Yesterday, a panel selected a design concept by Frank Gehry for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial The design is promising.
The large blocks form a circle, enclosing a single tree and a small pool of water. On the faces of the ring of stones, images cast in low relief and quotations in large type speak history to those inside. East and west of the central courtyard, groves of trees canopy informal plazas. At first blush, these spaces feel intimate and beautiful. Rising from just beyond the trees, large stainless steel screens supported by limestone columns enclose the space on the north and south sides. The screens will contain some of the sculptural program through a woven scrim that hides the forgettable Department of Education Building to the south. The street condition is undefined, bounded by the scrims except at three prominent areas.
The axis of Maryland Avenue cuts through the memorial, with the stone ring in the center. Building the memorial without disrupting the viewshed of the Capitol or traffic flow were seen as the two big problems. The Memorial Commission selected a design by Gehry that sidesteps the issue of sightlines, by removing one of eight columns and two sections of the screens. This way, the design frames the primary view of the Capitol with the same structures that fit it into the grid. In terms of the vehicular route, the panel rejected a vehicular road through the monument and instead created a pedestrian plaza. The site was located to move the monumental program off of the Mall. Drawing visitors, most of whom tour on foot, was equally important.
Gehry has tamed his own style is tamed for this project, although the ring of stones exemplifies the blockish forms he had been experimenting with since the opening of Walt Disney Hall. Mercifully, Gehry has also eschewed the dismal expressionism of a younger generation of memorial designers. The design team did not try to assign tremendous meaning to every little detail. Instead, it is a building that can be judged for its power and for its beauty, although people will disagree.
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.
One: First, let’s start with what’s in the room. My friend Anna at NOMOFOMO informed me of the publishing of a rather serious book about John Cage’s rather infamous piece 4’33”. The plainly titled book, it turns out, is by Kyle Gann, probably one of the most famous people ever driven off of Wikipedia. Hopefully the book will cool some of the really obnoxious commentary that trots its tired ass out whenever you mention the piece. On a related note, I was at the Smithsonian American Art Museum when some man wearing a North Face vest walked into the room with his brood and began ridiculing the works as “The Painter who Couldn’t draw curves, The Painter who Couldn’t Draw Faces, the Painter Who Didn’t Care,” repeated smugly for several minutes. Unfortunately for his smugness, we were in a gallery entitled, GRAPHIC MASTERS III. There were no paintings so … no painters either, boss.
Two: Anyway, over in my neighborhood, Richard Layman wrote a simple piece in regard to the recent efforts to build a streetcar on Wisconsin Avenue – and the consequent vicious opposition. The arguments are not that new, but he does break down the current bogeyman that guided transit will be hopelessly snarled up by obstructions. His point: it happens more often on highways, and can be minimized with design. On that note, and getting much bigger (153 comments at writing), is the thread on DCMud about the Safegate Pause.
Three: Moving out to the general idea of the neighborhood, Kaid Benfield penned a remarkably concise and thoughtful definition of Transit-Oriented Development. He emphasizes the oriented part, making the point that it’s the way the neighborhood and buildings facilitate transit use and walkability that is most important. It’s worth a read.
Four: Getting a lot bigger, Mammoth covers mammothly (as they promised) the best architecture of the decade. Unlike so many lists of flashy blingitechture and navelgazing critiques of said blingitechture and excess, the list contains projects emblematic of new directions in architecture. Included is the Large Hadron Collider, cheap manifest-traditional housing, Chinese High Speed Rail, geoengineering, and using good design to recover from years of terror. After reading it, I feel like calling this next decade for Latin America.
Five: Finally, getting into centuries and abstract ideas, Kirk Savage will be doing a live chat tomorrow on Greater Washington. Savage is the author ofMonument Wars and Standing Soldiers Kneeling Slaves. The latter book is about the depiction of slavery in public art. The former traces the role of the monument in America over two hundred years as the changes played out in Washington, DC. I’m only about halfway through the book, but it is really good. He puts an impressive amount of information about monuments, memory, and architecture into a genuinely enjoyable read. I don’t have enough thoughts at the moment, but there will be more coming from it.
Until 1 PM Tuesday, you can always submit questions at this page, and I’ll let you go with some bonus Eames:
The Tenleytown area has been a hub of hubbub for the past two weeks, and more is to come. Four long awaited projects made great strides, however, opportunities are still being lost.
First the good news: The Tenleytown Library will break ground today, September 23rd at 10:30 AM, with Mayor Fenty and perhaps some protesters in attendance. The Economic Development office decided to spend $650K-1M to build stronger girders in the rear of the building, to permit future growth above and to the rear of the library. Across Wisconsin, the renovated and restored fields at Fort Reno Park will open on October 3rd. Another contentious site, the three athletic pitches look great. I can’t wait to see people enjoying the park and all its earthly delights again.
Opus Dei revealed more details about their plan for the Yuma Study Center, a residential and educational facility behind St. Ann’s Catholic Church. Going before the HPRB, Moses of the AnacostiaNir Buras presented a handsome traditional home that would stand west of the Covenant of the Bon Secours building. Alvin Holm‘s design for the building is in a humbler strand of Classicism than the grandiose variety that Washington is known for, and that’s really good to see. As you can see, the new building would have nearly identical proportions and mass, but would use a more Chesapeake style and add a porch to indicate a residential character. However, I think the building would be better to stand on its own rather than be a redecorated twin. Still, positive.
