Monday, January 21, 2008

White House Redux

What if the White House, the ultimate architectural symbol of political power, were to be designed today?

That's the question that the Storefront for Art and Architecture is asking. They've announced an online design competition called White House Redux, where anyone can submit designs, descriptions, images, or video of a newly conceived presidential home. A jury will select the best concepts to be in a month-long exhibit at the Storefront's gallery in Manhattan this July. The top three will win cash ($5000 for first place).

With the country collectively focusing on cleaning out the White House, and on the idea of change—whatever that may be— it seems an appropriate time to also think about the house itself.

Plan of the City of Washington, c. 1795

The White House was a major feature of Charles L'Enfant's original plan for Washington, D.C. The Frenchman envisioned a massive palace for the president, five times the size of what would ultimately be constructed. George Washington oversaw the design and ended up firing L'Enfant for insubordination. In the early 1800's they launched a design competition for both the White House and the Capitol building. An Irish born architect named James Hoban won the honor of building the first presidential home.

Latrobe's porticoes

In 1817, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who designed the Capitol Building, added to the original White House design. He proposed north and south porticoes, making the White House resemble what it is today.

Latrobe's design of the Basilica

Latrobe was also responsible for designing the first Catholic Basilica up the road in Baltimore. Built from 1806-1821, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary became, according to its founders, "the first great metropolitan Cathedral constructed in America after the adoption of the Constitution...and a symbol of the country's new found religious freedom."

The Basilica recently underwent a massive restoration to return it to the original interior of the 19th century. Walking through the space today, with its great dome, it feels very civic and nothing like the grand religious spaces of cathedrals in say, Europe.
In an election season where the separation of church and state is such a heated debate, it's interesting to note that our first national Catholic church and our capital building were designed by the same man.

The renovated exterior of the Basilica in Baltimore