A Long Walk Through the District
An illustrative book on an ambulatory town.
Washington Drawings: Abe to Zoo, Dhiru A. Thadani, Thadani Architects + Urbanists, 64 pages.
Dedicated to the few
who have elevated civic art
the many who have toiled
to make our cities beautiful.
Artist, architect, city planner, influential author, Dhiru A. Thadani, in Washington Drawings, Abe to Zoo, delights the eye with thirty-one skilled illustrations and engages the mind with twenty-seven concise essays about Washington, D.C.’s, history, monuments, and memorials. If you are familiar with the insights and telling details of his Language of Towns and Cities, you will expect excellence in observation, though you might not expect the light touch and good fun that Thadani offers here.
Sheltering in place and retiring from civic life gave Dhiru Thadini an opportunity to revisit and reconsider the civic art of his adopted hometown, our nation’s capital. Our monuments and memorials shape our ideas and form our character for good or ill. How we understand our memorials determines how we understand ourselves, which is why those who would change us change or destroy our memories.
During the time of shelter, Thadani would now and then take himself by foot or wheel, day or night, to visit his favorite, most telling monuments, from the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall to the National Zoo along the winding Rock Creek Parkway. There he would engage the empty page with a pen’s tip, composing and drawing out a scene as to him seeming most picturesque, most truthful. You will notice that each Washington drawing is uniquely composed, not so much by what the eye sees as by what the mind makes of what is seen.
When young in Bombay, India, Thadani was encouraged to draw by another boy who said to him, “Don’t let the blank paper intimidate you. Anyone can draw if it is their heart’s desire.” That boy, Nelson (aka Nail-Son) is an artist now famous in busy and colorful Bombay. Later, as a teenage student at D.C.’s Catholic University of America, Thadani found broad and quiet D.C. odd, a bit dangerous and bleak. It was not until others showed him the philosophical meaning underlying the buildings, monuments, and memorials of Washington that Thadani awoke to the democratic brilliance of L’Enfant’s 1791 plan for the nation’s capital.
Now, fifty years after his early college days and after fifty years of observation, study, and consideration, Dhiru Thadani offers a book of personal reflection detailed with fact, enriched by mostly nonpartisan wisdom. Pictures, like words, are objects of memory by which we place ourselves in the play of civilization. And Thadani is full of play, delighting in lines of words, in lines of the pen, in the black and white of pictured scenes and the gray meaning in-between.
As you would expect from a world-class civic planner, Thadani offers several detailed maps of D.C.’s streets, buildings, and quadrants. “Q,” Quadrants, notes that the areas Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, and Southwest derive their ordinal directions from a medallion in the crypt beneath the Capitol’s Rotunda. “D,” Dumbarton Oaks, reproduces each lawn, path, and hedge of Washingtonians’ favorite pleasure garden. And you will find two period drawings of Thadani’s predecessor, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, designer of Washington, the District of Columbia, and with these drawings, notes on the particulars of designing a city suited to citizens at Liberty.
Each building drawing is unique, sometimes fully original, sometimes graphically acknowledging the iconic image, as in the striking night scene of “O," Obelisk, the Washington Monument seen through the bay of the Doric columns of the Lincoln Memorial. “N," the National Cathedral, is a beautiful, original study in pattern, form, theme, and variation. Equal Justice for All, the frontispiece, is telling when considering one among the many causes of Washington Drawings, the riotous destructions of recent years, and Thadani’s response, in beauty, care, and love for the preservation of our institutions, the conservation of our civic buildings and memorials.
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“C,” the United States Capitol building, is pictured at night stark and bold. Above, upon the Capitol dome, is Crawford’s Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace. Below, over the reflecting pool, is Shrady’s equestrian Grant Monument, brother statue to Shrady’s Charlottesville equestrian Lee, recently removed and officially vandalized by progressive iconoclasts.
Thadani pictures many statues. “A” for Abe, Daniel C. French’s Lincoln statue, is among the great enthroned statues of "Classive Civilization," a monumental statue for a monumental man. “J” for the Jefferson Memorial, another of the bold night scenes, here picturing the enlightened Jefferson in his personal pantheon. “M” for Martin Luther King Jr., a drawing that shows King’s profile in strong comparison to Washington’s monument. Drawings often tell more than buildings, press, and politicians do.
When reading the book and gazing into its pictures, you will notice that you are walking with a friend, a familiar teacher who considers your opinions when sharing his knowledge, a guide who directs your eye to what is worthy of notice and remembrance. The book is comfortably sized to the hand, timed to a few hours, about the distance of several brief strolls, or one full, long walk after which you can pause, rest, and remember.