Tag Archives: Architecture

Architecture Local

Something old and something new in Southwest

While back in DC recently, I took a look around Southwest DC. There’s much to see, but not much to say. So let me highlight two interesting projects. The first is Hense Brewer’s repainting of the Friendship Baptist Church building behind the old Randall School. I think it’s a pretty cool way to wait out a development project, at the least.

The Randall School itself has been intermittently poised to become a boutique something or another since 2006, when the Corcoran and Monument Realty bought it. Neither of those institutions is doing so well right now, but Telesis and the Rubell Foundation, a major contemporary art collection,  have plans to put an apartment-museum building behind the heritage buildings, with Bing Thom designing. We shall see, yes? The other is Capitol Park Plaza, a midcentury building, which has a surprisingly warm facade for the period.

No surprise to discover that this is one of the buildings in the area designed by Chloethiel Woodard Smith. A noted local architect who happened to be a woman at the time when that raised eyebrows, Smith was quite shrewd here, registering the slab form with details that let humans comfortably occupy austere forms. First, she used tiles to enclose private porches. These balconies are massed in vertical lines at either end and staggered in the middle. This detail diminishes the monotony and overwhelming scale of the building without losing the exhilaration of long lines. The balconies also allow the roof to extend over the building envelope, reducing leaks, while keeping a strong outer volumetric edge that expresses the modernist formal fixation of a flat, uniform edge.  The pure geometry of modernist architecture can be difficult or expensive to register in actual building, so in a compromise, Smith simply implies it.

 

 

Architecture Russia

Three Soviet Memorials to Massacres

Sov-arch continues to continues to offer up unknown treasures of the FSU. Take a look at these three incredible memorials built during the Brezhnev era, published by LJ user dariuss.

 

The first is a monument to the victims of the Salaspis concentration camp, not far from Riga, Latvia. The photographs are evocative enough to not need the Russian text in the original post, but I’ll provide a short description for non-slavofils.

 

You enter the complex through the woods and travel under a massive concrete bar, which appears to have come to rest askew on a black granite block. It is referred to as the “Border between Life and Death.” Beyond it is a set of allegorical statues, including “Humiliation,” “The Mother,” and “Unbroken.”  The concrete foundations of the barracks remain in the ground, contrasting with brutalist concrete beams that hover, cantilevered from memorial markers. Permeating the site is the deep ticking of a metronome, meant to evoke the passage of time, a heartbeat, and death.

Having walked around the site, the massive concrete beam reveals itself to be a building. Passing over a razor-thin concrete stairway, you enter a long, skylit hall, walking up a monumental stair to a viewing area and back down into a small exhibit. The allegory is a little too heavy-handed for my taste, but I think the images speak for themselves.

The second site is Khatyn, in Belarus. The site is a little bit more complex, covering the extents of a former town named Khatyn, which was obliterated by the invading Nazi army for harboring partizan activity in 1943. The site should not be confused with the location of the Katyn massacre – more on that later.

Khatyn is explicitly a landscape memorial, employing the strong gestures of Brezhnev-era architecture over large expanses of ground and without a strong central focus. It’s less iconic than Salaspils, but its architecture still has the same grim impact.

Down a ramp, visitors are greeted by a monumental statue of a man holding a dead child, entitled the “Unconquered Man.” The image is apparently based on the one survivor of the down, a blacksmith, who found his son shot in a barn. So, you have a great example of socialist realist use of a real person idealized to represent a larger population. The whole site, in fact, is a synecdoche for all of the towns massacred by the German army. A man is to Man as Khatyn is to the Motherland.

Adjacent to the statue is a white slab that caps the mass grave and there is a bent slab of black marble meant to remind visitors of the barn where most of the town was burned. Beyond this is a wall of remembrance and a “Cemetery of Villages” commemorating the 186 Belorussian towns lost during World War II. 186 black marble urns filled with ground from their respective villages stretch out into a huge field. A black platform contains three birch trees and an eternal flame to symbolize the 1/4 of all Belorussians who died during the war.

