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Harry Kollatz Jr.
Geoffrey Baer at the State Capitol after Thursday's reception
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Geoffrey Baer (from left) with Mark Greenough and Richard Sliwoski .
The Virginia Capitol stands as proof that while long-distance relationships are difficult, sometimes they can work, even if one of the parties involved comes away disappointed. Thomas Jefferson tried to oversee the building’s design from 4,000 miles away by sending specifications to local builders with details down to 1/100 of an inch, then returned from France to view this Temple of Democracy. He commented with a resigned philosophical attitude that later generations would have to make right what went wrong.
But what went so right has influenced the design of public buildings since 1788 and on Sunday, we’ll see why.
Renowned Chicago architectural guide and commentator Geoffrey Baer came to town Thursday evening through the Virginia Capitol Foundation on a national barnstorming tour with writer and producer Dan Protess. Singly and together, Baer and Protess are promoting Chicago WTTW television’s 10 Buildings That Changed America. Baer is well known in Chicago because of his array of tours and portable podcasts that allow visitors to take him along.
He’s often seen on Chicago public television, but this is his first big, primetime PBS program, and it airs Sunday at 10 p.m. on WCVE, as well as on stations around the country.
A group of interested parties met in the splendid underground Capitol annex and entrance centerto view segments of the film and converse with the engaging and eloquent Baer.
He emphasized in opening remarks that these are not THE 10 buildings that shaped America, and not a Top 10, either, but rather an attempt to point out exceptional buildings as well as the stories of the men and women who created them. Not mere mortar and glass and steel, the very best buildings are living embodiments of the people and culture that made them.“
Most people don’t think about architecure,” he said. “They walk around the cities considering buildings as a given, as if architecture was handed down from on high. If we’d not included the Virginia Capitol – it’s one of the obvious ones. Its presence, site and historical context make it impossible to ignore.” Jefferson’s shining adaptation of a Roman temple to a public role was a repudiation of imported English architecure and an announcement that a new nation had arrived rooted in, as Jefferson saw it, the verities of Greek and Roman culture. The Capitol’s descendants include the U.S. Supreme Court building, the New York Stock Exchange and scores of courthouses, banks and churches, as well as columned mansions sited on hilltops.
The intention for 10 Buildings is to get a conversation going about architecture. On the richly informative and easy to navigate website for the program, audiences may suggest their own candidates. There’s also 10 more buildings that didn’t make the program, and, indeed, Baer says the future will bring at last four more shows like this one. There's also a book and a DVD.
People love lists, Baer remarked.
Oh, man don’t they ever. Can you say, “Best & Worst”?
Lists did very well for David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace and Amy Wallace
The 10 buildings for this show were selected by a panel of 16 architects, none of whom agreed on everything. Baer and Protess wanted to present a group of distinctive structures that are so iconic that they may even have become overshadowed by the designs they influenced. To come up with the 10, they used strict criteria: no repeats of architects, one per locality and cultural importance.Virginia is the only state in the program with two representatives: the Capitol starting the show, and the remarkable 1962 Eero Saarinen Dulles International Airport, which adds a poetic flourish toward the end. The swooping structure with its characteristic roof that appears ready to float off like a handkerchief in the breeze is massive concrete and glass, but looks as if it wants to fly. Saarinen’s sudden death didn’t allow him to see the building completed. His vision combined a curvaceous modernism supported on a colonnade that reflects Washington's official architecture — which, by the way, resonates all the way back to Jefferson’s Capitol.
After the screening Baer conversed with Capitol historian Mark Greenough and Department of General Services Director Richard Sliwoski, who shepherded the renovation and annex projects. Greenough expressed enthusiasm for seeing the Capitol appearing “as itself” after a number of television shows and films have altered it — including the recent Lincoln — to play the U.S. Capitol and the White House. The influence of the building abounds and fits Jefferson’s desire that it should be “an object and proof of national good taste.”
Silwoski spoke of a few surprises during the renovation — good ones — including that finding that the dentil work in the Rotunda was original to the structure. “We thought that it was all taken out in the 1906 renovations,” he said. Then in the west stairs on the third floor, under the tile, was found the note, “This floor was laid by,” with a signature and a polite, “Good-bye.” Baer recalled how at Boston’s Trinity Church during renovations in 2004, architects working on the tower’s interior found a multipage letter attached to a back of masonite placed there by restorers in the 1950s. The conservators wrote their own letter and returned the section as it was, with the old missive inside, too. “People become quite attached to the buildings they’re working on and feel compelled to leave these notes to the future,” Baer said.
Before I left, Baer wanted to tell me how impressed he is by Richmond’s riverfront. He was really knocked out by what we’ve got in terms of the river, accessibility, renovation and interpretation. Baer was wowed by the Pipeline Walk and the Belle Isle Pedestrian Bridge under the Lee Bridge.“This should be a model for how other cities create their riverfront renovations,” he said.