At the Old Patent Office Building

By November 19, 2007Culture and Entertainment

Kogod_Courtyard2.jpgOne of the architectural controversies that occasionally seizes the nation’s capital — what other special-tribute museum can we shoehorn into the Mall? — was highlighted and most likely resolved Sunday with the grand opening of the newly canopied Kogod courtyard at the Smithsonian’s Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, most commonly thought at the National Portrait Gallery.

Having read this bit of effective architectural criticism by Deborah K. Dietsch, our aesthetic prejudice against “modernizing” classic buildings was only reinforced. Here you have one of the most significant, pre-1830 sites in Washington, and you’re covering the Greek Revival buildings with hip steel-and-glass roofing? By Richard Foster? Oh, boy, our own revisioned Reichstag Dome. How…relevant.

But, surprise, it’s pretty good, at least as seen on a late Sunday afternoon with crowds celebrating the re-opening of the courtyard. On lonelier days it will probably be a gray and sterile site, but on the occasions demanding a large public space, the covered courtyard should work effectively.

In other words: Good site for a big fundraiser. In case the Building Museum is closed.

The Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott reviews the building today, and makes a good case for buildings that live and change with the times. (This theory does not apply to the U.S. Constitution.) The argument would carry more weight if every so often a building’s original vision and architectural integrity were preserved. After all, how many historically important Greek Revival buildings are there? Enough that we should be mucking around with them?

Still, a workable upgrade and not an in-your-face rejection of the original structure.

However…This is the Old Patent Office Building, a vitally important site in the history of American knowledge, science and manufacturing, a “temple to the industrial arts.” You sure get no sense of that history now.

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