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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

There’s a picture of a slender, tapering monument at whose apex sits a little “pyramid.” It overlooks a dark, rectangular reflecting pool. We all know it. After all, we’ve seen it far too many times in photographs and on TV.

The Washington Monument, of course. But there’s an otherworldly feel to this rendering of it.

This is one of 30 black-and-white drawings that appear in “Washington Drawings: Abe to Zoo,” by architect Dhiru Thadani. Somewhere between a Taschen hardcover and a Frommer’s travel guide, this slender white volume is a visual ode to a town that he has called home for the last 50 years.

The cover of “Washington Drawings: Abe to Zoo.”

Architect Hugh Ferriss

The illustrations have a brooding, Gotham-esque aura to them: for good reason. One of Thadani’s creative influences has been Hugh Ferriss, the American architect best known for applying chiaroscuro to monumental structures that gave his metropolis — the base for Batman’s hometown — that alien touch.

When Thadani moved to D.C. in 1972 to study architecture at the Catholic University of America, he didn’t like the city instantly. By and by, though, as his knowledge of it grew, so did his love for it. “I became increasingly enamored of the L’Enfant Plan,” he writes.

DC Is More Than Simply Political Battles

The urban plan for the nation’s capital was developed in the late 18th century, by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a French military engineer who moved from France to the U.S. Steeped in the tenets of democracy and the motto, liberté, égalité, fraternité, he wanted to see them translated into physical space as well. D.C., more than other cities, has stayed faithful to the original vision of its founder.

Dhiru Thadani. (Photo courtesy of the artist)

“That’s why its ratio of public-private space is very high. 60 percent of its land is public. It can’t be bought. It’s everyone’s porch or backyard,” Thadani explained in an interview with India Currents.

There’s a notion that D.C. is just the seat of government and an arena of political battles. “But there’s more to it than that,” he adds.

Lockdown Inspiration

To capture its quintessence, therefore, he has chosen each letter of the alphabet to spell out an urban feature of the U.S. capital, some well-known (such as the residence of the president of the United States, the Capitol, the Jefferson Memorial, among others) and some not quite as famous. A block of text next to it offers some interesting facts about it.

“C” represents the Capitol, which sits atop what was originally known as Jenkins Hill and made into a “plateau 88 feet above the level of the Potomac River.” Its gleaming white dome is constructed of cast-iron. “H” honors the streetcar that made a comeback after 50 years —and now transports riders through the regenerating neighborhood of H Street NE. “P” represents wait for it — not Potomac, but Pierre Charles L’Enfant. “T” is for Tidal Basin, a man-made reservoir most notable for the cherry blossom trees planted around its perimeter. “O” is for the 555-foot-high obelisk that stands between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial.

Had it not been for the pandemic, Thadani wouldn’t have found the time to create this collection. During the lockdown, he, like so many others, found himself not being able to jet off overseas for either work or leisure Stuck at home, after sundown, he’d drive around in his car, park, admire the beauty of illuminated buildings and draw.

The Washington Monument. (Illustration by Dhiru Thadani)

The Notorious RBG

Not all the monochromes were planned. Some were the result of his being at places for reasons other than art. For instance, when justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg passed away, he happened to be at the Supreme Court. He took that opportunity to take a few photographs of the grand building, so that he could recreate it in ink later.

“When I had about 15 of them, I thought about doing something with them,” he said.  

Thadani believes that education about our immediate surroundings is essential to our appreciation of it. “It’s only when you know something about a city’s past can you learn to be a part of its preservation,” he said.  

The book is available for purchase here and the individual artwork can be bought here.

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Alakananda Mookerjee

Alakananda Mookerjee lives in Brooklyn, and is a Francophile.