Victor Hugo, a french writer, once said “Architecture has recorded the great ideas of the human race. Not only every religious symbol, but every human thought has its page in that vast book.”(Hugo). Architecture speaks just as many words as pictures do. The world is filled with built environments that conjure conversation, political discourse and social interactions in addition to their functionality of shelter. Before there was language, words or even symbols, there was one form of rhetoric that was always present. There were built environments that subconsciously influenced they way that these societies interacted. Prehistoric animals built shelters for housing, and plants evolved to produce shade when it was too sunny. Yes, these structures originated from necessity rather than the stylistic medium of art that it is today, but nevertheless, these structures conveyed an element of rhetoric that evolved into the artisanal craft that surrounds us today. A perfect example of this is seen in Union Station where a mutual relationship between society and built environment takes place. Most people believe that architecture is the sole influence on the way societies interact. I’m going to explain how the construction and design of Union not only influences the behavior of the people of the station, but also how the people of the station equally influence the construction and design of the building.
Driving up to the Union Station I noticed how Grand and inviting the exterior was, with alludes to transportation, exploration, destination and location as well as an ongoing theme of the nationalism of D.C . The front of the station was all white and lined in vertical pillars. Something I noticed about exterior of the building was the the strong pronunciation of horizontal and vertical lines. When analyzing paintings, sculptures, photography or any other visual medium of art, vertical and horizontal lines have a engaging subconscious effect on the viewer. In Rigdon’s Elements and principles of design, he describes the use of lines “Horizontal lines are restful, yield to gravity, create quiet” (Rigdon 2). Horizontal lines bring forth a similarity to landscapes and horizon. Whereas vertical lines offer stability as they are parallel to the earth. Things that are vertical often are holding something up, offering support. When combining the two, horizontal and vertical lines, 90 degree angles are formed. 90 degree angles are the president for structural security. These elements of lines is most commonly used in visual art, but can be applied to architecture. As a transportation station, the theme given by the building should be movement, migration and energy. However it should be the interior that invokes such locomotive traits rather than the outside. The inside of the station is where you catch your train, ready for the next location in your life. The outside, however, is a train station. It’s a location, an origin and a destination. The city of D.C isn’t moving and isn’t going anywhere, people are departing and arriving from this immovable and stationary location. This is shown architecturally through the vertical columns that influence permanence and stability throughout the building itself. The neoclassical architectural influence of the romans is clearly depicted in this building. This is exemplified by the pillars, freezes, roof and symmetry. This style of architecture is seen throughout the White House, Capitol building and Lincoln Memorial. The geographical placement of Union stations was by no means an accident. The lead city planner Peter Charles L’Enfant meticulously designed the whole mall in during the early 1800’s. It’s only fitting that Union Station should be placed at the top of the National Mall, acting as a cherry on top to the most historic and important buildings in D.C given that Union’s architecture is consistent with that of theses said buildings. Union station is littered with statues of Christopher columbus. He is seen in frieze’s on the exterior but more prominently displayed as the main statue at the front of the station. Placing Columbus as the centerpiece of the exterior as well as depicting him in the frieze’s was fitting given that he discovered the country in which this city lies. Columbus was also an explorer; a traveler. This sense of travel and exploration is obvious given that this is a train station. Like I mentioned before, the exterior evokes destination and permanence through the prominent vertical lines. Columbus is outside, therefore he appeals this theme of destination, this can be seen through the life of columbus himself. He was an explored. His final destination was America, hence his dominance here in the nation’s capitol. He is a symbol of both exploration and destination just as Union Station is. Retouching on the ideas of vertical lines, Columbus is standing upright. He could have been built sitting or doing something with movement. His strong vertical upright stature shows that himself, D.C and the Union Station is here to stay. They are both unmoving.
