With a more creative approach to preservation, American University’s plan for its Tenley Campus could produce better urban design and a more compelling presentation of the site’s history.
AU has agreed to preserve several structures on the site: the a former farmhouse called Dunblane House, Capital Hall the main building visible from Tenley Circle, and a Chapel. Together, these buildings form an axis that the Historic Preservation Office has insisted on preserving.
The Historic Preservation Office is right to emphasize this axis; it is probably the most interesting part of the site. The architects at SmithGroup have worked within these requirements to create a private quadrangle between the old house and Capital Hall, which looks good so far.
But AU has also decided to build on the footprints of the existing 1950s buildings and not construct anything that would obscure Capital Hall. The buildings are preserved, but no part of the campus will feel different from the others, even if they are in a slightly different style. The new buildings offer no key to understand on the site they inherit.
To understand what I mean by interpretation, take a look at Machado & Silvetti’srenovation of the Getty Villa. They combined the pragmatic need for an an entry stairway with architectural promenade that helps visitors understand the museum’s curatorial approach. Treating the 1970s replica of a roman villa as an object in a collection, stairs and pathways frame the building in a sequence that calls to mind an excavation. The stair gives visitors a lens with which to understand the building and clears their minds of the drive out to Malibu.
The statue of Samuel Hahnemann at Thomas Circle is one of DC’s many unknown beauties. Although most of the structure is the monumental standard copper-granite-limestone set of hues, the half-dome that frames his head bursts into color as you pass your eye across it. What’s more, because the mosaic is partially hidden, it rewards close examination.
Proud academic and children’s literature critic Karl Kroeber passed away today after a long struggle with cancer. Kroeber had a 50+ year career in education, working on eclectic subjects across literature, but most significantly American Indian literature. In recent years, he railed with a lovable grumpiness against the dumbing down of books and films aimed at the under-12 set. When interviewed by the Blue and White in 2007, he put it this way:
The other side of it, what goes with [my opinion of] Disney, is [my reaction to] this grade-level business, this idea that you must not write a book for a 7-year-old that includes words a 7-year-old might not understand. This is how you encourage dumbing down.
Regrettably, I was never able to fit one of his classes into my schedule, but a single lecture and all the google searching had to suffice for consuming his really brilliant work. The rest of his family is equally distinguished, with an anthropologist father and mother, and celebrated author for a sister (the K. In Ursula K. Le Guin is for Kroeber).
He was also that kind of professor that garnered a large cult following, due in no small part to his open love of scotch and his cat, Mr. Underfoot. Oh, he was also an incredibly nice and generous man. He will be missed.
Part two of a four-part essay exploring context, typology, and interpretation. Comments encouraged.
Against rich complexity of the old Seminary, the houses designed by EYA are then a real letdown. They carry the superficial veneer of “context” that is endemic to New Urbanist planning and its most visible error. To be clear, they are not abominations, but they are dull and only stylistically similar to the outré conglomeration across the street. The application of traditional elements here fulfills a requirement that new buildings respect the architecture of the historic landmark. Okay, sure, sounds good, but the legislation is fairly scant in the details of execution. The easy option, a cynical abdication of artistic responsibility, is to copy the notions of form in hazy facsimile and slap it on off-the-shelf buildings. Even where the designs are competent, the lack of sensitivity results in tepid mediocrity.
Part one of a four-part essay exploring context, typology, and interpretation. Comments encouraged.
Hidden among a leafy scattering of houses and trees, Forest Glen Seminary is a jumble of vernacular buildings unlike any of the temples of boxes that define Washington. Its buildings, both magnificent and ludicrous amount to a dignified campiness that defies expectations to be one of the most profoundly interesting places encircled by the Beltway. Once constituting a women’s college when that meant a two-year Mrs. degree, the buildings are once again becoming domestic space, the more private areas cut into condos and the core of the complex, rental units. Scattered around the area, turn-of-the-century houses are being renovated and new housing by the urbanist developer EYA has just been finished. Through the site’s history, radical changes have shaped its form, but none so radical as the current shift in context.