All around the memorial axis are monuments on the site of each structure that existed at the time of the massacre. Paths follow the original streets, symbols of an index, like the Cretto di Burri. The former house sites are bounded by concrete beams. Bell towers inscribed with the names of residents stand in for the chimneys. Even wells are marked with marble platforms and concrete roofs.

Finally, The third is the tiny Dalva complex, located about ninteen miles to the north. Its architectural elements are similar to Khatyn’s, but I think that the concrete beams surrounding former sites are more elegantly abstract. On the other hand, the beam assemblages are punctuated with bronze recreations of household objects like vases or teddy bears.

Photos from Khatyn and Dalva are in the same post.

These three memorials, built from 1967-1973 are emblematic of Soviet design at that time. What distinguishes these memorials from earlier Stalinist is the emphasis of human suffering and the effort to instill a sense of loss in other people. The strong emphasis on representation seen in Stalinism remains, but the new generation adds expressionist gestures and compositional abstraction to Socialist Realism.

Like all memorials, they also reflect the political ideology of the time. Part of the purpose of building such extravagant memorials was to focus regional antagonism towards German Fascism and away from Stalinist repression without overtly denying that anything happened. This is particularly in the case of the Khatyn memorial, where the names were similar enough between Katyn (Катынь) and Khatyn (Хатынь) to misdirect people.

Yet on the other hand, these sites mark legitimate sites of atrocities that occurred to people who were caught in world history. So, the ambiguity of architecture, that it generally means nothing external to its own form, works to its advantage. Even as the ambiguity between Khatyn and Katyn casts a shadow over the memorial, the ambiguity also prevents it from being simply a political tool of the regime. Compare this to the Stalinist memorials in the Tiergarten or Vienna, whose message and representation cannot be mistaken.

Architecture Local

A simpler design will strengthen the Bond at Tenley

Douglas Development’s planned building at Brandywine and Wisconsin NW.

A building proposed for Tenleytown deserves praise for putting density in the right spot, but its design is too fragile to contribute to the character of Tenleytown. Although the building fills the majority of the lot and is lined with retail, its architecture misses the mark. Consisting of a set of boxy volumes organized through contextual relationships, the building is neither an interesting work of architecture nor a quiet background building.

The Bond at Tenley suffers from overcomposition. In order to break up the bulk, designers at Shalom Baranes Associates have used large-scale overlapping formal figures to break down the sense that the building is a single, solid object. These shapes mostly refer to differences in the urban context. The architects, Shalom Baranes and Associates, then intersected and manipulated them into each other in order to diminish the presence of the building’s mass.

However, at smaller scales and different locations, the same figures are repeated: blocks and grids that overlap and glance by each other, repeating the same general patterns. Rather than using the shifts of scale to contradict figures or develop simplicity, Baranes have jostled oversized parts to produce the architecture.

PUD filings and renderings made available on the project’s website show the facades forming principally forming a thick bar along Wisconsin Avenue. From this block a pane of gray metal splits out to match the north-south orientation of the city’s grid and the Brandywine Street façade. By itself, he scissor neatly registers the odd angle formed between the old Georgetown Pike and the city’s grid, while opening up to the street. But then there’s the brick elevator tower and a separate set of bay windows and the parapet, and a dozen different windows.

But that’s not it. The retail strip is articulated as entirely separate from the top of the building. A second color of terracotta runs up the middle of the Wisconsin side, implying another, imaginary volume. Then, there are several tiny balconies protruding from the front, some of which are created by the formal moves, and others seem arbitrary. A look at the floorplans reveals a tortured façade that generally adds up to nothing in particular.

With all of these inflections, what do any of them mean? What part of the context or urban form does the building highlight? A more limited number of operations, with a greater depth of detail would produce a better environment for passers-by. A building with more depth would stand on its own, even as other buildings fill up the neighboring lots and residents become inured to its presence.

