Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Architecture of Democracy

In an old cemetery in New Orleans lies the modest grave of a man people seem to know little about. The site isn't very special-looking. The gravestone is plain and has no exceptional honorary decorations. Simply stated, the inscription reads: Benjamin Latrobe, America's first architect.

Yet beyond those words is a remarkable tale of one of America's most significant heroes of design, and perhaps one of its most forgotten. He's the man who founded the profession of architecture on this soil, who essentially built our nation's capital.

Benjamin Latrobe designed several notable buildings prior to his work on the capital, including the Hammerwood Park country house in Sussex, England, the Baltimore Basilica, and the Bank of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, the latter of which was used as a model for revising the design of the Capital.

Bank of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

He was not the first to work on the vast project. William Thornton was President Washington's initial pick. And Washington placed his full faith in Thornton, even after aesthetic and engineering inadequacies became evident, most noted by the collapse of the capital dome. It was Jefferson who eventually authorized Latrobe, a man of clear artistic vision, to come in and help clean up Thornton's mess and give the structure its definition that has lasted to this day.

Jefferson was passionate about architecture. He understood that buildings were symbols, and that the capital was the quintessential symbol of America. He both drove Latrobe and protected him from Thornton and adversaries in order to make that symbol a reality.

With Latrobe on board, the project went forward with a revised aesthetic, utilizing Greek Revival tradition, but without copying it outright. Instead, Latrobe sampled pieces of history for his palette to create a bold, innovative style of Neoclassicism - the American way.

Interior of U.S. Capital dome.

The plans employed two semicircular chambers connected by a glass corridor. In the center was a grand public rotunda, which stood as a conceptual, architectural ideal of democracy. Skylights were cut to filter in natural light from above. Special, ingenious channels were engineered to keep rainwater away from sills and avoid leakage, a precursor to rainwater management design concepts - and one that is relevant today as water departments deal with associated storm-water issues.

The interior was a fluid design bathed in light. There was clarity, with no secrets. Grand and bright, it was a space that came alive, an architectural dance of energy, a symbol of the age of enlightenment.

Early version of U.S. Capital Building.

But in the midst of all this work, Thornton continually conspired against Latrobe, and in many ways, Latrobe became a political failure. His ideas were seen as too extravagant and costly. He was considered too theoretical and professorial. His projects often ran out of money, due to lack of funding from a Congress that saw longevity of architecture as a waste.

At one point Latrobe was arrested for his financial debts. He was driven out of town and he moved to Pittsburgh, in pursuit of a fleeting chance to work on the development of steamboats with Robert Fulton. But again, low on money, he became disillusioned by the reality of his plight. He was forced to sell his furniture to survive. It was a catastrophic reversal of fortune. He was a designer in exile.

Latrobe's White House.

War broke out again between America and the British in 1812. The capital burned and much of the building's architecture was damaged or destroyed. Desperately in need of a skillful master architect, President Monroe rehired Latrobe to rebuild the capital. It was seemingly a coup for the weary designer. No longer would he be constrained by Thornton's designs. He could truly redefine the design of the Capital without interference.

But Latrobe was plagued by his own demons. He was again underfunded, underpaid, and without a staff. Monroe became frustrated with the pace of the work. He wondered what was taking so long, wanted it finished and quickly. Latrobe rebuked the President's demands, and eventually snapped with insubordination. His career was finished.

Plans for the waterworks system of New Orleans by Latrobe.

Yet Latrobe's creative life didn't end there. He was emboldened with a restless American spirit to reinvent himself. He drew upon his fascination for waterways and engineering projects, such as his early work to bring fresh water to Philadelphia - which saved many from outbreaks of typhoid and yellow fever - and eventually went to New Orleans to create a public water system of an even grander scale. In the end, ironically, he became severely ill with yellow fever. Though still penniless, he died leaving behind a wealth of design history for generations to explore and admire.--D.A. DeMers.


Can you guess what major league baseball team has the greenest ballpark? We've got the answer to that and more here.

Images credits: Benjamin Latrobe portrait, public domain license. Bank of PA, public domain license. US Capital rotunda, CC license 2.0, owner does not necessarily share viewpoints expressed author. US Capital Design, 1825, public domain license. White House, public domain license. Frank Island Lighthouse, public domain license. New Orleans waterworks, public domain license.

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  1. I really enjoyed your article. When I worked in New Orleans, there was an old building on Royal designed by Latrobe. It was also a bank at one time and when I was working in NOLA - an event space. I actually did one or more events there. Beautiful dome ceilings and interesting walls.


  2. Great read about Latrobe. Very interesting. I love the architecture of Washington. It's so grand and inspiring... I also always found Washington's monuments to democracy, freedom, and equality and the city's leagues of urban poor and homeless a startling juxtaposition.


  3. I see what you mean about the contrast in DC - the dramatic assertions of the architecture there vs the visual reality of unfulfilled dreams surrounding it.

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