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The Symbolism Behind The Capitol Building's Architecture


The U.S. Capitol is the most identifiable building in America. It was designed to be. At the top of a hill, it can be seen from nearly any spot in Washington. To talk more about the symbolism of this singular building and these attacks, we're joined by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Philip Kennicott. He's a senior art and architecture critic at The Washington Post. Welcome.

PHILIP KENNICOTT: Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You write often about the meaning and function of public spaces in America. What was your sense of this space?

KENNICOTT: You know, this building is visible all throughout Washington. It's at the geometric center of the city. It's where the basic grid of streets is measured from, and it sits at one of the highest points in the city. So you see it. And, you know, a lot of American cities don't have a recognizable skyline, but Washington does. And the most iconic thing on that skyline is the Capitol with its dome. If it's not quite the most beautiful classical architecture - it's maybe a bit of a hodgepodge - it still is beloved, despite some of its kind of charming, homely flaws.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me what it's like to be inside the building under normal circumstances. For people who may not have been there, what is that physical space like? What does it sound like?

KENNICOTT: Traditionally, the Capitol's been a pretty open space. You could come to town, see the monuments and go visit your representative. And so when you're in it, there's this wonderful sort of boomy, echoey, noisy quality. People are moving around all the time. And if that's the aural sense of it, visually, that hodgepodge of architecture is even more kind of compelling on the inside. I mean, it was built over decades and centuries. And inside, you really see that from, you know, the changes in just the way the building is laid out and the size of the rooms and the decoration style.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you make of the profane nature of these attacks? These were Americans - vigilante mobs attacking their own history, their house. In fact, we heard them repeatedly say this was their house. There are reports people defecated in the quarters.

KENNICOTT: Yeah. You know, when you say something's ours or something's mine - part of that is care for the thing. Part of that is stewardship. It's not just that if it's mine, I can do whatever I want with it. And that was the kind of claim of possession that I found so appalling, so sickening in what was going on there. When they said, it was ours, they basically said, it's ours to destroy - not ours to preserve, not ours to pass down, not ours to imbue with meaning and symbol and value and worth - ours to do with as we wish. I find that repellent.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This has not only shocked America and the world because of what they did, but, you know, many people feel that this building is really important. It has hurt their hearts. Why do you think that is?

KENNICOTT: I think it's because we take it seriously for what it does. You know, it's - a monument or memorial is basically something - you go, and you're trained to have a set of thoughts, and you try and think about the thing that's memorialized there. But this is a building that functions. It daily enacts what we do in a democracy. And so it's - when you attack it, you're not just attacking a symbol. You're attacking the function and the process of democracy. You know, I was really struck by a story that came out after Congress voted to certify the election and after that terrible day on Wednesday when the crowds poured through there. One of the representatives, young guy named Andy Kim, I think it was - you know, after all of this, he grabbed a trash bag and started collecting trash - just cleaning up the space. And maybe that seems a little hokey, but if you live in Washington, you really do feel a kind of proprietary sense because these buildings are always there. And because they're so big and the city is so low, you're always being watched by them. You know, in a sense, they cast a kind of protective embrace. And to see them defiled is just particularly disturbing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You are someone who thinks about buildings and their meaning. And I'm wondering, after this attack, has the meaning of the building changed?

KENNICOTT: No, I don't think so. I think the history has gotten longer, and a very ugly chapter has been added. And I hope we always remember that chapter. And maybe we need a plaque. Maybe we need something that says, through this particular door came these people on this date so that we have that memory and so that they can't be allowed to change the appalling nature of what they did by slowly saying over time, well, it wasn't really as bad as it seemed. It wasn't really insurrection. It was just a little bit of a mob or maybe just a bit of a riot or a bit of bad behavior. We can't let that become the memory of it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Philip Kennicott, he's a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic at The Washington Post. Thank you very much.

KENNICOTT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.