Tag Archives: shalom baranes

Architecture Local

David Varner on the Height Limit

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

As Shalom Baranes has written, there are good things to come from modest increases in height (one story or so) with no parallel increase in density. This would enable a saavy building owner and creative architect to articulate their design more aggressively, creating better spaces for its users and a more interesting façade. Today’s market in D.C. is marked with significant efforts to differentiate seemingly similar properties and the ability to sculpt and offer alternative space plans is appealing. Also, the concepts of sustainable workplaces don’t need to be “of the future”, and the healthy vibrancy of daylighting and views in our homes is always appealing.

An increase in height doesn’t, however, protect the city from vanilla design and established real estate conditions favoring hyper-efficiency in office planning (such as GSA, for instance), or the increase in the cost of structure or skin, might not appeal to every landowner. Take a look around the region, though, to see how height relates to design quality; it would be better if it was more energizing. I think it will open the gap between designs aiming at the upper percentile market and the mainstream, and to me any opportunity to increase in the average design quality will ultimately enhance the District.

I would be interested in seeing a dialogue about the impacts of changing the height limits in the core downtown areas that have 130 ft to 165 ft height limits. There are huge investments in place, many with trophy designs that might be negatively impacted by a neighboring property that could now leap past them. It could become a bit of a dinosaur discussion that forces change on deep labyrinths of dark office space, and I’m all for removing the pressures that forced creation of those spaces.

One tool that might be useful is already in place — the Transferrable Development Rights provisions in the Zoning Code. This has the net effect of increasing heights in the three receiving zones currently entitled for TDRs. If we were to create new zones, perhaps we could control the locations of new height districts and preserve others along the way.

Relaxing the height limit in a big way — say, for instance, doubling it — creates opportunity for aspirational skylines in a historically flat city. Provided, of course, we can deal with the impacts to sensitive neighborhoods and transportation issues. I think that the CBD should be spared a huge evolutionary jump, though, out of respect for the original planning and beauty in the monumental core. So I’d advocate for new districts where additional height could be created. There are underserved sectors of the city that might attract investment in this new concept, and we might see a futurist vision of Metro emerge out of the hugely successful planning that began over fifty years ago but now seems to struggle with stagnation and capacity questions.

In summary — as an academic exercise, YES, relaxing the height limit will increase design quality in D.C. The scale of a 21st century urban environment should not be bound by 18th and early 20th century idealisms. The scale of our endeavors, the speed of our activities, and the agility of our culture is better off with more variety and greater opportunity for good architecture

David Varner, AIA, is Vice President for office design at SmithGroup in DC.

Architecture Local

A simpler design will strengthen the Bond at Tenley

Douglas Development’s planned building at Brandywine and Wisconsin NW.

A building proposed for Tenleytown deserves praise for putting density in the right spot, but its design is too fragile to contribute to the character of Tenleytown. Although the building fills the majority of the lot and is lined with retail, its architecture misses the mark. Consisting of a set of boxy volumes organized through contextual relationships, the building is neither an interesting work of architecture nor a quiet background building.

The Bond at Tenley suffers from overcomposition. In order to break up the bulk, designers at Shalom Baranes Associates have used large-scale overlapping formal figures to break down the sense that the building is a single, solid object. These shapes mostly refer to differences in the urban context. The architects, Shalom Baranes and Associates, then intersected and manipulated them into each other in order to diminish the presence of the building’s mass.

However, at smaller scales and different locations, the same figures are repeated: blocks and grids that overlap and glance by each other, repeating the same general patterns. Rather than using the shifts of scale to contradict figures or develop simplicity, Baranes have jostled oversized parts to produce the architecture.

PUD filings and renderings made available on the project’s website show the facades forming principally forming a thick bar along Wisconsin Avenue. From this block a pane of gray metal splits out to match the north-south orientation of the city’s grid and the Brandywine Street façade. By itself, he scissor neatly registers the odd angle formed between the old Georgetown Pike and the city’s grid, while opening up to the street. But then there’s the brick elevator tower and a separate set of bay windows and the parapet, and a dozen different windows.

But that’s not it. The retail strip is articulated as entirely separate from the top of the building. A second color of terracotta runs up the middle of the Wisconsin side, implying another, imaginary volume. Then, there are several tiny balconies protruding from the front, some of which are created by the formal moves, and others seem arbitrary. A look at the floorplans reveals a tortured façade that generally adds up to nothing in particular.

With all of these inflections, what do any of them mean? What part of the context or urban form does the building highlight? A more limited number of operations, with a greater depth of detail would produce a better environment for passers-by. A building with more depth would stand on its own, even as other buildings fill up the neighboring lots and residents become inured to its presence.

Consider the difference between the sounds of two popular summer pastimes: crashing waves and fireworks. One is a repetitive, muffled noise with numerous subtleties, such that the slightest change in timing can make you hold your breath. The other is loud, arranged for variety and effect, and very, very loud. Worse, Baranes’ design is like a fireworks show where every explosion is meant to drown out the noise of every other explosion, so you can’t pin a boom to a flash or react to one before the other. Which one would you rather live in?

It’s not entirely fair to pick on this building, but it is representative of the city’s reputation. When national publications criticize Washington for its conservatism, they are not talking about the traditionalist works, they are talking about the endless formalized reference to context, uncommitted postmodernism, high-end banal glass, and the architectural equivalent of the Rickey, the plaid grid of featureless panels.

However, the towards something more lively is already embedded in the design. The architects at SBA have called for a terracotta rainscreen for the Wisconsin Avenue facade. The systems used offer opportunity for more variety and greater sustainability. Baranes have already successfully employed this kind of exterior curtainwall system at Waterfront Station. On a smaller project like this one, they could be more experimental.

Modern terracotta screen systems have the potential to permit greater architectural variation than what is be possible with glass panels or brick veneer. In addition to a variable texture over the surface, dimensions and spacing and profile of each individual panel can vary. It is possible to use well-established fabrication technology to control the variability precisely, what architects tend to call “parametric.” These mass-producible systems that permit subtle differentiation along the façade, such that buildings could take on an approach with roots as much in the Singer Loft Building as 290 Mulberry Street.

The design of this particular building is important, because it will set the tone for the coming development of this neighborhood, as it diversifies and intensifies. More generally, the building represents a particular fixation of Washington architects: design from context. SBA is one of the a-list architecture firms of the DC area, and already has a presence in Tenleytown, the excellent Cityline. A clean design that develops complexity without ostentatiousness is entirely possible.

If Tenleytown is to look different from Downtown, this is where the distinction can start to be made. This is the first building of a coming regeneration. The importance of setting the tone is important. Tenleytown needs transit oriented development with enough cohesion and activity to maintain grow its identity. Simply deferring to the mediocre context will not develop the neighborhood, but merely perpetuate the present state in nicer materials.

Rather than use its influence to oppose all design, ANC 3E and Tenleytown should work with the developer to produce a better design, one with rhythms and scale that relate to the street and surroundings while bringing something new and vital to the area. In a phrase, the building should be the amenity.