Tag Archives: history

Local Reno Park Project

The Giant Circle at Fort Reno

tenleytown parks 1902

I found the 1910 Parks Commission Plan earlier. Now I’ve been able to find a higher resolution version of the plan, albeit a little different. This one is from the original, famous McMillan Commission report. Click the images to see the whole city.

This is the first time a park at Fort Reno was proposed. Here, it’s imagined as a much bigger circular park centered around the now obliterated, high point of DC. The Black-populated town at Fort Reno was still pretty small; the streetcar had only arrived a few years before. Similarly, you can see that the Chevy Chase Land Company had only begun to make forays into the District. 

The Nebraska Ave and Yuma street parkways are visible. You can see how large they wanted Soapstone Valley park to be, extending up to 38th Street. They also wanted to acquire the slopes of Broad Branch Valley. That would have linked up with Fort Reno, as part of the first iteration of Fort Drive.  Below is a map showing the rights-of-way for the 1897 Permanent Highway Plan and existing roads.  

Is there anything else you see?

tenleytown highway 1902

After the break, a GIF, a GIF, a GIF, I say, a comparative GIF! read more »

Architecture

CFA Transcripts for the Eisenhower Memorial

I wrote an article on Medium dissecting the deceptive misquotations used by certain opponents of Frank Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower Memorial in order to discredit the Commission. What I particularly dislike is how they quote hard-to-find sources out of context.

So, I wanted to share a few of the key documents from the Commission of Fine Arts, sunshine being, I’m told, a good cleanser.

The Commission of Fine Arts consists of seven experts in art, design, and culture. Currently the composition is (in order of seniority) Earl Powell (art historian), Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk (architect and urban planner), Edwin Schlossberg (exhibit designer), Teresita Fernández (sculptor), Phil Freelon (architect), Alex Krieger (architect), Elizabeth Meyer (landscape architect).

Because the project has dragged on for so long, the composition of the Commission has changed significantly. In the course of the project, these people have also served on it: Pamela Nelson (artist), Diana Balmori (landscape architect), Michael McKinnell (architect), Witold Rybczynski (architecture critic),  and John Belle (preservation architect).

The Commission was created in 1910, but operates under a later law, the Shipstead-Luce act, which mandates its review of projects that would have an impact on Washington’s public spaces. Also coins. Generally speaking, they review design and have no constituencies. Unlike the NCPC, the meetings are unpredictable.

The Commission has approved the memorial concept twice, in 2011 and 2013. In 2011, a unanimous vote picked the preferred alternative. In 2013, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Phil Freelon, and Alex Krieger voted to approve the revised concept. Elizabeth Meyer dissented on the grounds that the landscape elements were insufficiently developed.

The CFA never formally asked Gehry to revise tapestry configuration. In fact Meyer criticized the public comments in February for being off-topic. The November and February reviews of the project were called specifically required to deal with the landscape elements Meyer identified. Powell, Fernández, and Schlossberg were absent.

So, here are the comments that have added so much fuel to the fire.

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Architecture

Precedents for the 11th Street Bridge Park

I’ve written up a post on the the 11th Street Bridge Park for Greater Greater Washington. It’s an exciting idea, but it’s important to slow down and consider what’s possible.

The Bridge Park is really more of an elevated park than a bridge. But its bridge-like form means it can be much more than just a deck with greenery. Since it’s elevated over water, it offers something special related to depth. Its section can go up into the sky and down into the water in ways that no other park can. No excavation is required, and people on the deck can interact with what’s below.

Since there is only one precedent for such a structure, the Providence Greenway, perhaps it’s worth looking a things that are typologically adjacent: bridges, linear parks, and buildings that address the water in noteworthy ways.

Bridges

The first kind of bridge that’s worth noting is one that carefully frames the intersection of the stream and a road. The Ponte Alexandre III is a well-known example. It’s a tetrapylon, a marker of the intersection of two equal routes.

Another interesting type is a bridge that’s asymmetrical along the axis of the flow. If you have a road, there typically are two directions of traffic. Each one is usually equal in value. A river, however, does have a direction: downstream, downhill. That by itself can be a source of impressive architectural effects – as how water rushes around bridge piers.