Consider the difference between the sounds of two popular summer pastimes: crashing waves and fireworks. One is a repetitive, muffled noise with numerous subtleties, such that the slightest change in timing can make you hold your breath. The other is loud, arranged for variety and effect, and very, very loud. Worse, Baranes’ design is like a fireworks show where every explosion is meant to drown out the noise of every other explosion, so you can’t pin a boom to a flash or react to one before the other. Which one would you rather live in?

It’s not entirely fair to pick on this building, but it is representative of the city’s reputation. When national publications criticize Washington for its conservatism, they are not talking about the traditionalist works, they are talking about the endless formalized reference to context, uncommitted postmodernism, high-end banal glass, and the architectural equivalent of the Rickey, the plaid grid of featureless panels.

However, the towards something more lively is already embedded in the design. The architects at SBA have called for a terracotta rainscreen for the Wisconsin Avenue facade. The systems used offer opportunity for more variety and greater sustainability. Baranes have already successfully employed this kind of exterior curtainwall system at Waterfront Station. On a smaller project like this one, they could be more experimental.

Modern terracotta screen systems have the potential to permit greater architectural variation than what is be possible with glass panels or brick veneer. In addition to a variable texture over the surface, dimensions and spacing and profile of each individual panel can vary. It is possible to use well-established fabrication technology to control the variability precisely, what architects tend to call “parametric.” These mass-producible systems that permit subtle differentiation along the façade, such that buildings could take on an approach with roots as much in the Singer Loft Building as 290 Mulberry Street.

The design of this particular building is important, because it will set the tone for the coming development of this neighborhood, as it diversifies and intensifies. More generally, the building represents a particular fixation of Washington architects: design from context. SBA is one of the a-list architecture firms of the DC area, and already has a presence in Tenleytown, the excellent Cityline. A clean design that develops complexity without ostentatiousness is entirely possible.

If Tenleytown is to look different from Downtown, this is where the distinction can start to be made. This is the first building of a coming regeneration. The importance of setting the tone is important. Tenleytown needs transit oriented development with enough cohesion and activity to maintain grow its identity. Simply deferring to the mediocre context will not develop the neighborhood, but merely perpetuate the present state in nicer materials.

Rather than use its influence to oppose all design, ANC 3E and Tenleytown should work with the developer to produce a better design, one with rhythms and scale that relate to the street and surroundings while bringing something new and vital to the area. In a phrase, the building should be the amenity.

 

Architecture Local

900 New York Avenue at CityCenter

If you look at a map of the old convention center site, there are six blocks. The southern three are owned by Hines-Archstone and are being designed by Foster + Partners and Shalom Baranes. Buildings there are now well above ground, destined for opening in 2013. A park by Gustafson Guthrie Nichol will eventually enliven New York Avenue and the middle block will probably be a hotel once the market shakes out.  The last block, though, has been mysterious for years, appropriately noted in this map with a question mark.

 

The mystery property is owned by the Gould Property Group, headed by well-bearded parking magnate Kingdon Gould, III. It turns out that the project is much further along in development than I had expected: Gould has hired Pickard  Chilton to design a rental office building, named 900 New York Avenue. You can find the plans here. Renderings reveal a gold-colored building with expressed floorplates and lots of glass.

Seems like a bit of retro-eighties work, which is odd since Pickard Chilton are known for their glass. Considering that it’s such a massive building it’s unfortunate PCA chose to not express vertical elements to break up the length of the block. The central atrium, on the other hand, looks like a really great opportunity for social space, while the “urban layer” bottom seems primed to enliven the streets. Putting aside my aesthetic preferences, the project will really add vitality to the area. In particular, the large atrium, shown here in ground plan and rendering, looks promising as a space that engages the pedestrian alley.


It’s interesting that the building cantilevers about five feet out over the sidewalk above the second floor. I wonder if this is meant to open up sidewalk space, or if it is a strange reading of the projections law. More renderings here.

All images courtesy Gould Property Group/Pickard Chilton.

