The Wilson Quarterly

The opening of the $621 million subterranean Capitol Visitor Center in Washington luckily passed almost unremarked last December. Other­wise, writes architecture critic Martin Filler, this ­star-­spangled boon­doggle might have received star billing in the Guinness Book of ­Pork.

Designed to protect lawmakers in the wake of the shooting deaths of two Capitol policemen in 1998, the 580,000-square-foot under­ground lobby, security checkpoint, history gallery, and food service complex purports to ease public access to the Capitol building. Actually, writes Filler, a regular contributor to The New York Re­view of Books and other publi­cations, it does just the opposite. The opportunity for visiting families to roam the halls and spot a lawmaker they recog­nize from ­C-­SPAN is a thing of the past. Most visitors’ Capitol experiences are now confined to the annex, where they wait in line for their tours and eat in the cafeteria. Extensive ex­hibits, also located in the annex, show the building of the Capitol and illustrate the workings of the government with contemporaneous documents.

Ten times the size of the White House, the new visitor center is part of a trend toward “interpretive” interventions in historic precincts. “Visitor centers subvert credibility through the extra degree of separation they impose between viewer and artifact,” Filler contends. The Liberty Bell Center in Philadelphia, he says, makes the authentic Liberty Bell look fake. George Washington’s pristine Mount Vernon estate suffers from the “dreadful impo­sitions” of the new Ford Orientation Center and the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center. The Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut, which Samuel Clem­ens lost through foolhardy invest­ments, is threatened with being lost again as a result of spending on an “overinflated” and “misproportioned” annex. Money is now being raised in a misguided effort to build a visitor center at Washing­ton, D.C.’s elegantly evocative Vietnam Veterans ­Memorial.

Enough, says Filler. Visitor centers are a “pointless, wasteful building type we’d be well rid of.”

THE SOURCE: “Rolling Out the Unwel­come Mat for Visitor Centers” by Martin Filler, in Architectural Record, March 2009.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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