With symbolism, you get something very poetic. Otto Wagner’s Nussdorf bridge-wier seems to fight the force of the water coming down to it. Massive stone pylons, scrolling up against a sturdy truss, support columns topped by lions. The design expresses the strength of the flood protection it offered Vienna.

Linear Parks

In the article, I suggested that the High Line was an inappropriate comparison to the Bridge Park, because one is through dense neighborhoods, while the other is over a river. The level of activation influences the level of activity. The High Line has the luxury of limiting access to create a nice level of calm in the city. The Bridge Park will only ever have two entrances. 

But – James Corner: Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the designers of the High Line, made a few design decisions that are worth examining. For one, they distributed little spaces along the way that focus your attention on city life. Even the most jaded visitors end up gawking at the flow of traffic and people-watching.

Waterfront Buildings

At the ICA Boston, a museum on the outer harbor, DS+R turned guests’ attention to the horizon. Every space, like comfortable main porch to the disorienting research room, makes you look at the sky and the water with fresh eyes. 

ICA research room by michelvandenbogaard CC-BY-ND
There’s something surreal about water that’s as relentless as the sky. Take a look at James Turrell’s understanding of the sky. Could a basketball player understand what’s going on here:
Sure. We all know the sky and the water.
Plus, if you want to get beyond vision, steps down to the river, like at the Oslo Opera House might form an incredible amphitheater.
There are a lot of options for this park. I look forward to seeing what the designers come up with. What I think will be important, though, is looking for a designer who wants to relate the communities’ prosaic needs – like a play structure – to fundamentals that are so prosaic we’ve forgotten how wonderful they are.
Local planning

When the future was Cleveland PARK

I do love the neon signs, though!

I think a number of people are perplexed as to why Sam’s Park & Shop in Cleveland Park is landmarked. Aside from the political pressure of a well-connected population dead set on preventing the density that would actually save their failing retail strip using historic preservation laws, the site does have some significance.

The Park & Shop was point along the trend to adapt retail architecture to modern conditions. In this page from the May 1932 Architectural Record, the author praised the Park & Shop in contrast to a traditional main street retail strip. He might as well have been describing the service lane block.

If only they'd bulldozed those awful storefronts the strip wouldn't be faltering!

I think a lot of people look back on the beginnings of autocentric planning  and think that the people who conceived it must have been deluded, but to them these choices seem eminently rational. A lot of people also seem to pin the autocentric turn on the Modern Movement and Le Corbusier in particular. This issue of the Record points in another direction: it is unequivocal about the need to redesign retail for the automobile, and merely reports on the International Style as an interesting trend in Europe with good goals.
If anything, Modernism was just a way to aestheticize the rationalist fixations of Modernity like efficiency, objectivity, or hygiene. After all, the first auto-oriented shopping malls were executed in historicist styles. The movement away from urban life began well before that, although Modernists certainly took it further.
It’s a complicated story, one that I don’t really know much about. Luckily, one of my professors, David Smiley, wrote a book about it. Pedestrian Modern, how the desire to accommodate the automobile and pedestrian safely crossed with American modernists’ interest in retail, before 1960s radicalism made that contaminated.
Our Park & Shop comes in towards the beginning of the story.
Architecture Reno Park Studies

Reno Park Update 131228: Traces

Oh hey, I didn’t see you standing there. It’s been a while. No, no, I should have called you! Look, the past few years have been a little weird. There were a lot of martinis and I think there was orange carpet.

So I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Tenleytown’s history. What can it do for us? What are the traces of the past buried in our daily lives? How have we adapted our environment? How can we continue to do so, in a more profound way. Let’s look at the traces of the pre-industrial past within the Fort Reno study area.

Start here: 
building alignments

It shows the orientation of each building. Gray is for the cardinal grid. Purple buildings face the avenues, while light green ones face curvilinear roads. Blue ones were doing their own thing. Dark green buildings didn’t really fit in any one box. Orange buildings face roads we know to be historical.

