Design Lessons from the Washington Monument

We are very lucky that it turned out the way it did.

Washington Monument

Danny Hu/ Getty Images

All eyes are on the Washington Monument on this Inauguration Day; the simple, minimalist 554-foot tall obelisk, devoid of ornamentation or detailing, dominates the skyline. Monuments are often controversial, (think of Frank Gehry's Eisenhower Memorial or Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial) and the Washington Monument is no different. In these times when so many great buildings are being destroyed (like Paul Rudolph's Burroughs Wellcome building as this is being written), it's important to point out that we are very lucky to have this monument.

In 1833 a group of Washingtonians established the Washington National Monument Society to raise private funds to build a monument for a memorial. They ran a design competition, and in 1845 the winner was Robert Mills, who had also done the Treasury Building and the Patent Office. It was designed in the favored classical style of the time.

Washington Monument original design
Original Design of Washington Monument.

Library of Congress

According to Elizabeth Nix, writing for History.com,

"Robert Mills’ winning design called for a pantheon (a temple-like building) featuring 30 stone columns and statues of Declaration of Independence signers and Revolutionary War heroes. A statue of Washington driving a horse-drawn chariot would reside above the main entrance and a 600-foot-tall Egyptian obelisk would rise from the pantheon’s center."
Stopped work on Washington Monument

Matthew Brady via Wikipedia

Construction of the central obelisk started in 1848; it is built mostly of fifteen-foot thick walls of rubble and mortar, with 14 inches of marble on the exterior. Work continued until 1854 when there was a takeover of the society building the tower and a fight over donors. According to the National Parks Service,

"In 1853, a new group aligned with the controversial Know-Nothing Party gained control of the Washington National Monument Society in the Society's periodic board election. Having always struggled to gather funding, the Society's change in administration alienated donors and drove the Society to bankruptcy by 1854. Without funds, work on the monument slowed to a halt. Architect Robert Mills died in 1855. For more than two decades, the monument stood only partly finished, doing more to embarrass the nation than to honor its most important Founding Father."
Gothic Tower

H.P. Hapgood/ Library of Congress

These were fraught times in the buildup to the Civil War, and work was stopped until 1876, when Congress took over funding and building the tower. Mills was long dead and tastes had changed and Gothic was now the popular style for government buildings, so Congress entertained the idea of a do-over like this proposal from Boston's H.P. Hapgood.

Alternate Designs

Library of congress

According to the National Parks Service, Congress considered five designs that seemed "vastly superior in artistic taste and beauty."

Luxor Obelisk

Lloyd Alter

Fortunately, Egyptomania was all the rage as well, so they changed the proportions and form of the original tower to more closely match that of the famous obelisk that was installed in Paris in 1833. They shortened it from 600 feet to 555 to be 10 times the width of the base and gave it a sharper point. This was also cheaper and faster to build. Many were unhappy with this, saying it would look like "a stalk of asparagus"; another critic said it offered "little...to be proud of."

Aluminum Top
Aluminum peak.

Library of Congress

They finally popped the solid aluminum apex on the tower in 1884. This was before the Hall-Héroult process had been invented and the 9-foot tall pyramid was the largest aluminum casting in the world, with 100 ounces of metal more valuable than silver.

Washington Monument

Lloyd Alter

Style is Fleeting

Which brings us back to the present day, where we admire this simple, elegant form. One could even call it brutalist in the true sense of the word. Peter Smithson wrote that "Brutalism is not concerned with the material as such but rather the quality of material" and "the seeing of materials for what they were: the woodness of the wood; the sandiness of sand." Imagine what Washington would be like had they built it in classical or gothic or any of those other styles proposed.

This is why we have to stop demolishing buildings just because tastes have changed; because what is unloved today might be treasured tomorrow. And why we should treasure every brutalist and PoMo pile we still have, because the greenest building is the one already standing.

Latrobe version of monument

Benjamin Henry Latrobe/ Library of Congress

And we should be really happy that Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the architect of the Capitol after it was trashed the first time by the British in the war of 1812, didn't win the original Washington Monument competition.