Architecture Russia

Concerning Stalin’s Fructification of the Earth

If you have ever wanted to see Joseph Stalin masturbate victoriously onto the fields of the Zalesye while Jonathan Meades muses on the barrenness of totalitarian art, well son, here is your one chance.

Joe Building: The Stalin Memorial Lecture (2006)

Architecture

Such tower. Most gothic. How spire.

Goes on for a while, doesn’t it?

Unbuilt tower at St. Rumbold’s, Mechelen. By Wenceslaus Hollar.

Other

5 Years

I started writing a blog because I’m not a great writer. Either I write quickly and incoherently or I write slowly and meticulously. Neither of which is good, and I use too many comma-and clauses. If I needed practice, I might as well have an audience.

I’m not sure I have anything novel to say about architecture, so this blog was also started with the idea that I would be translating a lot of Russian articles into English, reporting on Russian architecture. Unfortunately, I ended up in DC and the mission had to change. I found two issues to discuss: urban planning and Tenleytown. 

I’m particularly proud of the latter, which started out as research for a redesign of the Fort Drive area I was going to use to get into grad school. That never happened, but I feel like I the study drawings helped me understand some pretty important characteristics of cities.

So after 5 years and 18% of my life online, people have thought my thoughts were worth hearing 83,808 times. 2012 was my busiest year. June 2013 edges out a few other times as the busiest month, brought on by Terry McAuliffe’s use of my fantasy metro map in a political ad.

On a related note, that map is the single busiest post on the blog. Other sources of traffic, in order:

  1. A discussion of why the figure-ground “Nolli Map” doesn’t describe Tenleytown.
  2. Image searches for Richard Neutra’s Brown House in Forest Hills.
  3. The poorly thought through but radical McMillan Two project.
  4. The discovery of United States Bike Routes.
  5. Precedents for an Anacostia footbridge.
  6. The Soviet Pavilion built for the 1939 World’s Fair, which got linked by the New York Times.
  7. That time when I tried to make “Tobago” happen.
  8. Image searches for a horrendous graph made for Delaware’s ARRA application.
  9. My attempt to describe Forest Glen Seminary.

It’s interesting to me that these aren’t really my favorite posts and definitely not my best writing. That’s kind of what I was looking for when I started writing: an open journal that shows all of the mistakes made when trying to make sense of things.

Thanks for reading.

Local Other

A few posts on Greater Greater Washington

The more I’ve written for Greater Greater Washington, the more I’ve realized that I need to write for a different audience here than I do there. At the least, I’d like to be more specific about architectural issues here and write about its intersections with DC and Upper Northwest on Greater Greater Washington.

So, I’ve decided to stop cross-posting articles from GGW other than ones that are themselves pretty specific to discussions of architecture, for example, the Architects on the Height Limit series. However, I will periodically link to the articles I’ve contributed to for readers who don’t read GGW. 

Stuff I wrote:

I also had comments in four group discussions:

Architecture Reno Park Studies

Reno Park Update 131228: Traces

Oh hey, I didn’t see you standing there. It’s been a while. No, no, I should have called you! Look, the past few years have been a little weird. There were a lot of martinis and I think there was orange carpet.

So I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Tenleytown’s history. What can it do for us? What are the traces of the past buried in our daily lives? How have we adapted our environment? How can we continue to do so, in a more profound way. Let’s look at the traces of the pre-industrial past within the Fort Reno study area.

Start here: 
building alignments

It shows the orientation of each building. Gray is for the cardinal grid. Purple buildings face the avenues, while light green ones face curvilinear roads. Blue ones were doing their own thing. Dark green buildings didn’t really fit in any one box. Orange buildings face roads we know to be historical.

Yeah, I know what you’re saying. We’ve all been here. But, and you don’t have to look at it, let me break this down.

read more »

Russia

Sky/Ground


Leningrad, October 1st 1941. 

Architecture Local

Taller buildings, better architecture?

Would lifting the height limit lead to better architecture? It’s not that simple, say architects. There are many people and forces, both cultural and economic, shape the built environment, not just height.

Proponents of relaxing the height limit say that it would improve the quality of architecture, but they usually mean that new buildings will be less boxy if there’s less pressure to maximize floor area. Yes, this might encourage more setbacks, deeper walls, more varied patterns, and richer textures. It might also lead to buildings that are just taller versions of the same boxes.

We asked several experienced architects to weigh in on the topic. Some oppose revisions and others support them. But they all note how aesthetics, human comfort, and building performance get trapped in between money and the law, and offer tangible ways to improve the urban environment with or without relaxed height restrictions.

L'Enfant's Tomb by AlbertHerring on Wikimedia

Form follows finance

It may be helpful to think of a speculative office building as a machine for making money. In order to provide a very high level of service to a large amount of floor space, modern office buildings are packed with mechanical equipment and consist of highly engineered assemblies from structure to skin. We can see when money has been spent on high-quality finishes and beautiful details, but the real luxury is empty space.

read more »

Architecture Local

Marshall Purnell on the Height Limit

Pepco building by Devrouax + Purnell.

Greater Greater Washington asked accomplished DC architects to weigh in on the positives and negatives of the height limit. This comment is part of that series

The argument being used to push for a change in the height limit is misunderstood at best and disingenuous at worst. Washington is full of boxes because developers want to build out to the very maximum FAR available. The measurement is taken from the inside face of glass. This means any relief in the facade results in lost FAR. This makes the city very much a city of two dimensional facades not architecture. There have been noted exceptions to this of course but they are not the norm. All things being equal, allowing for taller building will probably result in taller boxes. Developers will still want to maximize the envelope at the expense of some needed relief. They will still keep hiring the same architects and hope for different results. There’s a definition in that last sentence.