Yeah, I know what you’re saying. We’ve all been here. But, and you don’t have to look at it, let me break this down.

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Russia

Doodles

Spelling lesson inscribed in birch bark, dated to the mid 1200s, Novgorod. Before the fall of the rake-men.

Local

McLean Gardens Loop

I was shown this photo by the nostalgeologists at Old Time DC:

Can you recognize where this was taken? Evidently, there was a track loop in the streetcar network just to the south of McLean Gardens, to allow the vehicles to turn around. It’s now the construction site for Cathedral Commons, and was the site of this Suntrust Bank during the intervening years.

The loop was there, at least until 1957, when aerial photo on the left was taken. On the left is October 12th, 2012. If modest developments like Cathedral Commons are successful enough, perhaps we will see streetcars on Wisconsin Avenue when we look down in 2023.

Architecture Russia

Brutalists separated at birth?

Kazan Commuter Terminal (Mosgiprotrans, 1976)

Boston City Hall (Kallman, McKinnel & Knowles, 1968)

Architecture Computation Theory Writing

Defining “Building Information”

Students at Yale’s Architecture School are invited to propose topics for an annual journal named Perspecta. I co-authored a proposal with my classmate Raven Hardison intending to expand the theoretical background of building information modeling. I find that the discussion over its uses is largely focused on building process improvement, which is itself valuable, but only a narrow band of its potential. The nature of technologies as disruptive and immature as building simulation and information modeling is that we haven’t yet begun to imagine uses for it. See, for example, this week’s article about the Kinect hacking culture in the Times.

Since we were not selected, it seems in the spirit of things to publish the proposal in hopes that it can germinate other ideas in topics we ourselves were blind to. The original proposal included the names of proposed authors, which have been edited out.

 

 

A Failed Proposal for Perspecta 48:

BUILDING INFORMATION MODELING

Building information modeling has become fait accompli in the discipline of architecture. Sales of Revit subscriptions steadily rise, while technical facility becomes commonplace. Resignation to BIM’s inevitability has caused a critical blindness toward the nature, forms, and influence of those first two words,building information.”

For Perspecta 48, we propose to step back and investigate unresolved aspects concerning the use of knowledge in design and construction. As a metaphor for the discipline’s approach, consider the parable of the blind monks and an elephant.

A king brings a pachyderm to a few sightless monks as a test. He asks them to reach out and describe this “elephant” they had never before encountered. Unable to perceive the whole creature, each groped at different body parts and returned a correspondingly different answer, all rooted in something familiar. The tail became a whip, the body a granary, the tusk a plow, and one man declared the leg to be a column.

When the king revealed the elephant, he showed their wisdom to be burdened by two key epistemological errors: assuming one has the full scope of information on a subject and, secondly, relying on preconceptions to understanding new information. By approaching the issue from a business side and avoiding theory, the discipline has ceased examining information in a multifaceted way, as it once did.

Forty years ago, researchers like Charles Eastman and Nicholas Negroponte imagined software reminiscent of information modeling and parametricism. Over the next forty years they worked to realize these dreams. But at the same time, the scope of the theoretical aims narrowed from world order to interface to tool and finally to product. In order to produce viable software, designers had to cut back their ambitions to basic commercial goals. Speculation on the radical political uses of data or how digital tools transform our relationship to the physical have been left to coders at the margins.

To reorient the debate, Perspecta 48 looks at “building information” from five key angles. Taking a fundamental perspective, the authors in the first section will examine the epistemology of building. By this we mean what is considered constructional knowledge, and how the discipline organizes it. Another group will look at the ways simulation and dematerialization have transformed humans and their environment.

A third set explores the diverging ends of authority and participation on that building modeling is driving the profession to. Looking at the politicization of knowledge, one group will examine how information multiplies of power and raises new ethical dilemmas. Finally, one collection of essays will discuss the technical difficulties of realizing architecture with digital technologies, and even how to embrace them.

We aspire to reinvigorate the discourse about building information by revealing it to be not merely a technology, but rather as a fundamental element of architecture.

 

The proposal continues.

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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?