SAHARA Highlights: Dell Upton’s Washington, DC

by Jacqueline Spafford and Mark Hinchman, SAHARA Co-Editors | Dec 09, 2020

At the close of the 2020 election cycle, it is timely to take a look at the capital city’s monuments. Dell Upton is SAHARA’s premier contributor in terms of the number of his photographs, and his output is notable in its quality, and the research behind it. He has spent a great deal of time walking Washington’s streets, looking and photographing buildings famous and less famous. The plan of Washington DC is noteworthy because it is unlike any other American city. In 1791, Pierre Charles L’Enfant developed an orthogonal grid over which he laid a series of diagonal grand avenues. It took centuries to fill in the blocks that L’Enfant envisioned. Some buildings featured here stand at the nodes where axes and vistas intersected, such as the Capitol and the Washington Monument. Others were designed sympathetic to the founding architects’ original intentions, such as John Russell Pope’s Jefferson Memorial. I.M. Pei’s National Gallery is in the brutalist canon, but its triangular shape derives from the angled intersection of  avenue and grid. Norman Foster’s imaginative update of the Smithsonian American Wing brings parametricism to a classical building. Freedom’s Memorial is problematic; although it was designed with the best abolitionist intentions, many find it offensive, although it has its supporters. Whether you travel or stay close to home during this holiday season, please consider contributing to SAHARA.

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The Washington Monument stands in the National Mall on a clear day

Robert Mills and Thomas Lincoln Casey. Washington Monument. Washington, DC, 1836-1885. Photograph by Dell Upton, 2014.


A view of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library from the opposite street corner

Mies van der Rohe. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. Washington, DC, 1972. Photograph by Dell Upton, 2013.


A few visitors linger on the steps leading up to the US Supreme Court

Cass Gilbert and Cass Gilbert, Jr. United States Supreme Court. Washington, DC, 1935. Photograph by Dell Upton, 2013.


A low, semicircular façade with a geometric cladding protrudes from a modern high-rise with a slight concave curvature

Roman Fresnedo Siri. Pan American Health Organization. Washington, DC, 1965. Photograph by Dell Upton, 2014.


A view of the US Capitol looking east.

William Thornton, James Hoban, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Robert Mills and Thomas Ustick Walter. The United States Capitol. Washington, DC, 1793-1865. Photograph by Dell Upton, 2013.


White Brutalist angles characterize the National Gallery of Art

I.M. Pei. National Gallery of Art. Washington, DC, 1978. Photograph by Dell Upton, 2013.


A grassy lawn leads to the Classical façade of the Old City Hall

George Hadfield. Old City Hall. Washington, DC, 1820-1853. Photograph by Dell Upton, 1988.


A curving roof of diamond glass panels covers a gallery in the Smithsonian's American Wing

Robert Mills, Thomas Ustick Walter, and Norman Foster. Smithsonian American Wing. Washington, DC, 1836-2007. Photograph by Dell Upton, 2013.


A view of the Jefferson Memorial from across the water.

John Russell Pope. Jefferson Memorial. Washington, DC, 1943. Photograph by Dell Upton, 2002.


A statue of Lincoln standing next to a man rising out of bondage

Thomas Ball and Ferdinand von Miller II. Freedom’s Memorial. Washington, DC, 1874. Photograph by Dell Upton, 2011.

Founded in 1940, the Society of Architectural Historians is an international nonprofit membership organization that promotes the study, interpretation and conservation of architecture, design, landscapes and urbanism worldwide. SAH serves a network of local, national and international institutions and individuals who, by profession or interest, focus on the built environment and its role in shaping contemporary life. SAH promotes meaningful public engagement with the history of the built environment through advocacy efforts, print and online publications, and local, national and international programs.

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