Another solution would be to hire more creative architects. However, if you become popular for creating Washington boxes it seems the development community will beat a path to your door. They get a building with maximum income potential (translated: space) for a modest cost and a downright meager fee with no push back from the architect for any idea suggested, good or bad.

I have had the good fortune to have some clients that were not driven by maximizing the FAR so much as building to their limited budget and providing the best design value.

Marshall Purnell, FAIA, is director of Devrouax + Purnell Architects, and former president of the American Institute of Architects. 

Architecture Local

Roger Lewis on the Height Limit

Greater Greater Washington asked accomplished architects to weigh in on the positives and negatives of the height limit. This testimony from the NCPC hearings on the Height Limit is part of that series.  

Thanks to these historic limits, the nation’s capital has remained a uniquely memorable, low- and mid-rise city. From many places in the city, views of America’s most iconic, symbolically significant structures – the U.S. Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, the White House – have been preserved because downtown skyscrapers cannot be erected.

Yet there are places in the District of Columbia where height limits established decades ago are today inappropriate and unnecessarily constraining, a reflection of outdated planning and zoning practices from the early and mid-20th century. These practices were characterized most notably by designation of large areas – land use zones – within the city limited to predominantly one use and uniform height limit. Broad-brush, one-size-fits-all planning and zoning failed to take into account, within each land use zone, locational variations in topography, solar orientation, views and vistas, proximity to parks, adjacency to civic open spaces, and infrastructure, especially transit. It did not differentiate between mid-block properties and properties at major intersections.

Today’s city planning, urban design and architectural principles and techniques – such as computer-based Geographic Information Systems (GIS) – are far more sophisticated and effective. Broadbrush strategies of the past are obsolete. We now can engage in fine-grain planning, urban design and zoning. We can identify, analyze and designate specific sites in the city where increased building height and density make great sense aesthetically, environmentally, functionally, socially and economically. This “smart growth” approach can enhance the city’s urban and architectural qualities while yielding fiscal benefits for the city. Furthermore, enacted as an incentive bonus overlaying existing zoning in appropriate locations, increased building height limits – and density – can engender development of much needed affordable housing.

Where should height limits change? In the downtown l’Enfant Plan area of the District, including traditional residential neighborhoods, height limits should remain substantially unchanged to preserve the center city’s dominant character and skyline. But there are specific sites – such as the Southwest and Anacostia River waterfronts – where upward adjustment of height limits would be beneficial without jeopardizing the city’s historic profile. Outside the l’Enfant Plan area, many sites could be suitable for higher buildings, especially near Metro stations and major roadways.

The only equitable, professionally responsible method for identifying places to raise height limits, and for determining new height limits, is to create a detailed, city-wide plan, prior to any rezoning, based on a rigorous, comprehensive study. This is essential to avoid piecemeal, property-by-property relaxation of height limits through variances, exceptions and ad hoc rezonings, a process too often influenced by political and financial pressures. Because municipal and federal interests are involved, the building height study and plan should be prepared collaboratively and transparently by the D.C. Office of Planning and the National Capital Planning Commission.

Many Washingtonians are apprehensive when anyone suggests modifying D.C. height limits. They envision Rosslyn-like skyscrapers rising all over town, ruining the capital’s historic image. Some believe that raising D.C. height limits anywhere would set precedents invariably opening the proverbial “barn door” to greedy developers in league with corrupt politicians, enabling high-rise buildings throughout the city.

But skeptical citizens need to understand that, through fine-grain urban design, prudent legislation and precisely targeted, well enforced land use regulation, the barn door will not and cannot be thrown open. Therefore, revisiting D.C. height limits requires not only a credible, city-wide planning effort, but also an on-going public education effort to help citizens recognize that legislation adopted over a century ago can be improved.

Roger Lewis, FAIA, is a registered architect and professor emeritus at the University of Maryland. For over twenty years, he has written a column for the Washington Post. 

This post is a version of Lewis’ July 19th, 2013 testimony before Congress.  

 

Architecture Local

Matt Bell on the Height Limit

Greater Greater Washington asked accomplished DC architects to weigh in on the positives and negatives of the height limit. This comment is part of that series

Certainly the possibility of an enhanced skyline is suggestive and more height may mean a more interesting skyline in places. But the primary concern should be how the buildings address the street and add to the vitality of our city. Any such changes to the Height Act would be well advised to take that into consideration. Yes, the skyline of New York is great and tall buildings are much the reason. But the 1916 Zoning Code of NY also resulted in a wonderful sense of urbanity, where the tall buildings “behaved” at street level, defining public space and reserving their more celebratory features for many more stories up in the air.

But, it’s doubtful that similar effects will be tolerated in DC. So, where does that leave us? On one hand, the question is one of urbanism. K Street, while generally ugly (it is not the Rue di Rivoli!), has a sense of urbanity that is impressive on weekdays from 8 to 6. More residential development would help in the off hours. Those buildings, for better or for worse, define the street, have active ground floors and provide the continuity of the street wall necessary for any successful downtown.

Thinking architecturally, DC buildings can be proportionally a little squat, so perhaps more height might help. But while many lament “squatness” as a given condition of DC design, its really a question of understanding and manipulating the proportions of the facade and the vertical surface. After all, Paris has short buildings and people seem to like it!

So, will more height give us better designs? I’m doubtful. It may give us more development opportunities and greater density in places. And those are powerful and perhaps good reasons. But better quality? It ain’t necessarily so.

Matt Bell, FAIA, is a principal at EEK/Perkins + Eastman in DC.