Landmarks in Design

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L’Enfant’s plan of 1791 was designed to make the most of the city’s broad avenues and long sightlines through the judicious and symbolically meaningful placement of public buildings. A century later, America’s strengthening position in the world intensified interest in transforming Washington into a comprehensive urban statement of national ideals. Leading American planners and architects associated with McMillan’s Senate Park Commission (1901) were dissatisfied with the imprint that Romanticism left upon the city. Influenced by the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, they called for a more coherent and uniform approach to public architecture that would reflect the dignity, order, and continuity of the nation.

Since then, Washington’s planners have had to balance the desire to maintain a unified symbolic landscape with the aspiration to embrace innovations in design and architecture. The result is a showcase of many styles. While many innovations of modern design have found acceptance here, such as those of Breuer, Mies van der Rohe, and I.M. Pei, skyscrapers have been repeatedly rejected in favor of maintaining the city’s distinctive horizontal skyline, enforced since 1910 by the Height of Buildings Act. Washington seems to be no worse off for its absence of tall buildings, many of the structures that exert the strongest emotional pull on the American consciousness are located in our nation’s capital.