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.
I finally got some images of the proposed Janney School extension. I like it – but it could have been better. With a few objections, I like its conception. Devrouax + Purnell, best known for the Washington Convention Center, the Pepco Building, and Nationals Park, here produced an interesting and attractive school building. However, the location where they have chosen to place the wing results in a lost opportunity for Janney and the community in general. Like too many developers and architects, they approached Tenleytown planning to not upset the status quo. However, any public facility should be designed with an eye to the future – and the current state of Tenleytown cannot last.
Beginning with the generous setback along 42nd street, the architects attempted to hide the building as much as possible, so as not to intrude on the neighborhood. Although the Albemarle façade extends to the cornice line of the 1923 building, the masses of the building gently diminish into a low white structure that encloses the gym. Moving south along the western face, the building curves gently, from a tower to the first private residence down the block. The architects employed the shape subtly, repeating the curve in each mass to limit its effects. It does successfully integrate into the site.
However, this hesitant approach is not appropriate here. The architects should not have set the building back from the street so much. In doing so, they have reduced the feeling of enclosure afforded by a consistent streetwall, produced an marginally useful green space, and missed an opportunity to relocate the playing field at the center of the Tenley Library Public-Private Partnership debacle.
For the 2007 plan to build a library with several floors of condominiums on top focused on the loss of recreation space (the rightmost field in the image above) for Janney Students. Some of that space would be consumed in the footprint of the condominium structure. However, had the architects located the new wing closer to the property line, they might have opened up space to relocate the eastern soccer field. In a political environment as vicious as Tenleytown’s, a mutually agreeable solution would have been a rare happy ending.
That lost opportunity is my main complaint – but there’s much more review below.
Tenleytown: Three threads of the ongoing Tenley/Janney controversy have converged in the past two weeks, plus a new arrival.
I. The city has declared that they will begin construction of the new Freelon-Group-designed library in September. However, out on the Tenleytown Listserv, discussion flared up when it became clear that the department of economic development was asking the architect to add structural columns that could support multistory residential. This practice is not uncommon, but it would be a wasteful expenditure if the Tenleytown Historical Society succeeds in landmarking the school, and adding to the structure becomes more difficult. Both properties sit on the same lot. II. The HPRB has agreed to review a preservation application for the 1925 elementary school. Built by the city architect, Albert Harris, it’s a decent example of the stripped-down Beaux-arts Georgian style he developed for the rapid expansion of public facilities in the early 20th Century. Although it was the first of all the schools built in the area, I don’t see how the 84-year-old school merits perpetual legal protection, at least not at this point. Especially considering that the building is not in any danger of demolition or permanent alteration. Moreover, landmarking could seriously delay the much-needed renovation of the aging school needlessly.
III. The department of education is proceeding, however, with the development. They’ve hired Devrouax + Purnell to design a wing to the west of the current building. Part of the planning framework requires that DP respect the historical structures of the area. I have no doubt that they will. Their work in DC has been humane and sensitive, while also adding innovating modern elements. Freelon and DP’s buildings will be coups for the architecturally stagnated area, so it’s in the neighborhood’s interest to support their work.
IV: On the site of the former Oakcrest School at 4101 Yuma Street, a new religious center for women and girls will be opening this fall. The Yuma Study Center, a vaguely defined but Opus-Dei-affiliated religious institution will itself be renovating and expanding the old Bon Secours covenant. The current structure is dilapidated, so renovation will be welcome, once I can figure out exactly what the institution does.
Van Ness: This past weekend saw the second-ever farmers’ market on the plaza in front of UDC. The market is a twofer fer the residents of condograd across the street, putting the large plaza to use and getting farm-fresh goods onto a public street.
Hawthorne: The Post covers the ongoing slapfest in the very northern neighborhood of Hawthorne, a small collection of 1950s houses that was built in the fashion of the times: without sidewalks. DC has been improving and adding sidewalks throughout the city, improving pedestrian safety and encouraging walking, however, some residents of the area northeast of Utah Avenue won’t have any of that filthy urban nonsense. They moved there because they wanted to be in DC without being in the city.
What, they stayed in DC for the schools? Or for the lack of voting rights?
The arguments against sidewalks sort of tumble out of opponent’s mouths, with all kinds of illogic. This is like country in the city, yes, and a ranch house makes your .2 acre lot a ranch. Nobody walks around here, uh, ever wonder why? We need curbs, not sidewalks, so pedestrians can’t get out of the way of cars? Lastly, the venerable, but that’s the way it’s always been! makes its appearance, proving opponents to be examples of a certain five-letter acronym. You can hear how literally incoherent their arguments are in this video.
On the other hand, there are almost as many proponents, since many residents do see the public obligation to make the streets safe and accessible for all modes of traffic. It’s heartening to see proponents of reasonable growth out and advocating their position. There’s not much of a worry that Hawthorne will become infected with the dread contagion of urbanism, since it’s pretty far from any sort of rapid transit and unsuitable for larger growth. It’s always going to be a side neighborhood, one whose character will not be negatively altered by allowing people to walk comfortably around their neighborhood.
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.