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Architecture Local planning

McMillan Two envisions a Classical Anacostia

mcmillan-two-anacostia-quay

The public character of Washington has grown around two grand plans. First, Charles L’Enfant laid out the city as a sacred grove for the marking of America’s history. One century later, the McMillan Commission restored and expanded upon that original design to include the history of the Nineteenth Century. Now, The city center has grown up in the second hundred years since then, enough for Congress to declare the Mall closed to new development. Meanwhile, the rest of the city has built up or spread out into suburbs. In light of the last fifty years, a group of traditional Washingtonian architects have developed an audacious proposal for the next lifetime of growth, McMillan Two. Fulfilling some less-known intentions of the McMillan Plan with slight modifications, this plan essentially calls for bringing Paris, mansard , Seine and all, to the Capital of the United States.

Developed by the Build DC Initiative and architect Nir Buras in particular, the design has been sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America, the National Civic Arts Society, with some support from the DC chapter of the Congress for New Urbanism. Buras’s philosophy draws hard from tradition: we know what is beautiful and what works – and we should do that. Downplaying strident formal innovation, the relationship buildings have to precedents in a cultural tradition guides design. For McMillan Two, France provides that tradition, particularly L’Enfant’s garden models and the Beaux-arts education of Burnham, McKim, and Olmsted. Though the partners have kept much of the project under wraps, Buras has recently begun sharing the outlines of this radical rethinking of DC’s future, namely that “Washington remains the most beautiful city in the nation.”

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Near Southeast today. All images courtesy Nir Buras.

The McMillan Two plan
The McMillan Two plan

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Local planning

Two Steps Forward and One Step Back

Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
This past week, Safeway revealed their plans to renovate the Safeway at 42nd and Ellicott Streets, along Wisconsin Avenue in the northern reaches of Tenleytown. What they propose (huge PDF) is a dramatic improvement over the bunker-like current building, and will enliven a dreary section of the neighborhood. However, the project includes no residential or commercial component on top of the new stores, despite its location roughly one-half mile from both the Tenleytown-AU and Friendship Heights Metro stations. Like the TD Banknorth building across Wisconsin Avenue, these patches in the urban fabric will better the community, but without more of a plan, they are just patches.

The new Safeway will activate 42nd Street, which is separated from Wisconsin Avenue by just a small triangular park. Instead of a forbidding blank wall, Safeway plans some outdoor seating for an in-store Starbucks. Residential Ellicott Street will get a landscaped park in front of the store’s substantial setback. The surface parking lot will become an enclosed one-story parking wing, and the loading dock will move to Davenport Street, adjacent to Georgetown Day School, screened from the street by a brick wall.

Courtesy the ARD (how nice of them) and Torti Gallas
Courtesy the ARD and Torti Gallas

Unfortunately, Safeway wanted to be expedient with the design and worked with one of the five neighborhood organizations that claims to represent the community, the Alliance for Rational Development. As their double-plus inaccurate name implies, ARD opposes most, if not all development of sites along Wisconsin and in Tenleytown. Their policies are transit-oriented-denialist, insisting that the area is optimally zoned and built up, and that any more growth will only have negative effects, primarily on the supply of parking.

Some of their concerns for any given project can seem legitimate when viewed without context, ignoring of the multiple benefits of well-designed areas with mixed uses. But Tenleytown’s zoning only allows for densities along a very narrow band on Wisconsin Avenue, closer in form to a suburban arterial than an interconnected city neighborhood. Many other lots, just a block or two from the Metro have no opportunities for development at any scale, because they are zoned as low-density in spite of their location at a major node in the city’s infrastructure network.

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Architecture Theory Writing

Forest Glen Seminary: An Unintentional Project

So, it’s been a while, right? Well sometimes you get stuck and you just have to back away from the block. If you’ve fortgotten the previous installments, they’re here, and here. One more will follow in about a week. Alright.

