Out-of-District Experience: New Orleans, Louisiana

jackson square and St louis cathedral

Toward the end of his career, Pablo Picasso lamented that he had stopped being creative and was merely “doing Picasso.” New Orleans has followed suit sometime in the past fifty years, becoming the image of the idea of itself. That doesn’t mean the jazz or the culture has disappeared, just that a simulacrum of itself has been interpolated into the French Quarter in such a way that a visitor can’t get a sense of the beast for all the taxidermy. I only had a morning to spend in the area due to nuptials elsewhere, but my perception was that there was a very livable area there, but what I saw did not inspire me to live there. I’ll need to go back and give the whole city a better look.

At the end of the Mall, hope.



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

Streets through time and place

murdocksignI noticed yesterday that DC has re-signed Murdock Mill Road, down off River Road in Tenleytown. It’s a nice little reminder of history  – and of natural geography – among the rationalist streets of the city plan laid down in 1897. While those straight, predictable lines make navigating the city easy, they did erase the context and history of what was Washington County. By its perseverance, this little snippet of prior use reminds residents of the pre-urban past, adding quiet character to the neighborhood.

The road itself is no larger than an alley – its form preexists both the automobile age and the dreams of a residential garden city, so there are neither sidewalks nor setbacks. It is discontinuous, with one part behind the old Sears Building and the other appearing a few blocks to the west before becoming Butterworth Street. It’s also completely secondary: Where the narrow eastern section intersects with 42nd Street, the heavy grading on the latter route  necessitates a concrete retaining wall and a stairway down from Murdock Mill Road, ten feet above. It is very dislocated; left inexplicably during the changes of urbanization, along with the Methodist Cemetery, its only active address.

The road once headed down in the direction of Massachusetts Avenue, following a creek of the same name. Before the imposition of the 1897 Permanent Highway Plan, Murdock Mill Creek began at the west of Tenleytown, and cut through a subdivision of small farms registered as part of Friendship, and finally into what is now the Dalecarlia reservoir. Now, the stream is undergrounded, emerging only from underneath 52nd Place in northern Spring Valley. Other streams have been buried; still more roads have disappeared when developers carved up the farms they existed to serve. Murdock Mill Road is only one of these many streets, some of which are still used.


Does it matter if it’s pretty?

I’ve been glancing over the National Capital Planning Commission’s National Capital Framework Plan. While it contains many fantastic ideas of how to preserve the character of the monumental core while allowing development of many more sites for Federal offices and mixed uses. Its use of commercial corridors punctuated by monuments creates a strong aesthetic of government in a living city. However, it tolerates some of the looming office buildings more than others in a predictably traditionalist way, forgetting the urban conditions along the way.
Most conspicuously, in talking about the Federal Triangle buildings, it recognizes that the large single-use buildings with only a few useful entrances and no storefronts deaden the area, even during the day. However, it calls for the demolition of The J. Edgar Hoover building to revitalize the city and not, say, the Herbert Hoover building. In the case of the former, the brutalist headquarters of the FBI, they mention that the use of “International Style” plainness makes it look like a fortress, but on the same page they heap praise on the traditional buildings as being dignified and vibrant. 
The problem with the argument presented here is quite simple: two styles of architecture that address the street in virtually identical ways are seen as completely different. Both are set back from the street, both have distant, cold windows with hard walls and high gates keeping members of the public out. If you are still in a prison, does it matter if the bars are gold or not? In this case, the staid taste of the Washington architectural establishment is simply bashing a style it doesn’t like. 
Maybe it just needs lipstick and stockings?
Maybe it just needs lipstick and stockings?
They’re all monumental structures which you can’t group together with good results. Yet the prettier ones get away with it, offering a a pleasant background that ultimately hides the major flaws in the building. I won’t claim this isn’t a problem in modern architecture, but I have picked up a trend where Beaux-arts buildings in particular are forgiven of their damage to the fabric of a city because they are beautiful superficially. Modernist buildings are rightly criticized for their blank façades and monolithic use, however, even as “Storefronts!” becomes the rallying cry of urban planning, many praise functionally blank buildings for looking like buildings that work. When they turn to attack buildings of identical typology, it is generally because of a modern look, not because of a city interface issue. 
It takes a more nuanced understanding of the form of a city to realize that a city needs buildings that are part of a fabric, as well as ones that punctuate the fabric. Unfortunately, the judgement of that design is stuck behind shallow observations and a pathological hatred for modern architecture. The NCPC’s report aims to undo many of the sterilizing effects of the McMillan Plan, but it will never manage to mitigate some of the effects. I can only hope that they eschew monolithic districts and give all kinds of architecture a fair shake
Sometime later I’ll talk more about the symbolism of using imperial architecture for bureaucracies, but that’s a different deal.