I’ve been glancing over the National Capital Planning Commission’s National Capital Framework Plan. While it contains many fantastic ideas of how to preserve the character of the monumental core while allowing development of many more sites for Federal offices and mixed uses. Its use of commercial corridors punctuated by monuments creates a strong aesthetic of government in a living city. However, it tolerates some of the looming office buildings more than others in a predictably traditionalist way, forgetting the urban conditions along the way.
Most conspicuously, in talking about the Federal Triangle buildings, it recognizes that the large single-use buildings with only a few useful entrances and no storefronts deaden the area, even during the day. However, it calls for the demolition of The J. Edgar Hoover building to revitalize the city and not, say, the Herbert Hoover building. In the case of the former, the brutalist headquarters of the FBI, they mention that the use of “International Style” plainness makes it look like a fortress, but on the same page they heap praise on the traditional buildings as being dignified and vibrant.
The problem with the argument presented here is quite simple: two styles of architecture that address the street in virtually identical ways are seen as completely different. Both are set back from the street, both have distant, cold windows with hard walls and high gates keeping members of the public out. If you are still in a prison, does it matter if the bars are gold or not? In this case, the staid taste of the Washington architectural establishment is simply bashing a style it doesn’t like.
They’re all monumental structures which you can’t group together with good results. Yet the prettier ones get away with it, offering a a pleasant background that ultimately hides the major flaws in the building. I won’t claim this isn’t a problem in modern architecture, but I have picked up a trend where Beaux-arts buildings in particular are forgiven of their damage to the fabric of a city because they are beautiful superficially. Modernist buildings are rightly criticized for their blank façades and monolithic use, however, even as “Storefronts!” becomes the rallying cry of urban planning, many praise functionally blank buildings for looking like buildings that work. When they turn to attack buildings of identical typology, it is generally because of a modern look, not because of a city interface issue.
It takes a more nuanced understanding of the form of a city to realize that a city needs buildings that are part of a fabric, as well as ones that punctuate the fabric. Unfortunately, the judgement of that design is stuck behind shallow observations and a pathological hatred for modern architecture. The NCPC’s report aims to undo many of the sterilizing effects of the McMillan Plan, but it will never manage to mitigate some of the effects. I can only hope that they eschew monolithic districts and give all kinds of architecture a fair shake
Sometime later I’ll talk more about the symbolism of using imperial architecture for bureaucracies, but that’s a different deal.