Hidden in Plain Sight: An Alternative Vision of American History in Washington D.C.
Story by K. Mitchell Snow
Photos by Paul Clemence
Everyone knows what Washington, DC is supposed to look like: the Capitol, the Supreme Court, the White House and the monuments to Jefferson and Lincoln all proclaim US democracy’s debt to ancient Greece. More contemporary ideas about a truly inclusive democracy have also found their way into the District of Columbia’s cityscape.
Tanzania born, Ghanaian-British architect Sir David Adjaye’s National Museum of African American History and Culture nods at the forms of classical architecture, but its lively facade recalling the decorative ironwork created by enslaved peoples in the southern US is what made it an instant hit. This same spirit of inclusiveness appears throughout the city in ways that are not always so evident.
Just a few blocks away from Adjaye’s edifice sits the opulent Beaux Artes headquarters of the Organization of American States. Immigrant architect Paul Philippe Cret looked to the Mayan culture of Central America to express what made his building American. The decidedly unassuming house that once served as its Director General’s residence, tucked around the back of the building, is now the Art Museum of the Americas. It is here that Cret’s Mayan influences are most easily seen in non-pandemic times.
Beyond its white-gallery spaces, dedicated to art exhibitions featuring South and North American artists concerned with issues of equitable development and human rights, is the home’s “interior courtyard.” Its blue-tiled walls and ceramic decorations based on the remains of Copan helped to inspire the Mayan Revival Art Deco style that was soon to come.
For a very different take on what it meant to be a resident of the Americas nearly half a century later, wend your way to the back of the Library of Congress’s Jefferson Building, take an elevator to the third floor, and turn left. Just beyond the double doors, you’ll find yourself in the vestibule of the Hispanic Reading Room surrounded by murals painted by one of Brazil’s leading modernists, Candido Portinari.
They are a remnant of the long-abandoned “Good Neighbor” policy prompted by US fears of fascist inroads into Ibero-America during World War II. Gone are the foyer’s elegant muses and philosophers in classic dress. Portinari’s images of “discovery,” pioneering, labor, and education blend figures representing Europeans and the Africans and indigenous peoples they enslaved.
Anonymous people with strong hands and feet engaged in the process of creating America dominate these murals, never the “leaders” lionized in official histories.
Another of the City’s libraries also makes an anti-fascist statement. Mies van der Rohe’s 1972 Martin Luther King Memorial Library, freshly updated by Mecanoo Architecten and Martinez+Johnson. van der Rohe fled Nazi Germany and its notoriously violent reaction to modernist aesthetics for the US in 1937, where even official Washington would adopt modernism as a symbol of liberty. His black steel and dark glass design for the city’s library would be one of his final projects and his only building in DC, he died in 1969 before it was completed. At the request of DC residents, the building was named for Dr. King in 1971, the library’s central mural celebrates King’s philosophy of non-violence. (If you’re tempted to explore the modernist architecture blossoming in other parts of the city, Adjaye’s Francis A. Gregory and William O. Lockridge neighborhood libraries would make excellent starting points.)
Back on Washington’s Mall is Chinese immigrant I. M. Pei’s East Building of the National Gallery of Art, another of Washington’s growing handful of modernist landmarks. The building’s exquisitely designed and engineered knife-edge holds an unmistakable appeal.
Follow the subtle path along the building’s southwest facade and look carefully at that edge. One by one, every day since it opened in 1978 a few visitors to the gallery have been unable to resist the urge to touch it. At about hand’s height, what was once almost cuttingly sharp white marble has evolved into a light brown, smoothly concave surface. There’s a message here as well: even stone will not resist the sustained activity of a people.
K. Mitchell Snow is the author of A Revolution in Movement: Dancers, Painters, and the Image of Modern Mexico (University Press of Florida 2020). He has written about Latin American art and culture for publications such as Américas, Art Nexus, History of Photography and Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas.
Paul Clemence is an award-winning photographer and writer exploring the cross-section of design, art and architecture. A published author, his volume Mies van der Rohe’s FARNSWORTH HOUSE remains to this day the most complete photo documentation of that iconic modern residential design, and a selection of these photos is part of the Mies van der Rohe Archives housed by MoMa, New York. He is widely published in arts, architecture and lifestyle magazines like Metropolis, ArchDaily, Architizer, Modern, Casa Vogue Brasil and others. Archi-Photo, aka Architecture Photography, his Facebook photo blog quickly became a photography and architecture community, with over 970,000 followers worldwide. An architect by training, Clemence is originally from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and now lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.