due to lack of funds, politics, or the like.

The great Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí i Cornet was no exception. Even casual students of his work are familiar with his Basilica of the Sagrada Familia, still under construction nearly a century after his death, but other projects by the great master never quite got completed either. One example is the Park Güell, a housing development he designed in the NE corner of the city; or the Colonia Güell, a company town located outside of Barcelona. What both of these projects have in common was their sponsorship by Gaudí’s greatest patron, Count Eusebi Güell.

Gaudí did manage to finish Güell’s mansion in downtown Barcelona, the Palau Güell, located off the Ramblas in the former Chinese Quarter.  However like many 19th century Barcelona industrialists, Güell wanted a weekend and holiday retreat that was outside the city center, which would afford him and his family more space, fresh air, and tranquil surroundings. The same phenomenon was occurring in major cities all over the world, from London to New York to Tokyo, where business leaders would purchase or build such retreats in towns and villages not too far from the cities in which they worked, so that they could be reached in a few hours by coach, train or the like.

Güell’s decision to have his summer house in the Les Corts district near Pedralbes, which was then well outside the city, was one imitated by many of his Barcelona contemporaries. However none of the grand mansions which popped up in the neighborhood in the 19th and 20th centuries had anything quite like the unusual gatehouses known today as the “Pavellons Güell”. They were just part of a colossal scheme by the Catalan architect and his patron to create what would have been a fantasyland, complete with remodeling the existing house to look like a Moorish Revival palace, surrounded by vast gardens, and featuring several ornate entrance gates, all encompassed by decorative walls.

Unfortunately, Gaudí never got to redesign the house. It was later presented to and transformed into the Palau Reial de Pedralbes by the Spanish Royal Family. They themselves hardly used it (although General Franco did) and today King Felipe VI prefers to stay in the less-grand Palauet Albéniz overlooking the sea, when he is in town. The pavilions were given to the University of Barcelona, with public access strictly limited to guided tours on specific weekends during the year.

After languishing in limbo for some time – what do you do with stables and gatehouses no longer attached to an estate? – as a result of a deal between the city and the university, for the past few months Barcelona has been working to restore the buildings, in order to make them accessible to the paying public. The city plans to invest close to $1 million in bringing the pavilions back to their former appearance.  For a fee, the plan is allowing the public to visit these previously almost-inaccessible works of the great architect, and to make their surrounding gardens, also partially laid out by Gaudí, more accessible.  The hope is to make the pavilions available for things such as concerts, lectures, community events, and the like. Imagine having your wedding reception or anniversary dinner catered in one of these buildings!

True these may rank, in terms of size, among the smallest of Gaudí’s completed buildings.  However, it is wonderful to see new life being breathed back into these fantastical structures, after so many years of benign neglect. While their original purpose may have vanished long ago, their extraordinary design continues to fascinate us today, more than 125 years after the magnificent gate pictured below first swung open to receive visitors.

Dragon Gate