Inside Union I was immediately bombarded by how aesthetically different the environment was. Where the outside of the building conveyed destination, the inside of the building conveyed travel, exploration and movement. The white outside of the building reflected the light in a manner that lit up the building like a highlighter providing immense contrast with the green grass of the mall and the blue of the sky. In Fleming’s city of rhetoric, Fleming describes the intended use of these buildings “smaller public… often do a better job of encouraging and rewarding direct involvement by ordinary individuals in communal self-determination” (Flemming 38). This is clearly shown through the train station. The public is directly engulfing themselves in the rhetoric of the station. This appeals to the many aspects of travel that the inside conjous. My eyes automatically felt a cool blue when looking at the exterior. The inside of the building was dark, it lacked windows other than the few by the entrance. The gold leafing and off white marble tiles let off a warmer yellow look, much different from the blue cool look on the outside. In photography, the words cool and warm are technical terms, referring to the white balance of the image. The purity of white is adjusted by making the picture cooler by adding blue, or warmer by adding yellow. The contrast between the tonal temperatures inside and outside the buildings highlighted the difference between the two. The inside of the terminal was by no means dull. There is beautiful marbled flooring, high arching ceilings with a tessellated circular pattern and enough Columbus statues to go around. This was reminiscent of Rome’s Arch of Constantin and the Baths of Diocletian, both examples of neoclassical architecture. As the outside of this station represented destination and permanence, the inside of the building was very different. As vertical lines ment stability and horizontal lines ment tranquility, curved and diagonal lines symbolizes energy and movement. The arched ceiling was the biggest most obvious example of these curved lines. These themes of locomotion are appropriate given the inside of this building was meant to show exploration. The tessellated circles plastered over the arches are another example of the on going theme of curvature and flow that the rest of the interior exemplifies. Circles give off a sense of infinity, they have no beginning or end, perhaps this parallels the theme of motion and everlasting exploration, leaving one origin to arrive at a new destination, only for that destination to become a new origin. This idea of travel only makes sense inside of this station. The interior of a station is where people get on their buses and board their trains. Movement is depicted through the built environment just as it’s depicted through the people.
“Architecture has recorded the great ideas of the human race. Not only every religious symbol, but every human thought has its page in that vast book.”(Hugo). This quote is shown through Union Station. Or is Union Station shown through this quote? I believe that the built environments can influence the people just as much as the people influence the built environment. Union Station appeals to the most broad of an audience available, anyone needing to travel. The still and permanent aura of Union’s exterior is demonstrated by the people outside, they’re still for the most part. Weather they are is on the corner smoking a cigarette, on their phone waiting for an uber or chatting outside. All these people are immovable and stationary, just as the exterior architecture is designed. Whereas inside, people are bustling around to make their train, they’re caught in the frenzy of travel that you and I all know too well. Even their mind is in motion, only thinking about their destination, only thinking about the next step in their adventures. These people are in motion and energetic just as the interior architecture suggests. The question arises whether the station is designed in reaction to the travelers, or the travelers are acting in reaction to the building. If the bricks, paint and furniture that make up these structures are words in a book, as hugo puts it, are these words recordings for how people are acting in said environment? Or are these words instructions for how people should act in said environment. Architecture is developed through human thought; humans are going to act a certain way when traveling, therefore buildings will be built to accommodate those actions. However, human thought is developed through architecture as well; humans are going to act a certain way when in an environment that fosters these actions. The line between us influencing the buildings and buildings influencing us blurs because we are surrounded by these built environments just as these built environments are surrounded by us. Not only do the context of our lives disappear into the built environments but the context of our lives become the built environments. The purpose of these built environments blends in with the purpose of our individual lives and becomes one. Aside from the fact that it’s a little flashy, Union Station doesn’t necessarily stand out because it’s designed to fit seamlessly into our everyday lives. The reasoning behind our trip to union station, weather that’s franticly traveling or patiently waiting for an uber, is complimented by the designs of the building. I feel this is where buildings shine, when our lives and the building’s function seamlessly blend into one, and all we’re left with is not missing our next train.
“Washington, DC :: History of the Station.” Union Station, Union Station, 2016, Accessed 15 Feb. 2017.
“Washington – Union Station, DC (WAS).” Great American Stations, America’s Great Stations, Accessed 25 Feb. 2017.
Fleming, David. City of Rhetoric: Revitalizing the Public Sphere in Metropolitan America. Albany, NY, SUNY Press, 2009.
Hugo, Victor, and Isabel Florence Hapgood. Notre Dame De Paris. New York, T.Y. Crowell & Co., 1891.
Farr, Kristin. “Analyzing the Elements of Art.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 Dec. 2015,