The Symbolism Behind the Architecture of the Capitol Building: NPR

NPR’s Lulu Garcia Navarro chats with Philip Kennicott, senior art and architecture critic for The Washington Post, about the significance of the US Capitol.


The United States Capitol is the most identifiable building in America. It was designed to be. Atop a hill, it can be seen from almost anywhere in Washington. To learn more about the symbolism of this singular building and these attacks, we are joined by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Philip Kennicott. He is an art and architecture critic for the Washington Post. Welcome.

PHILIP KENNICOTT: Thank you for inviting me.

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

KENNICOTT: You know, this building is visible all over Washington. It is at the geometric center of the city. This is where the basic street grid is measured 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, unlike Washington. And the most iconic thing about this skyline is the Capitol with its dome. While it’s not quite the finest classical architecture – perhaps it’s a bit of a hodgepodge – it’s still beloved, despite some of its warm, charming 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 does this physical space look like? What does it look like?

KENNICOTT: Traditionally, the Capitol is a fairly 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 kind of sound quality, booming and loud. People move all the time. And if that’s the aural sense of it, visually this hodgepodge of architecture is even more compelling inside. I mean, it was built over decades and centuries. And inside you really see that, you know, the changes in the way the building is laid out and the size of the rooms and the style of decoration.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you think of the profane character of these attacks? They were Americans – vigilante groups attacking their own history, their home. In fact, we heard them say several times that it was their house. People are reported to have defecated in the neighborhoods.

KENNICOTT: Yes. You know, when you say something is ours or mine, it’s partly because you care. 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 claiming possession that I found so appalling, so sickening about 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 on, not ours to imbue it with meaning, symbol, value and worth – it’s up to us to do what we want with it. I find this repellent.

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

KENNICOTT: I think it’s because we take him seriously for what he does. You know, it’s – a monument or a memorial is basically something – you go there, and you’re trained to have a set of thoughts, and you try to think about the thing that’s being commemorated there. But it’s a building that works. It dictates daily what we do in a democracy. And so it’s – when you attack it, you’re not just attacking a symbol. You attack 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 in there. One of the reps, a young guy named Andy Kim, I think it was – you know, after all that he grabbed a trash bag and started picking up trash – just to clean up the space. And maybe it sounds a little corny, but if you live in Washington, you really get a kind of sense of ownership because those buildings are still there. And because they’re so big and the town is so low, you’re always watched by them. You know, in a way, they throw a sort of protective embrace. And seeing them defiled is just particularly disturbing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You are someone who thinks about buildings and their meaning. And I wonder, after this attack, did the meaning of the building change?

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

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Philip Kennicott, he’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic at the Washington Post. Thanks very much.

KENNICOTT: Thank you.

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