Capital cities are unique. While trying to symbolically represent national pride and ambition, they often lack industry and mature urban structure. Broad streets, prominent statues, and palaces or stone government buildings shape their appearance and intentions. This leaves visitors with a sense of awe rather than a sense of place that comes from life encountered at street-level with its fine texture.
Perhaps one of the most famous capitals to intentionally exhibit these traits is Brasilia, created inland from the major Brazilian cities which lie on the coast. Build in the 1950s it symbolized that the future of the country of Brazil faced toward its center rather than its coast. Brasilia’s modernistic architecture—abstract with saucer-like shaped features and wide open, paved open spaces—may have impressed, but made it difficult to attract bureaucrats who would live there. They tended to commute, returning to their families in Rio on the weekends.
In contrast to most capitals, Wellington, New Zealand is modest, just like the nation itself. Build on the sides of hills, it couldn’t have wide streets. Instead, paths like the Plimmer steps lead up the side of the hills where people can walk and bypass the streets. Near the main government building, called the Beehive, the only evidence that this is the capital is the presence of a professional class of young people dressed in suits, out of place in this very relaxed and casual culture.
I recently had a free afternoon in Washington, D.C., the quintessential capital. I decided to walk from the capital building to the Lincoln Memorial at the other end of the mall and reflecting pool, the core of the city, to gain further insight into the nature of a capital city as a representation of the national itself. Like Brasilia, Washington, D.C. was built out of the wilderness to represent national ambition. Charles Dickens, visiting the city in the 1840s, wrote about his impressions of this relatively new city:
“It is sometimes called the City of Magnificent Distances, but it might with greater propriety be termed the City of Magnificent Intentions…. Spacious avenues, that begin in nothing, and lead nowhere; streets, mile-long, that only want houses, roads, and inhabitants; public buildings that need but a public to be complete; and ornaments of great thoroughfares, which only lack great thoroughfares to ornament–are its leading features.”
And perhaps my favorite Dickens quote on the nature of D.C.: “I walk to the front window, and look across the road upon a long, straggling row of houses, one story high, terminating, nearly opposite, but a little to the left, in a melancholy piece of waste ground with frowzy grass, which looks like a small piece of country that has taken to drinking, and has quite lost itself. .. And that is our street in Washington.” The Washington Mall continues to be frowzy at times, especially after a huge public gathering for some political “march on the mall.”
What did I see as I walked that afternoon? In the buildings that lined the Mall, I saw a representation of how we divide up our national life—IRS, Labor, Environment, Courts, Commerce, Trade, Foreign Relations. Could we have conceived of things differently? Could we have had a Department of Collaboration or Peace rather than Commerce, Trade, and Defense?
Other elements of a capital city were also evident—tourists who are recording their pilgrimage through photographs or through buying souvenirs.
Every capital also has to tell the story of the nation and through its exceptionalism—its heroes, its wars, its history, its cultural heritage, and its natural resources. I’ve often wondered what happens when there is no space left for the various monuments that mark these aspects of a nation’s history. Can there be one hero or war too many?
I am ambivalent when it comes to capitals. Their lack humility and honesty thus leave me conflicted. Beijing, with its Forbidden City also has its Tiananmen Square. Washington, D.C. now has the museum of the American Indian, but no doubt, the Smithsonian Museum basement is full of stolen Native American artifacts, if not skeletons. There is something disturbing about the view of the world from within the Capital Beltway.
.Department of Labor—France Perkins Bldg; Frances Perkins was the US Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945, and the first woman appointed to the US Cabinet, serving the entire FDR.
Department of Commerce—Herber Hoover Bldg; President from 1929-1933; Secretary of Commerce, 1921-1928;
US Court House—E. Barrett Prettyman Bldg. Prettyman was a US federal judge, appointed by President Truman to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1945 and served until 1971.