Architecture and The Capitol Riot
Updated: Jan 15, 2021
For more than 200 years The United States Capitol has represented, more than any structure, American Democracy; the very basis of our country.
The Capitol’s role at the core of our national identity is one of the chief reasons I had—we all had—that sickening feeling watching the rioters breach its doors last week. I still have visions of them rampaging through its halls, tearing at the very heart of our country.
Designed for our new national capital in 1792 by Dr. William Thornton, and executed by architects Benjamin Henry Latrobe and, later, Thomas Walter, the Capitol is a case study in the power of architecture. When creating its legislature, the founding fathers had no interest in looking to the world’s many symbols of Monarchy, Imperialism, and Despotism. They instead looked to the birthplace of Democracy itself (not to mention logic, philosophy, and history): ancient Greece.
The pure white neoclassical design, consisting of two monumental wings for the House and Senate unified by a 287-foot-tall colonnaded dome, is uniquely American. It draws from the past to create something completely new. It is as close as we have to a sacred national place. That soaring cast iron dome, like those of St Peter’s or St Paul’s, represents our aspiration toward the heavens. Its rectangular, marble-clad, bilateral base represents humanity, solidity, and balance. Its treasures—murals, statues, symbolic ornament—tell the ever-changing story of the country itself. (As does, sadly, the fact that it was built in part by slaves, or that its chambers for too long excluded so many.)
Containing the offices, halls, and chambers of the legislature, the Capitol has been the site of 55 presidential inaugurations, the passage of the 13th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act, and of state funeral ceremonies for Lincoln, Kennedy and, most recently Ruth Bader Ginsberg. The mob’s intrusion into its halls, while Congress was undertaking its most essential task, wasn’t just ugly, scary, and dangerous. It was—like the presidency of Donald Trump—a defilement of the sacred symbols of Democracy. It's fitting that the same building has now been the site of not one, but two of his impeachment trials.
We are, more than anything, a nation based in law. Yes, we were founded in revolution. But what has made us the longest surviving Democracy in world history has been our ability to resolve our often considerable, and almost always contentious, differences through the machinations of this legislature. Hence the inscription at the base of the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol Dome: E Pluribus Unum, “From Many, One.”
The Capitol, standing literally on a hill, the primary focus of Pierre l’Enfant’s plan for Washington D.C., is the ultimate reminder of that foundation. And those so-called “patriots” violated, they raped that inviolate notion. Think about that. The 9/11 hijackers attacked the World Trade Center, two soaring monuments to Capitalism. Donald Trump’s supporters attacked our most vital symbol of Democracy.
Maybe Trump didn’t explicitly order his supporters to storm into the building. But his rambling rhetoric was clearly, and intentionally, the spark that lit this fire. And his shameless lies and steady degradation of our principles have paved the way for years.
Watching the ransacking of the building was all we need to know about the influence this man has had on our nation. Nothing is sacred for him, least of all the tenets of Democracy. He has no foundation; no guiding symbol beside himself. His most lasting legacy will be the pollution of our civic spirit through lies, chaos, bullying, and selfishness. The attack on this building will forever be its most lasting image.
Trump doesn’t function alone. He represents our country’s darker traits in an age that often values personal betterment over common good; “branding” over meaning; fleeting satisfaction over sacrifice and endurance; scapegoating over introspection; easy lies over difficult truths.
As the Capitol reminds us, despite his heavenly aspirations, man is fallible. That's why we need a system of laws and amendments; of checks and balances; of regular, fair elections.
Like all structures, the Capitol contains our collective memory, and it mirrors our priorities and aspirations. Because of this man, and those who have enabled and followed him, that memory now bears a permanent stain that we can never wash away.
Perhaps the best result of this sad period is to remind us all of the core values that the Capitol represents, and why we must never again allow somebody to desecrate them. The grand building will continue to stand, long after threats like Wednesday’s shameful episode have passed. But only if we remain vigilant.