WaPo architecture critic pans design of new Capitol visitor center

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Over time, the U.S. Capitol has taken on two very different faces. What was once deemed the back side of the building -- facing the Mall -- became a grand, ceremonial front, with the addition of dramatic stairs, terraces and landscaping that emphasized its prominence on a hill. To the east, the old "front" of the Capitol became, by contrast, more modest, accessible and pastoral. Before ground was broken for the new Capitol Visitor Center in 2000, you could stand on the east side and imagine cows and sheep grazing, as if in the foreground of a romantic landscape painting.

This duality -- grandeur and authority vs. simplicity and openness -- also expressed an ideal of government. To survive, a republic must have authority, tradition and ceremonies. But it must also have its yeoman side, which allows the people to wander the halls of power as equals with their legislators.

The "truth to power" side of the Capitol, the East face, has been demolished by the new Visitor Center, a tragically misconceived and overscale addition, which opens today. The East face has become something entirely new, with a false and slick pomposity created by an impressive promenade over an imposing bridge, which seems to cross a kind of moat. It is a historical and aesthetic jumble, a nonsensical place and a gross disfigurement of one of this country's most important and iconic buildings.

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