 

Architecture Theory

Drawing is Dead, Long Live Drawing

This past March, Yale hosted a conference on the role of drawing in architecture in an age where most design occurs in the head and on the computer. “Is Drawing Dead?” I don’t have too much to add, but if you have a few hours of thoughtless labor, listening to it can be surprisingly informative and you don’t really need to see what’s going on. The third session, “The Critical Act,” is much more oriented toward architects themselves.

The highlight of the series, for me, was (go straight to it) was Andrew Witt’s discussion of the much longer use of computer drawings than the architecture profession typically admits. Witt is director of research at Gehry Technologies, and spent a few years studying 19th-century mechanical tools to reliably draw the complex shapes desired by Beaux-arts architects but very challenging to obtain with the accuracy or precision needed to actually construct a building. So it’s a very interesting talk. Patrik Schumacher, on the other  hand, does nothing but embarrass himself and bloviate.

Here are links to all of the sessions, each three hours long, except for the keynote, #4.

  1. The Voice of Drawing: The history of and an apologia for hand drawing.
  2. Burning Bridges, Questioning Practice: New technologies and scientific developments in design.
  3. The Critical Act: What are we trying to do when we design?
  4. Real is Only Halfway There: Peter Cook on how architects draw for each other.

The answer to the question, BTW, was that drafting is dead, but sketching will be around as long as we have bodies. Seems simple enough, right?

Architecture Local

New St. Thomas Church Looks Good

I hadn’t heard much news about the new sanctuary in a while, but I came across this video, and the design looks great. The project has definitely improved since I last looked over it in 2010. The architect, Auraform, seems to be using materials very deliberately, so it will be interesting to see how those choices produce and affect and carry the design.

I am particularly fond of the way the roof overhang at the entrance relates to the cross, as a both a sign and as a part of the composition. The visceral handling of the ruins of the old church, towards the end of the video, is certainly reminiscent of Zumthor’s Kolumba Art Museum, with attached exterior windows that owe a lot to Sigurd Lewerentz‘s St. Peter’s, Klippan.  There’s a lot going on in the building.

DC has recently gained a strong set of  exceptional modern churches, of which this building will certainly be one. Jarvis, at least, worked for well-published hermitect Peter Zumthor and the less reclusive local rising  star, David Jameson.

 

Architecture Local

Washington’s Fort Circle, now in studios.

The Van Alen Institute and the National Park Service have announced a program that would create new designs for several national parks, Parks for the People. The program is a competition limited to entire studios of architecture students, who will propose designs as part of their education. In the program’s words:

Participating schools will work with park administrators to create model solutions for seven park sites in each geographic region of the U.S., and use these design paradigms to create a stronger national identity for our open space ideals. Throughout the competition, schools will have an opportunity to engage with the Park Service and its rich cultural and historic assets, including access to park leadership, in-depth encounters with park sites, and the chance to build long-term relationships with park staff and resources.

They have selected seven interesting sites, one of which is the Civil War Defenses of Washington, presumably including Fort Reno. It is the only site in a major city and the only site that is used for day-to-day recreational purposes.

Students will have to consider these uses in addition to the interpretive and conservational missions of the NPS. These parks are back yards for some people, and not just precious destinations. There hasn’t been a lot of work in terms of creating commemorative spaces that are also great places to spend time, since memorials shifted from illustrative work to psychologically engaging complexes (even as they got bigger.)

Another program related to DC that I would love to publish is Leon Krier’s Spring 2010 studio at Yale, which asked students to design a monumental replacement for the MLK library on the CityCenter site.

Architecture Russia

“Death and Life” Published in Russian

Jane Jacobs’ seminal work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is now available in Russian by the house Novoe Izdatelstvo. I think this is pretty remarkable that it took so long, but the editor says that it’s appearing at the right time.

In translation, the title is Смерть и жизнь больших американских городов. Literally, that means “The Death and Life of big American cities.” That, to me, loses the valorizing nuance of the word “Great,” but maybe the fancier translation of the word, “великие” has too much Stalinist baggage, or perhaps my reading of the title is wrong. Either way,they say translation is tricky.

