AU’s Tenley Campus is Pinned to the Past

American University’s plan for the Washington College of Law not quite right. Designed to minimize conflicts in the short-term, the current plans are not the right kind of development for Tenleytown.

While AU continues to present its east campus plan before the Zoning Commission, they left out plans for the Law School campus at Tenley Circle, promising to submit them in August. But even with that deadline far off, it is possible to tell that the design is wrongheaded. The site is more urban and has more potential than the East Campus site, so it must be held to a higher standard.

Last year, when AU announced a plan to relocate the two blocks from the Tenleytown Metro and at the intersection of Wisconsin and Nebraska Avenues, the potential for progressive campus seemed overwhelming. As at East Campus, political expediency got in the way of good design. The plan is a recapitulation of suburban design principles hemmed in by unwarranted preservation concerns.

Site Plan as of June. Image courtesy AU.

What is good about the design is how it pairs the program to the site. The law school has a non-residential program, where faculty and students live off campus and commute to the school. Many maintain jobs downtown, requiring a direct link into the city, which the metro can provide. Bus lines in eight directions fill in the transit gaps including an express bus on Wisconsin Avenue, which received a TIGER grant for more improvements. It would be very easy to graduate without ever parking a car on local streets.

It is near two functional but underdeveloped commercial strips on Wisconsin Avenue. These have been struggling for years, although most storefronts are occupied as of July 2011. The project could energize the South Tenley and Tenleytown strips by creating a bridge of activity where there is now just a narrow sidewalk and an empty field. The project might add a few customers too, since most students don’t have a meal plan.

Change in lot coverage. Blue areas are new area, yellow is removed, gray is no change. Dark gray represents preserved buildings.

As of July, the designs do not meet of the location’s potential. AU asked the architects, SmithGroup, to mass the building in the footprints of the 1950s campus: objects in relation to each other, but not in relation to the city. As the ground plan has evolved, its forms have become more sophisticated, but its relationship to the streets has remained pinned to the footprints and the outdated ideologies that prescribed them.

A big empty lawn. Photo by the author.

The worst consequence of this decision is the retention of the marginal green space in front of the building. Instead of a place for people, the most visible part of the site is left as a large no-mans-land right on Tenley Circle. Precisely where Wisconsin Avenue’s pedestrian life lulls, and precisely where the campus could best engage the city, it turns its back. Instead, the entryway will remain where it is on Nebraska Avenue.

Around the sides, the site planning encourages these empty green spaces by fitting the new buildings into the current footprints. These, AU has assured neighbors, will screen the bulk of the buildings. As at East Campus, AU is trying to screen the buildings with shrubbery, instead of designing more attractive or exciting buildings. Here, the choice makes all of the perimeter conditions the same, front and back, and all relatively unproductive.

Only the open area highlighted in green is park space, the rest is a green buffer.

Moving more of the building space to the front would free up more consolidated, useful park space in rear and cut down on the amount of wasted greenery. It is completely contextual to have a larger building with strong streetwalls fronting the main street and smaller structures set back from the curb on the side streets. This is how Tenleytown’s blocks have developed, and this is how most blocks on Wisconsin are zoned.

The 4900 block of Wisconsin Ave has a wall of attached storefronts on the avenue and detached homes behind.

SmithGroup’s challenge at the site has been to construct buildings that create a campus environment that meets the neighborhood on one side and greets the city on the other. They have achieved the campus feel and could blend into the neighborhood as the design develops. However, without a new approach to the Tenley Circle side, the project will not be able to greet the city. The campus needs an urban front, probably an public staircase.

Columbia’s Low Plaza. Photo by Julia Fredenburg on flickr.

This is not an unheard-of concept. There are many precedents that have better negotiated the distance between a dense area and a quiet campus through symbolic architecture. Columbia University’s enormous cascading plaza is the primary social location on campus that also transitions visitors from street level up to the academic campus. The smaller staircases at Chicago’s Field Museum and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art are great places to wait, socialize and watch: quintessential urban places.

Pioneer Courthouse Square on flickr by Bob I Am

These don’t have to be so grandiose. Polshek Partnership’s entryway to the Brooklyn Museum includes two large stair-like seating areas with pragmatic ground-level access. Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland is a more casual example of an urban stair. Also out in the Pacific Northwest, the FDR Memorial’s designer Lawrence Halprin designed two fascinating parks that reveal the natural environment and the experience of spaces on sites with significant slopes.

These precdents are all great places to wait, socialize and people watch. They are quintessential urban spaces, and illustrate how clever architecture can connect an urban environment to a campus by a great front door.

In a second part, I’ll discuss the historic preservation issues about the proposed campus.

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