Last night began week five of this summer’s Fort Reno concerts. The annual series of musical triptychs, which take place in an improvised venue in the Tenleytown park, may be the most urbane happening of any place in DC. Amid the mild yellow-orange light of a summer evening, a small local band plays and a few hundred people of various ages watch while they sit on the grass. But beyond that and behind the stage, those less interested in the concert partake in all kinds of leisurely activity. Really, I’ve never seen the park so well used.
Charlie Rose is one of the few people on TV who actually gives any attention to architecture. At the same time, he’s still a dilettante, so it’s interesting to see him gush over buildings while she cooly discharges years of wisdom. There’s some good chatter about Gehry and Mies, and why they’re much better than even their fans think.
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.
Unless they are receiving unemployment benefits, the stimulus package is not something that will benefit most architects in any direct way. Mostly consisting of spending for non-physical programs, the ≈$94,000,000,000 that is there for infrastructure and construction is not going to any public projects that conventionally get the high-end architecture treatment. Yet if governments and agencies receive grants for utilities or other community assets and approach these structures with an eye to aesthetics, there is the potential for incredible additions to the fabric of our of towns and cities.
If the average architect wants to get design into these buildings, they’re going to have to look to practice architecture differently than they currently do. Firstly, they need to embrace building information modeling. Secondly, they need to emphasize designing details rather than looking at sophisticated conceptual schemes as justifications for form. Thirdly, architects need to look for different opportunities than what they have conventionally seen as prestige architecture projects.
The six finalists for the design of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture have been revealed, with some very promising and also very disappointing results. There’s not nearly enough information available to see which is really the best building, so I picked the one that I think can be improved upon in a productive way. Remember as you are reading my thoughts that these are in the conceptual design phase, so the architects will be revising the buildings considerably even before the NCPC and CFA get around to prodding the architect for greater contextuality.
I’ve ranked these in ascending order of quality and appropriateness and then got my buddy Sam Rothstein to handicap each one’s chance at selection. The images are linked to high-res versions on the Smithsonian site.
In choosing to spend so much money to build new infrastructure, Congress and the President have committed to constructing utilities and transportation for the next fifty years. Consequently, all of these structures and systems must reflect this long-term goal, not only in the quality of construction but also in the quality of design. As they allocate the federal funding, governments and agencies should consider the very real need for public projects to employ an architecture of civic responsibility. Architects, in turn, should be ready to adapt their practices to meet the need for basic public design, a major shift many are eager to try.
First off, it’s worth explaining what the stimulus bill offers architects and agencies? There are two major categories: firstly, sustainable or “green” renovations and expansions of housing, schools, and government offices, and secondly, the money granted to local utilities chance to be creative with unconventional programs and types with a thin budget. The former type of project is not too different from what they’d be doing most days, although those firms would benefit greatly from improving technological capabilities, such as employing building information modeling, which reduces cost and improves quality by reducing errors, simplifying design, and allowing for sophisticated environmental testing. The government should encourage the use of these programs, setting a standard for 21st-century architecture and construction.
In the second category, there are many types of buildings that have been neglected aesthetically or financially that are now receiving large grants as part of the stimulus. Transportation, power plants and electrical systems, water treatment facilities, housing projects, and port facilities will all be receiving funding for improvements. The government owes it to the people who live by, pass through, or otherwise see the underside of public infrastructure to improve quality. More attractive overpasses, wind farms, and customs houses will make a small but important improvement of the built environment, definitely impacting the daily lives of Americans.
Similarly, funding for transit organizations can go to better bus shelters or bike stands. As the recent competition in New York showed, small firms are ready to make simple but interesting designs for little bits and pieces on the street. Both proponents and opponents of spending are fixated on monumental projects, things that will last. However, wide projects of small improvements might make just as much of an economic and physical improvement. Planting thousands of trees would pay off far more than another highway resurfacing, especially as part of a greater streetscape improvement plan. Moreover, agencies should set aside a small portion of their funds to ensure that a little art and a little design make it into every project, improving the quality and distinctiveness of each and every location. Many of these facilites are in people’s backyards; planners need to respect the neighbors.
A notable exception to the recent pattern of charmless public architecture is the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, in Queens. Designed by the ever-pragmatic and flexible Polshek Partnership Architects of Newseum fame, the multi-million dollar project has met with universal praise and become an icon of the area, while still efficiently treating blackwater sewage. Polshek designed it with a modern industrial look, simplifying and beautifying the fascinating shapes of anaerobic digesters and aeration buildings. Additionally, the building is designed for tours and educational visits, while a 1% allotment for art has allowed for bold lighting that stands in contrast to the dull orange glow of the city.
Through all the praise for both the Newtown Creek plant, critics and officials have emphasized how different they look from conventional buildings and how much more attractively these massive plants interact with the rest of the neighborhood. People are surprised that the buildings aren’t ugly, as though this is an innovation that took a genius. However, architects have historically approached such facilities as civic assets, building them out in a monumental fashion. Likewise, the New Deal introduced art and architecture to almost every project it executed, from libraries to TVA dams. These buildings reflected the cultures and programs of their builders. It would reflect poorly on our time if we settle for bare function and apathy.
Government’s role in improving and stewarding common places means that it must provide and demand attractive, functional facilities for its people. For this reason, renewing America means not only fixing it up at basic levels, but also making it more beautiful at the same time. Architects are ready and eager to improve the country, but they will have to adapt to new conditions. Indeed, they may be better for it if they grow creatively in response to limitations and employ technology in making practice faster and more transparent. But they have to get the work. If agencies set aside only a small portion of funds for architecture, lay out the goals, pick like-minded architects, and insist on good results, the resulting cultural effusion would boost the resolve of Americans and leave a long-lasting improvements in the most desperately needed places.