The Washington, D.C., Drawings of Dhiru Thadani
Every city needs someone to observe it, sketch it, master its history, and insist that its strengths be defended and reinforced. Sometimes the person who plays this role comes from the other side of the globe. That’s the case for Washington, D.C., with Dhiru A. Thadani (DEE-roo tuh-DAW-nee), who moved 8,000 miles in 1972 from his home in Bombay (now Mumbai), India, to begin studying architecture at Catholic University of America, about 3.5 miles northeast of the White House. He was 17.
Already an apt pupil, Thadani had skipped a couple of grades in the British-founded school he attended in Bombay, graduating at 15. Briefly he attended a college there as well, intending to major in nuclear physics and chemical engineering, but soon dropped out. Fortuitously, he had been introduced, at the age of 5, to the art of drawing. A teenaged boy whom Thadani saw sketching scenes in Bombay’s lively streets—later a well-known local artist—handed him a piece of paper and a pencil and said, “Don’t let the blank paper intimidate you. Anyone can draw if it is their heart’s desire.”
Thus Thadani began drawing, later adding oil painting to his repertoire. At 16, his paintings were put on exhibition. An American employee at Bombay’s U.S. Information Center saw them and suggested that Thadani travel to the states and study something that “combined my passion for art and aptitude for science—hence architecture.”
“It was not love at first sight,” Thadani says of his introduction to the District of Columbia. “The city was in a recession and still depressed by the riots of 1968. It was a far cry from the boisterous urbanism of Bombay. The city felt both empty and unsafe. Public transportation was unreliable, there was no Metrorail, and students were warned not to walk alone off-campus. In Bombay, by age 10, I could go almost anywhere in the city by myself. By comparison, Washington seemed bleak.”
Catholic University was rewarding, however, and when Thadani progressed to the university’s graduate school in architecture, the American bicentennial celebration pointed him toward a decades-long source of interest, bordering on obsession. “I did a research project on Washington and got a researcher pass to the National Archives,” Thadani says. “I was fascinated by L’Enfant’s visionary plan of the District of Columbia and the various later iterations.” With that, he was on his way to becoming an indefatigable documenter of the city’s design and planning.
At 67, Thadani continues to draw buildings, streets, landscapes, and droll cartoons—whether in D.C., which has been his home for 51 years, or on any of the five continents where the world-traveling architect has found work designing, planning, lecturing, and consulting. He is an avid mapper of cities and towns.
During the second year of the pandemic, Thadani, says, “I began making drawings to capture some of my favorite places and moments in the hometown of my adulthood.” Twenty-six of those pen and ink drawings have now been published with a succinct text in Washington Drawings: Abe to Zoo, showcasing one drawing for each letter of the alphabet.
I first got to know Thadani in 2001 when he and I were in the initial group of the University of Miami’s Knight Fellows in Community Building. Dhiru was the standout in that program. Since then, I’ve watched—sometimes close up, more often from a distance—as he devoted himself to numerous projects. Among them: adding to the architectural and cultural attractions of the Seaside, Florida, town center; orchestrating books on Leon Krier, town-making, and urban design; reviving the Beall’s Hill neighborhood in Macon, Georgia, while retaining longtime residents; and trying to persuade officials in China to make their massive urban expansions more human-scale. (He produced some of the maps and drawings in my 2017 book, Within Walking Distance.)
Underlying Thadani’s far-ranging pursuits has been his years of involvement in the District of Columbia. Poorly conceived developments get him riled up. One distressing project in the 1980s was the World Technology Trade Center, which a developer wanted to erect in the form of twin buildings on both sides of 8th Street NW, connected by a bridge over the street. Thadani, conscious of the District’s urbanistic aims all the way back to Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s plan in the 1790s, was appalled by what was being proposed.
The project, also known as Techworld, would encroach on the public right-of-way, impede vehicular traffic, and narrow 8th Street’s visual corridor from 100 feet to 60 feet. The three-story bridge would further intrude on the L’Enfant plan. There were protests from knowledgeable people, but the development team, claiming that the project would create a public space equivalent to that of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, prevailed. “The result,” Thadani declares, “was a dismal urban design failure.”
From that experience, Thadani concluded that there was a need for an accurate plan, one showing the locations and shapes of all the buildings in the District’s core. That presumably would foster sounder decision making. “I naively decided to make such a plan,” he says. His goal was production of a Washington map modeled after Giambattista Nolli’s celebrated 1748 figure-ground map of Rome. It would delineate all the buildings and public spaces in Washington’s 7.5-square-mile “Monumental Core.”
Work on it got under way in 1983. On Saturdays, people enthusiastic about his endeavor would donate their labor. “I would prepare a base block plan,” Thadani says, “and volunteers would walk the block and draw in the building footprint.” With black ink Rapidograph pens, he put the results on Mylar, and made the map complete to 1991, the bicentennial of the L’Enfant plan.
