Reimagining the US Capitol

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Harvard architecture student Bryan Boyer redesigned the US Capitol building for a grad school project. His motivation is that the US House of Representatives stopped growing in 1911 simply because the building couldn't hold any more seat. As a result, he says, "the US Capitol changed from monument to memorial." More interesting than the elevations and photo illustrations though are the souvenir plates and $50 bill that Boyer designed to support his big vision. Over at the Sceptical Futuryst, Stuart Candy digs into this example of "architectural time travel." From the Sceptical Futuryst:
Architecappppt It's not by the "direct" schematic and traditional design representations of the building that we get a feel for it. Instead, it's through the mediation of the new Capitol building's role as a cultural force -- one iconically reproduced on currency, commemorated in tacky souvenirs, and glimpsed through grubby windows from the backseats of cars -- that the presence of his future makes itself felt. In cinema and television, the artifacts of documentary (jerky camerawork, imperfect vantage points, bad sound fidelity) can sometimes lend a more nuanced and lifelike texture to the story than squeaky-clean realist cinema, with the camera always positioned just-so. Boyer has found his way to a sort of architectural equivalent of documentary, and I think it works.
Architectural Time Capsule (Sceptical Futuryst), Our New Capitol (


  1. That’s got to be about the most poorly designed Web site I’ve ever seen! Visually boring, confusing and useless navigation, terrible meaningless writing.

    It’s proof that Buckminster Fuller and Marshall Mc Luhan had sex!

  2. … it’s also a really ugly building and that $50 bill… wtf? I can’t tell at all what that is supposed to be. I’m sort of tired of the bare minimalism in architectural design:plain marble/concrete. It’s big but boring. I miss the days of finely crafted architecture that had curves and decorative motifs that might have compromised the bottom line a bit but they were way prettier. These days, if it isn’t absolutely functional, according to the accountant, it gets axed and we end up with a stunningly boring contemporary style.

  3. Wow, people! Have a little heart on Friday afternoon! So sorry if you just lost $20k on your 401k, it’s still a beautiful day, the sun is shining,and all for just a little money, don’t cha know? I think it’s cool

  4. well, i do have a heart and i haven’t lost a cent anywhere… but i’m also an artist and appreciate design and such and am not going to just pat someone on the back and say nice job just cause i don’t want to hurt a guys feelings or cause i want people to like me or so i can seem agreeable.

    it’s a beautiful day but an ugly design that seems to play nicely into that whole “concrete facade” of 1984-like government.

  5. Quickly scrolling the page, I thought for an instant that the Capitol REALLY was being redesigned. In that instant, a sense of panic enveloped my psyche, as I thought that we might exchange the beautiful old building for a set of plain tombs.

    Whew. Never again will I take the Capitol for granted. And I’m kind of bummed that the new generation of architects is still pursuing this style of faceless, unadorned, box buildings. This has been going on for 50 years, becoming more and more inhumane over time.

  6. I may have to disemvowel myself for this but…

    BB readers (or commenters at least) don’t tend to be the most sophisticated consumers of art and architecture. Experimental films and performance art are regularly excoriated here. The US Capitol is a nice enough building, albeit pallid compared to San Francisco’s much livelier City Hall. But if you think that modern architecture is just a bunch of boxes, take a gander at Brasilia.

  7. I find myself re-imagining the Capitol as a cardboard box, small and painted black on the inside. And, big on the outside, a montage of crimes committed against the innocent. In the name of democracy.

  8. Re: #9….

    “BB readers (or commenters at least) don’t tend to be the most sophisticated consumers of art and architecture. ” well, speak for yourself mr. pork.

    i do not intend that ALL modern architecture lacks soul, but, for the most part, it does. Sorry if your sophistication is sterile bottom-line oriented building practices. There might be cool looking huge shapes but not much more.In the end – they are still lifeless and sterile. Give me Gaudi or Greene and Greene any day over the pre-fab straighline box like sterility… blech.

  9. Oh Oh Oh Antinous! Some of us out here are ~very~ passionate about art and architecture. I’m going to be chasing the images in my head around on the interwebs for hours now, and I may never catch them.
    I am an admirer of Oscar Niemeyer, but his cathedral in Brasilia is very familiar to me – (to quote wiki) “The architecture arguably builds upon the design of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral.”

  10. But I like Greene and Greene and Oscar Niemeyer. Your objections come off as a rant against those new-fangled buildings and by the way get off my lawn. Isn’t life about finding more things to appreciate rather than digging in your heels and crying “Do Not Want!”

  11. I think it’s possible to have sophisticated opinions about modern architecture and experimental film and still not want a squashed cubist turtle on the back of our money.

    1. I think it’s possible to have sophisticated opinions about modern architecture and experimental film and still not want a squashed cubist turtle on the back of our money.

      Oh, I think that building is hideous. There are good and bad examples of every architectural style. Although I’m still waiting for the good example of Brutalism.

  12. Not to add hatin’ to hatin’, but it wouldn’t be a total waste of your time to go ahead and read the text on the project you dismissed after having seen two pictures. I thought it was really interesting.