In an interview with the Strelka Institute’s blog, the editor of Novoe Izdatelstvo provides his own example:

This issue arises first and foremost with relation to one of the central concepts of Jacobs’s book: the neighbourhood (in our book, “okrug“, or “district”). The word “neighborhood” taken literally means something like one’s personal area, an urban habitat, the borders of which are determined not by the government but by one’s own typical routes of travel, one’s everyday needs and habits, and so on. This word is difficult to translate into Russian precisely because this way of conceiving space doesn’t really exist in our cities.

For the unfamiliar, the term “okrug” is much more of a legal category, like an ANC, that reached its modern meaning during the era of hyper-centralized Soviet housing estates. One other part of the interview stood out to me, where the editor, Andrey Kurilkin remarks:

I would say that this book is like a new optical instrument that allows you to see complex processes where only yesterday you noticed nothing at all. Our intuitive conceptions of a conveniently designed city, with small streets, parks, a local butcher shop across the way, old buildings, and a convivial street life are given a logical and vigorous theoretical foundation.

Jacobs and her work have suffered from creeping hagiography, so it’s good to see the author reinforcing the intention that the book be a tool for understanding, rather than a prescriptive manual.

You can read the introduction here (PDF), and I recommend the other book mentioned in the interview, Seeing Like a State.

Architecture

I AM A FORTRESS

If you haven’t read Phillip Kennicott’s brutal critique of the new USIP building by Moshe Safdie, you probably should. There’s a lot to think about in it.

I don’t buy his assessment of Safdie’s career (namely that his only good building was Habitat ’67) or that Safdie is somehow different than Terragni, OMA, Yeang or any other architect that has produced institutional work for a statist client. If anything, his work for these groups is a less seductive option simply by virtue of his staidness. Regardless, Kennicott hones in on the idea that the building is a duck: a work of architecture where all formal characteristics are subsumed into an “overall symbolic form.” Yes, the dove-shaped roof is easily the worst formal decision in the building. Except that in a more important sense, the building is not a duck.

USIP Headquarters by joelogan on Flickr

The idea of the duck was developed by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour while teaching at Yale and eventually published. The main target of the critique was not the literal use of symbolism in vernacular structures, but rather the abstracted formal symbolism of “heroic, original” buildings that totalized structure and program into an exploration of space, form, or ideas. This, they said, was more insidious than the overtly ridiculous Long Island Duck.

What the building is not is a security duck. Contrast this with Safdie’s other work in DC, the ATF Headquarters Building. That fortress in Northeast is a security system for itself, where its defensive features become an architectural statement. The grand gesture is an enormous, inaccessible pergola developed from the moat, fence, setback, and blast walls required. Other features, like the gateway-within-a-gateway front entrance and the row of shops on 2nd St. reflect the primary design concept: security. Security subsumes form gloriously. But the ATF building has taken enough of a critical beating, so let’s examine two other examples:

US Mission to the UN

Gwathmey Siegel’s US Mission to the UN indexes the required distance for blast resistance through the size of its windows. The walls of the building simply could not be further from the edge of the small urban site to meet US embassy requirements, so the architects manipulated the windows on a tower already set back into absurd slenderness. The only way you know it’s not the bitter provocation of a grad student is its desperate banality.

More recently, KieranTimberlake’s US Embassy in London, scheduled to be completed in 2017, improves on the ugliness of buffering, but is unable to escape duckhood. The building is set upon a plinth that creates private assembly spaces above, and a security perimeter below. By emphasizing the severe cubic form set within a circle and again in the middle of a field, the architects have called all the attention to the space between the building and its context, at least compared to the looser glancing forms some of the other competitors’ entries. Richard Meier’s design is particularly distinguished because the renderings show bollards: discrete, non-architectural supplements that do not change the fabric or utility of the building.

