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The Capitol Building (Under Construction)

By Michael Minkenberg 

The Capitol Building is in the midst of a $60 million renovation project, the first time work has been done on the iconic dome in fifty years. The renovation will be completed by January 2017, for the next presidential inauguration, but it is safe to say the inner workings of the building will still be in great disrepair after the scaffolding comes off.  Tours of the dome have been suspended, but television networks and producers still rely on the dome to signal their correspondent or pundit is based in DC. We have become familiar to seeing the dome, covered in a wiry shell, while the work is being done during this tumultuous election year.

Both the White House and Congress are situated on elevations, making them visible from afar and reminiscent of the ancient Rome and its hills, but from the beginning on, Congress acquired the larger architectural effort and meaning. In both its early version, rebuilt under the direction of Benjamin Latrobe and his successor Charles Bulfinch after its destruction by British troops in 1814, and in its later, enlarged and more grandiose and monumental version, envisioned by Abraham Lincoln to provide new cement for the Union, designed by Thomas U. Walter and finished in 1867, the Capitol Building imposes itself on the cityscape as the major site.


Externally and internally, it reflects the logic of the system of a bicameral legislature with each of the chambers having equal power. The two chambers are built in equal style, symmetrically arranged around the ceremonial center piece which is crowned by a massive dome. Inside, the chambers and seating arrangements are also quite similar, the seats are arranged in a semi-cycle, which reflects the impulse of the French revolution, the “modern form” of parliament as opposed to the “pre-modern” rectangle still existent in the parliament buildings of a number of Westminster democracies.

Rendering of scaffolding on Capitol DomeHowever: the democratic spirit and aspirations of the new republic and their founders were only incompletely incorporated into the city’s design. The image of the city as the seat of a democratic government was rivaled early on by the image and claims to build a city for a new “empire”.  One hundred years later, the Senate Park Commission, formed in 1901 to upgrade the city and give it a statelier outlook, went back to L’Enfant’s original plan, revived it and its republican promises, and producedmonumentalism on a grand scale.  As at its inception, Washington DC drew inspiration not from democratic reasoning, but rather the European capitals of imperial powers such as London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, and Rome.   The new and enlarged Capitol Building anticipated this monumental spirit already at the end of the Civil War. Like other central public building and monuments (such as the Washington monument), its design manifests architectural citations of structures erected and styles employed by non-democratic regimes and leaders. Whether “the ultimate ancestor” of Thomas Walter’s dome (ironically not part of the extensions authorized by Congress in 1850) was the renaissance dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, or its ancestor, the Pantheon, its more immediate model was the cast-iron dome on St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg (1824-1858).  In any case, the lineage of the size and design points back to pre-modern (incl. imperial) European history.


While for many Americans, the Capitol Building may mean a “temple of liberty”, a significant portion of the public harbors divergent views. With the United States assuming an imperial role in the 20th century world and after, this design appears more appropriate to the current political realities than it may have been intended by its originators. Fantasies of the building’s destruction (e.g. in the movies Mars Attacks, Independence Day, X-Men 2, among many others) correlate highly with the low esteem the institution encounters in public opinion surveys since the 1970s.
Safety Netting in Rotunda

Correspondingly, the imperial (and non-democratic) quality was not lost on the black narrator in Paul Beatty’s novel The Sellout who on his visit to Washington DC remarks: “Washington, D.C., with its wide streets, confounding roundabouts, marble statues, Doric columns, and domes, is supposed to feel like ancient Rome (that is, if the streets of Rome were lined with homeless black people, bomb-sniffing dogs, tour buses, and cherry blossoms).”


This is the widespread view from the outside: In many parts of the world, the Capitol Building is just another symbol of American imperialism, even though, in another ironical twist, Congress has long been the political gravitation center of American isolationism rather than of global hegemony. Seen in this light, the scaffolding acquires new meaning. It hides the imperial aspirations while signaling what American democracy has been from the very beginning – a work in progress.




SIS Minkenberg1[6]


Michael Minkenberg is Professor of Comparative Politics at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder).  He is the editor of Power and Architecture: The Construction of Capitals and the Politics of Space (Berghahn Books).