    Evidently Clabber_Grrl tried and didn’t like it, but it also sounds like she got confused by a navigation chain that involves clicking on little pictures to make them big.

  13. Antinous, for me the modern architecture of civic buildings, on average, fails because it doesn’t differentiate itself sufficiently from other types of buildings. Most (certainly not all) could as easily be office or medical buildings. There’s no mistaking the Capitol or Grand Central Station for anything but what they are. Morph them into an indistinct series of planes and cubes and you’ve lost everything that made them distinctive.

  14. #9, I work among these generic, brutal buildings. They are designed to be viewed from afar, but being walled in at the sidewalk level all day, every day, just crushes the soul. Maybe it’s not “sophisticated” of me, but I enjoy sunlight and eating outside without the wind tunnel blowing my lunch away. Have you read Jane Jacobs?

  15. Hi BB hater crew! This commentary has been very constructive and productive. However, I’d be happy to respond to any thoughtful inquiries…

  16. Hmmm, not sure about the premise that the “US House of Representatives stopped growing in 1911 simply because the building couldn’t hold any more seat.” [sic]

    1. The Capitol was expanded in 1958-1962:

    2. House Office Buildings (HOBs) and Senate Office Buildings (SOBs – seriously, they call ’em that) surrounding the Capitol are where a lot of Congressional business happens, and there have been a number of those built since 1911.

    3. If memory serves me correctly, House Members felt in 1911 that if the size of the House grew significantly, it would be incredibly difficult to deliberate. (It’s already hard enough with 435 members!) Keep in mind, the original basis for the House was a mere 13 states and a much, much smaller population.

    There’s no way the size of the House was limited by the available space in the Capitol.

  17. Notice he isn’t proposing that this actually get built. It is an exercise done in school – a thought experiment. The “it’s not pretty enough” attitude is completely meaningless. Did it make you think about the capitol in a new way? Yes? Alright, this design did a hell of a lot more than anything you’ve come up with today. Stop being scared of things that make you think. Start slow though, from what I can tell you have a long way to go….

  18. Scottso:

    It’s a thesis. The nature of a thesis is to produce educated speculation.

    “US House of Representatives stopped growing in 1911 simply because the building couldn’t hold any more seat” are not my words, so you should direct that criticism at the OP.

    As for the expansion of the building, I’m well aware of its history, including numerous expansions. For the most part, they’re detailed here (best if you view the original size).

    You’re correct that the difficulties of deliberating among a larger group was one of the issues with expansion during the discussions in 1911, but there were other factors as well. Specifically, a large influx of immigrants in the previous census cycle meant that adding more reps would give more voting weight to those Representatives from immigrant districts. Apparently this was seen as something to be avoided.

    There was also the persnickety issue of space. By 1911 the Capitol had undergone numerous expansions and reconstructions (remember the British invasion that burnt it to a crisp, for instance?) In particular, the seating arrangements of the floor of the House of Representatives were redone again and again with new furniture and tiering schemes, each time in an effort to fit more bodies in.

    It’s my opinion as an individual who spent a year of intense study looking at the history of the US Capitol building that the most certainly is a connection* between the rapid expansion of the size of the House of Reps, the relative difficulty of reorganizing physical space in an overbearing building, and the ultimate decision to decline to expand the House of Reps membership.

    *No one ever said it was causal… architecture is not a science.

    P.s. The House and Senate have Office buildings? How did I miss that in my year of research?!?!?$%@#$%@

  19. it reminds me the crude battleship in fellini’s movie; “and the ship sails on.”

    i know boyer’s design goes far, but imagery is beautifully captured.
    this is how we look. well designed, controlling, powerful, mean, combative and willing.
    actually, i would suggest mr. boyer’s design to the the capitol of other countries. this is a prototype for contemporary government building.
    i wonder if it will come in state sized versions? i don’t mind if the banknote is smaller for more local economies.
    can you imagine arnold ‘governator’ schwarzenegger is doing it from a place like that?
    california uber alles!

  20. @bryanboyer: Just noticed your response to my comment now… thanks for your thoughtful commentary.

    I was responding really just to the post here without looking into the details of your project.

    I certainly understand that your project is based on a thesis, but that’s what I take issue with. I can’t find the original utterance of the statement indicating that the “US House of Representatives stopped growing in 1911…” but it really just strikes me as an empty statement.

    The Capitol building has grown since 1911, and the House chamber has enough space today for at least 535 bodies – enough to seat both the House and the Senate for joint sessions. The House is not seated directly under the dome any longer, which I think is part of your thesis as well – that the dome is just not large enough to seat all the members of the House.

    Don’t get me wrong here – I love your concept and certainly understand that it’s a concept. There are some great reasons why the Capitol could use a redesign, but I’m not buying into the thesis.

  21. scott-

    Not sure where you found that interpretation of the dome in my project, nor the claim that it was ever used as a chamber for the house.

    The house never sad underneath the dome. On some of the original drawings it was labeled as a third chamber to be used on very special occasions (such as impeachment trials) but it never served this purpose. This is perhaps due to the fact that it was not complete for more than 20 years after the Congress first moved in to the Capitol. The dome has always been a symbolic prosthesis.

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