Having just returned from a visit to Washington DC, it struck me how the monuments, museums and buildings all come together to create a beautiful aesthetic in the National Mall area. The buildings were inspired by many different styles and eras, so I thought it would be interesting to highlight a few of my favorites that display the variety of design influences in Washington DC architecture, our nation’s most important buildings
Washington DC Architecture: From Neoclassical to Modern and More
Neoclassical: The Neoclassical style is characterized by an impressive scale – larger buildings with uncomplicated geometric forms, impressive use of columns, and blank, uncluttered walls. The Neoclassical period of architecture, generally thought of as the time between the 1660’s and 1850’s, took inspiration from classical Greek and Roman arts.
The Jefferson Monument, dedicated by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1943, is a stunning example of the Neoclassical style. Architect John Russell Pope was heavily influenced by Jefferson’s taste in classical architecture, and the rotunda of the Monument resembles the University of Virginia’s rotunda – which Jefferson himself designed. The walls inside the Monument’s rotunda are imprinted with quotes from Thomas Jefferson himself, in keeping with the spare, uncluttered walls typical of the style.
Other Washington DC buildings with this style of architecture include the White House, the Treasury Building, and the Capitol Building.
Modernist: Modern architecture rose in the first half of the 20th century, and became dominant post-World War II. With new technologies and materials available for design and construction, the Modern Architecture movement became the norm in the latter half of the 20th century, well into the 1980’s.
The Vietnam Memorial: A national design contest brought us one of our nations most-treasured monuments. Designed by then-architecture student Maya Lin, the Vietnam Memorial stands in stark contrast to the surrounding memorials and monuments as a dark granite modern structure. The black, high-gloss granite allows a visitor to see not only the engraved names of the men and women who died serving, but also see themselves reflected back. The design was initially met with controversy, with some criticizing it as too stark and lacking in traditional ornamentation. Time, however, has eased criticism and the wall is now a large draw to Constitution Gardens.
Beaux Arts: A subset of Neoclassical and Greek Revival styles, Beaux Arts architecture combines Greek and Roman styles with Renaissance concepts. It was a dominant style in the Gilded Age. The style is characterized by elaborate and formal design, with a distinct nod to symmetry and order. Grandiosity is a word often used to describe the style.
Union Station is an example of this architectural style. Opened in 1907, the train station is Amtrak’s headquarters and boasts elements of Beaux Arts, particularly in the main waiting area of the transportation hub. Throughout the course of the next several decades, the station fell into disrepair. The passage of the Redevelopment Act of 1981 gave the building new life and is now once again thriving.
Organic: Organic Architecture is what Frank Lloyd Wright used to described his idea that “form and function are one.” This style is used to convey harmony between human habitation and the natural world. With this style, everything in the design relates to each other, from the windows to chair placement.
The National Museum of the American Indian: Among the newer buildings along the national mall, the National Museum of the American Indian perfectly reflects this style. Native American architect Douglas Cardinal provided the initial design, and further collaborations with several other firms, including the Native American Design Collaborative, gave rise to the building we know today. The structure is wealthy with imagery and meaning, with a design meant to evoke a connection to the earth, and is aligned perfectly with the cardinal directions. The outside is curved and has a look of wind-worn rock.
Greco-Roman (with a twist): Following principles established in ancient Greece, the Roman world followed suit, designing some of the most well-known buildings in the Roman world, including the Colosseum, the Roman Senate, and government buildings.
The National Museum of African History and Culture is the newest building along the National Mall, and arguably one of the most symbolic. The building, designed by David Adjaye and architect Philip Freelon, brings together elements from Africa and the Americans meant to pay homage to the influence and traditions brought to us by the African Diaspora. It takes a Greco-Roman form by using a base and shaft, topped by a corona. The corona, according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s website, “is inspired by the three-tiered crowns used in Yoruban art from West Africa.” The outside, featuring intricate ironwork, is a tribute to the work of the enslaved African Americans in the American South.
Washington DC Architecture: A melting pot
There are dozens more buildings and monuments throughout that highlight the unique Washington DC architecture and design. Much like America, the buildings and spaces are a melting pot of ideas, innovations and beauty.