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But from the enormous source material of the existing buildings, the Alexander Company took what opportunities it had and exploited them into a quiet celebration of the specific context. The original buildings, despite their conversion to a warren of private apartments and condominiums, have kept of their idiosyncrasies. In spite of sparkling new halogen lights and granite countertops, the apartments retain the unique elements that make the buildings meaningful to residents. read more »

Local planning

What’s bad for Montgomery is bad for DC too

Caution by M.V. Jantzen
"Caution" by M.V. Jantzen

As many people have now realized, the current highway-based, auto-oriented Gaithersburg West sector plan will waste money on unsustainable, outdated forms of growth that will lead to more congestion and auto-centric developments. However, attention must be paid to the serious negative effects I-270 highway expansion will have on areas other than Montgomery County, particularly the District of Columbia. The foregone conclusions of the traffic studies say little about the effects of this decision elsewhere in the region.

The technology companies of Montgomery County have tremendously contributed to the economic growth of the greater Washington region, and more jobs and more vitality in the future are a boon. However, the design of any new developments must also have a positive effect on the rest of the region. Employing effective land use policies, encouraging compact development, and investing in efficient transportation will increase the benefits to the region in many other ways.

Vastly increasing the capacity of highway-scale roads throughout the region will likewise increase the number of automobile trips undertaken. Wider highways up the road will only encourage growth, which will bring calls for I-270 widening closer to the District, just as the highway lobby has pushed planners with good intentions to widen I-66. But that, in turn, will only make trips from further out easier, and so more individuals will opt to drive from further out, filling up the highway. Conversely, any resident of DC that finds a job in the corridor will have to commute from the city by car or move and still commute by car.

But between the Beltway and downtown, where will these drivers go? The project assumes that people will basically commute from Clarksburg to Gaithersburg. Although many will commute within the corridor, history has shown that many will also continue on into DC, into the growing Central Business District. Some, perhaps, will park and ride the Metro or MARC in. But most will simply drive in, pouring cars into the city, onto Wisconsin Avenue, Connecticut Avenue, Beach Drive, Georgia Avenue, Sixteenth Street, River Road, and the Clara Barton Parkway.

The new drivers, passing through the neighborhoods of Northwest will themselves be more traffic, meaning more idling, more speeding, and more side-street cut-throughs. The idling and the stop-start traffic will not only make everyone’s commute harder – the new cars will compete with the excellent bus service in Northwest – the engines will release greenhouse gases and noxious pollutants into the air along the way. Moreover, all the new, frustrated drivers will add more than a few chances for injuries and collisions.

For all the fears that middle-height transit oriented development along corridors in northwest, the sprawlway will have much more severe and lasting consequences for Wards 3 and 4. Politicians and citizens alike need to support rational development, development of a reasonable density, designed for humans, and designed for transit accessibility. Only through TOD can one part of the region grow without adversely affecting the others. But more importantly officials need to coordinate with their peers in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia to and work together as a whole, the way the economy of the region does. Otherwise, no infrastructure project can be said to benefit the region, especially one with such an adverse impact as the Sprawlway.

Architecture Theory Writing

Reburbia and the future of suburbs

Frogs Dream, the winner, brings back the wetlands
Frog's Dream, the winner, brings back the wetlands

Beginning with this post, I’ll be writing on some local and urbanism-related issues at Greater Greater Washington from time to time.

In “Eyes That Do Not See,” Le Corbusier noted that airplane designers were unable to achieve heavier-than air flight until they understood the underlying issues of aeronautics – until they had posed the problem correctly. Until the tinkerers stopped imitating birds and kites and began investigating lift in a scientific way, they just produced spectacular failures and beautiful dreams. So, when looking through the finalists to the Reburbia suburban redesign contest, it was curious to see how, although many projects owe a debt to the Swiss architect, a great deal show confusion about the problems of “suburbia.”

Reburbia was a design competition where designers were invited to remodel, reuse, redevelop, and restructure the landscape of suburban development. Sponsored by Inhabitat and Dwell, the contest presented 20 finalists and a number of other notable entries for public viewing. Although they’ve already announced winners, the issues that appear in the submissions deserve more discussion. These open competitions are like fashion shows, where the offerings exist as inspiration for other designers more than practical solutions. Some of the ideas tossed around here might make their way into an abandoned mall, but the ideas that grow out of Reburbia are more important. As architects, planners, and citizens look for solution, we have to keep in mind what the problems are to judge any given solution.