US Embassy, London

Venturi & Scott Brown’s alternative to the duck was the decorated shed: a relatively banal structure, with a highly articulated facade conceptually detached from the overall functional design. His examples were renaissance palazzos and the Vegas Strip: big, bold facades loosely related to the interior. Now, Meier’s design may be a formal duck, but the security is attached loosely, a protected shed. The same is true of the USIP building, where Kennicott’s review demonstrates that security was not a conceptual concern for the project. The building has large, clear atria one can get close to. It has relatively good permeability, and its security pavilion is prosthetic to the main building. Perhaps it does not need the security of the Pentagon. But even many of the most effective safety measures at DOD headquarters have not been grand design choices, but rather building system details like laminated glass in windows and column casings.

This applied, rather than integral, security is already common. Like the Las Vegas Studio, we have to look at the disreputable defenses of Washington: the bollards, the planters, and the barriers that are almost all right. Those dumb little planters are an embarrassing icon of Washington, but they have their virtues. Ugly and ordinary, they offer both protection and the symbolism of security. They’re not part and parcel with the architecture, letting designers focus on expressing more important things. Maybe most importantly, they’re temporary. Eventually (theoretically) we can get rid of them and the buildings will not be compromised.

Dumb, ugly, replaceable.

These not-so-great forms of security do not have to be so ugly and haphazard. The classicist bollards and walls around the Capitol and congressional office buildings are an attractive and historically sensitive application to the buildings they defend. They’re not ideal, but for something more innovative, take a look at the IMF’s Headquarters 2 in Foggy Bottom. For all the banality of the aesthetics, Pei Cobb Freed combined the barrier structures with small-scale elements like planters, benches, bike racks, street lights, and even a water feature. It creates a livelier streetscape than setbacks and walls.

The formalization of security is a tempting venue for architectural expression. The culture of the past twenty years has been one where institutions have had to fortify and militarize against threats both real and perceived. Making architecture of that defensibility is a tacit acceptance –  if not embrace – of a perpetual security culture. That public buildings need protection against specific threats is undeniable. But that those protections need to exist forever and be manifested significantly in buildings, I believe, is an irresponsible and sad architectural position.

ATF Headquarters by dbking on Flickr

Is there a building you think is a security duck? Suggest it in the comments.

Architecture Local

A look at the new Czech Embassy

The Embassy of the Czech Republic has announced a design for a new building to replace an aging facility on Tilden Street in Northwest Washington. The current embassy is a not-quite-modernist structure at the edge of Rock Creek Park near Peirce Mill. The new structure will be a postmodern landscraper in a y-shape that clings to the site, in a flattened valley. The architects are Prague-based Chalupa Architekti; I think this is a definite improvement.

This is going to be a really great building for nighttime parties. The designers conceived of a theatrical center for élite receptions. I like the circular pods that are scattered inside and out and in between. They refresh the old Modernist idea of dissolving barriers between the interior and exterior, nature and environment, by bringing it back to the original idea of passing volumes through an envelope. The front (north) façade is a beautiful composition of frosted glass formed into a curtain. From the side of practicality, the east-facing façade of the office wing is fenestrated and shaded reasonably well for actual daylighting.

The architects fell into some contemporary tropes I dislike. I find some of the lines to be arbitrarily harsh and unanimated. The glass curtain in front ends bluntly at the roof slab. Likewise, the entrance doesn’t stand out on a building that already doesn’t address the street well. Admittedly, it is a diplomatic building, so security concerns will cause designers to skew fortress-like and the surrounding neighborhood is hilly and wooded, full of detached mansions like the Hillwood.

So, maybe disappearing into the environment is the best course here. The grass roof slips the building into its site. And if it’s not near public transit, it is near great bicycle resources. The shady Rock Creek trail is just feet from the entrance. If the Czechs get on the same bike as the Danes and install some changing facilities (it’s not clear from the published images if they have them), then it could be a pretty forward-thinking building.

What do you think?

As seen on Dezeen.