Among the new DC public libraries, the Bellevue and Francis Gregory branches east of the river have the strongest design. Without sacrificing functionality and accessibility, they put sophisticated works of architecture in historically underserved neighborhoods. But photos don’t tell the whole story. You have to go see them yourself.
Designed by British architect David Adjaye, who’s also designing the Museum of African American History, the libraries are a reminder that it’s possible for a work of world-class architecture to also be a comfortable third place.
Francis Gregory Library.
When the first renderings of the new libraries were published, I was unimpressed by them. But after a day-long excursion to see all of the libraries built under the tenure of library director Ginnie Cooper, I have to admit that I was surprised at how brilliant Bellevue and Francis Gregory are.
In response to a post on Greater Greater Washington, I wondered why the contemporary neotraditionalist movement is so averse to accepting or even embracing technology and innovation. Using, sure, but it’s hidden and tucked away, as if it is an embarrassment among the other monumental parts of the building. This has not always been the case; when traditionalism was not an ideological position but a method, architects were open to experimentation.
Just as an example, consider the way Carrère and Hastings used what was then the relatively modern gizmo of the light bulb in their 1902 rotunda at Yale. C&H’s calculated eclecticism certainly represents the practice that the Modern Movement considered its antagonist, but here, their flexibility paid off. Without going into theatrical crassness, they play light and molding off of each other in a way that adds intensity to the conventional architectural manipulation of space and articulation. Light, for the designers of this space, was becoming a material and not just an condition taken for granted.
I just saw these two things last night and thought they were impressive enough about what is possible with some elbow grease, a Ph.D, and a few billion dollars. So learn what it’s like to stand on the top of the Burj Dubai: It’s wobbly and tall. And it warms my heart to the hellhole that is Dubai. (gizmodo)
Closer to home, DARPA is paying the University of Maryland to weaponize maple seeds or samaras. That might seem insane, but watch the whole video to see what 3 years of research on single-wing rotary aircraft can get you. Go terps!? (hackaday)
Don’t get “samara” confused with the city in Russia, or samsara, or you may experience endless cycles of misunderstanding.
One topic I want to talk about more, but don’t have a good enough grasp of, is offsite prefabrication for construction. That is, building parts of buildings into larger assemblies in controlled factory environments and bringing the assemblies out to sites. It’s been saving money, reducing mistakes, and making life easier for workers in other industries for a few years now, and it’s coming into the building world slowly, primarily through structure and building system contractors.
Anyway, I can’t give you the details, but watch this video, where some people with New York and Boston accents explain how they and KlingStubbins made prefabrication work for Autodesk’s new Trapelo Road office in Waltham, MA. Via (BIM)x.
ConXTech is a Bay Area company that has finally brought the steel frame into the 21st century.
Now, that phrase trite, but what they have mass-customized the design of steel beams and then greatly simplify the assembly. It reduces design time, reduces the amount of labor needed, reduces energy expenditures, and provides a sturdier and more flexible alternative to wooden frame structures. Those stick-built structures are the most common design of 1-5 story residential construction, however, ConXTech is looking to make 5-12 story structures affordable as well. To do so, they have approached the whole building process in a slightly different way.
With ConX, the architect must involve the manufacturer in the design process, as the company custom builds the structure offsite in a factory. ConXTech needs to schedule the amount of work and materials necessary, while the architect needs access to their computer components at the schematic design phase. Still, it’s really not unlike the conventional process in which plans are sent to a structural engineer for engineering work, just that the engineer is the manufacturer too. Integrating the manufacturer reduces overhead, while entering the design development phase with a working model of the structure keeps the building lean and reduces the number of design changes that result from unexpected structural revisions.
So, once the project does reach construction, the CNC robots cut out pre-designed structure members to specification, as each piece is needed on the job site, delivering the product only as necessary. The system consists of vertical and horizontal beams, joining elements, wall panels, whole flights of stairs, and various other parts for specialized situations. Because the factory environment allows for meticulous control and use of accurate cutting, the frame and all other elements are extremely precise, resulting in better quality and speedy assembly. The frame itself is put together using snap-in-place fittings that a steelworker then bolts into place to meet code.
It’s a persistent myth, perpetuated by traditionalists, that steel is not a sustainable construction material, due to its embodied energy, which is around eight times that of wood. However, embodied energy, that is, the amount of energy required to make the materials and then assemble them on-site, rarely exceeds 20% of the total energy required for a building torn down after only 50 years. Steel frames overwhelmingly outlast that timeframe (steel-framed buildings from the 1880s are still around, and we have no idea how long they will ultimately last), so the percent of energy the frame requires diminishes in relation to heating, cooling, and interior renovation costs. They also use much less material, allow for greater density, and when they are torn down they can be wholly recycled, but I’m digressing here.
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.