Edible Parking? Bumper Crop
Edible Parking? "Bumper Crop"

Declaring that the suburbs need to be re-burbed begs the question of how much, and which kinds, of suburban development are unsustainable, undesirable, or inefficient.  Following that line of thought, designers need to consider whether mitigation of costs can solve an issue, whether simply pulling out unfair subsidies would help, or whether a total revamp has to occur. The projects in Reburbia revolved around a handful of issues that are unique to automobile-dependent sprawl, as well as others that all cities face. The entrants posed their problems around land use, energy waste, sustainable energy production, loss of natural habitats, low density, unappealing or unwalkable street design, transportation inefficiency, water runoff, and the legal mandates for development. read more »

Architecture

Forest Hills’ Brown House

Upper Northwest has a reputation for having bland architecture, with the exception of pre-Depression Chevy Chase. But that’s proving itself to be a not completely true perception.  Down at the eastern end of Audubon Terrace in Forest Hills there’s a real treasure of modern architecture, almost completely buried the trees of  Soapstone Valley.  Although it’s been a house I’ve admired since a stopping a run in the valley back in high school, Modern Capital clued me in to the house’s authorship by the definitive SoCal architect, Richard Neutra.

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The residence, known as the Brown House, was built in 1968, only two years before the architect’s death. It is the only example of that architect’s work in DC, and one of only a few on the East Coast. More photos under the fold. read more »

Local Reno Park Project

When a concert isn’t just that

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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. read more »

Good Architects

Good Architects: McInturff Architects

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To make an unwarranted generalization, DC architects like their buildings heavy and somber. Even in the recent fad of light and clean glass facades, the buildings have been rather self-serious and blockish looking, a consequence of clients demanding efficient floorplans from architects who themselves were trying to be cool and modern without upsetting the polished and poised look DC has in the collective consciousness and legal structure. This fretful indecision can be a bit like the jeans and sportcoat look – crisp but comfortable, hip but conservative.

McInturff Architects offer a wholly different approach. They’re (post)modern(ist) but a little witty and also aiming for comfort. Their mostly residential oevure consists of excellently-composed buildings that respond coyly to the conditions of the site. In doing so, it avoids falling into limpid styles while also carefully respecting historic and distinctive architecture elsewhere. As for aesthetics, the practice cleverly contrasts gentle and warm elements with bold minimalism in beautiful light-filled spaces. As their projects are primarily private, it’s trickier to see their work than Esocoff & Associates‘. But down in Georgetown, anyone can at least see three buildings, and go into one of those. read more »

Other Russia

The Metronomicon

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A Russian artist and ad man named Alexei Andreev has been publishing some distinctly surreal photography recently regarding the Moscow Sankt-Peterburg Metro. Mostly, it hints at the perpetual creepiness of a dark subway and the complex relationship one always has with it. As much as it’s preternatural eeriness, it also reflects daily life a lot more than most architectural photography of the subway. The whole collection deserves a look, but not before a late night Metro ride.

planning

United States Bicycle Route 101

br101
br1

Did you know that the United States has signed bicycle routes? You didn’t? Yeah… don’t feel bad, nobody else seems to know about them, and I only stumbled upon them trying to do this month’s Wikiglean. Obscurity notwithstanding, two bike routes do exist and the legal framework is still around – and right now is just the time to breathe life back into the system and make them serious transit.

Back in the 1970s, after the shock of the Oil Crisis, planners – AASHTO even – had the forward idea of determining and assigning interstate bike routes.  Primarily meant for low-traffic roads or dedicated trails, the routes were to connect cities for touring purposes. However, by 1982, only two routes had ever come into being, and so the system went the way of the DMC-12. But conveniently for Washingtonians, the two existing trails currently run through Virginia and one is poised to benefit the Washington Metropolitan area. read more »