Four years later he had his office in India scan and redraw the plan, converting it into computer-aided drawings. This made it easier to copy and distribute the plan. The CAD files were donated to the AIA’s DC chapter and offered for purchase. Sales revenue helped support architectural education in the District’s public schools. From start to finish, the project took 13 years. Thadani estimates that throughout his professional career, he has dedicated one-quarter of his personal time to service and advancement of the discourse on architecture and urbanism.
His latest creation, Washington Drawings, is a crisp white hardcover, 8 inches square. By Thadani’s standards, it’s amazingly petite—just 64 black-and-white pages. By contrast, his 2010 book, The Language of Towns & Cities: A Visual Dictionary, contains 804 oversized pages. The heart of the new book is 26 two-page spreads, each consisting of a full-page drawing of a local scene and a few paragraphs of description. “I” is “Ice Skating Rink,” a depiction of what Thadani says is “one of Washington’s most beloved winter traditions”: skaters gliding across the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden ice rink.
The rink’s location, on 8th Street NW, provides Thadani the opportunity to point out significant buildings in the corridor, including a former Carnegie Library in Mount Vernon Square, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum, the National Archives, and the Hirshhorn Museum. He mentions the National Church that L’Enfant intended to place on the 8th Street axis; it was not built, but a century later Congress authorized the National Cathedral on Mount Saint Alban, visible in the city’s skyline. From the ice rink, it’s a short route to deploring the anti-urban intrusion of Techworld. Concisely, Thadani presents achievements of thoughtful urban design and the threat posed by ill-thought-out development.
“U” is represented by Washington’s magnificent Union Station, the Beaux-Arts rail hub that sprang from City Beautiful planning at the start of the 20th century. Designers and artists such as Daniel Burnham, Charles McKim, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., and Augustus Saint-Gaudens were invited to help fashion a built environment befitting a world capital. Burnham’s contribution was Union Station, where a vaulted 96-foot-high coffered ceiling and natural light from large Diocletian windows dazzle visitors. Completed in 1908 and now an important link in the Metrorail system, Union Station is experienced by 40 million visitors a year.
The subjects depicted in Washington Drawings range from the renowned, such as the Lincoln Memorial, to the surprising, such as the former presidential yacht (the USS Sequoia), docked in the Washington Navy Yard, to a striking visage of the African American advocate Frederick Douglass, who lived in Washington’s southeast quadrant from 1872 to his death in 1895. Thadani’s admiration of the District’s architecture and urban settings is married to a concern about everyday life and the city’s racial history.
Even the boundaries of the District reflect a struggle over race. The District was planned as a rotated square, 10 miles on each side, on land ceded by Maryland and Virginia. Yet in 1847, under pressure from slave traders and slave owners, Virginia took back its portion when slavery was prohibited within the District’s borders. The District shrank from 100 square miles to a little over 68 square miles.
Harsh racial undercurrents persisted into the 20th century. At the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in May 1922, Thadani notes, seating was segregated by race. The only African American speaker in the ceremony—Robert Moton, Booker T. Washington’s successor as principal of the Tuskegee Institute—was not permitted to sit on the platform with the white speakers. By intent, speeches at the memorial’s dedication did not address Jim Crow laws and the unfairness that black Americans faced at that time.
It’s fitting, then, that Thadani includes in Washington Drawings not only a drawing of Douglass but also of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in West Potomac Park and the Malcolm X Park in Northwest Washington as well as a tribute to the African Americans (both enslaved and free) who made it possible for antebellum Georgetown to function. Because of its Black heritage, Thadani notes, Georgetown has had dedicated Black congregations right up to the present.
At its most basic level, Thadani’s book is a testimonial to the influence of L’Enfant, the French-born military engineer who envisioned the federal city in grand terms—as George Washington repeatedly urged—rather than accepting the more modest dimensions favored by Thomas Jefferson. “In the spirit of democracy, [L’Enfant] allocated a generous proportion of land to public spaces for all citizens to enjoy,” Thadani points out. Sixty-eight percent of the land in the District’s center was apportioned to avenues, streets, squares, circles, and public reservations. In Thadani’s view, L’Enfant had the foresight to uphold “the importance of the public realm.”
Thadani’s text is too brief to present every major element of the capital city’s development. Those who want a fuller picture should also read Andro Linklater’s The Fabric of America, a penetrating 2008 book about the expansion of the nation in the 18th and 19th centuries. Linklater gives much of the credit for the federal city’s layout to Andrew Ellicott, the brilliant surveyor and astronomer who completed L’Enfant’s plan after the difficult Frenchman was dismissed by President Washington.
Linklater says L’Enfant’s “volubility, energy, and addiction to high drama enchanted and exasperated everyone he encountered.” Ellicott, a key figure in the early republic, brought L’Enfant’s unfinished project to its culmination. The overall story is both complicated and fascinating. Washington Drawings should motivate people to learn more about this important episode in the American experience. ##
Washington Drawings is published by Thadani Architects + Urbanists. The book and framed prints of its drawings can be obtained here.