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.
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.”
The Tenleytown area has been a hub of hubbub for the past two weeks, and more is to come. Four long awaited projects made great strides, however, opportunities are still being lost.
First the good news: The Tenleytown Library will break ground today, September 23rd at 10:30 AM, with Mayor Fenty and perhaps some protesters in attendance. The Economic Development office decided to spend $650K-1M to build stronger girders in the rear of the building, to permit future growth above and to the rear of the library. Across Wisconsin, the renovated and restored fields at Fort Reno Park will open on October 3rd. Another contentious site, the three athletic pitches look great. I can’t wait to see people enjoying the park and all its earthly delights again.
Opus Dei revealed more details about their plan for the Yuma Study Center, a residential and educational facility behind St. Ann’s Catholic Church. Going before the HPRB, Moses of the AnacostiaNir Buras presented a handsome traditional home that would stand west of the Covenant of the Bon Secours building. Alvin Holm‘s design for the building is in a humbler strand of Classicism than the grandiose variety that Washington is known for, and that’s really good to see. As you can see, the new building would have nearly identical proportions and mass, but would use a more Chesapeake style and add a porch to indicate a residential character. However, I think the building would be better to stand on its own rather than be a redecorated twin. Still, positive.
While I finish writing the Forest Glen essay, please enjoy this alternative scheme to the Mc Millan Commission “Kite” Plan, rendered by arch-traditionalist genius/maniac Leon Krier in 1985.
You can take a gander at other views of the plan here, although you might be surprised at who owns them. His explanatory drawings and diagrams offer dead-on critiques of the City Beautiful and Modernist planning that have turned central DC into a lifeless pile of stuttering architectural gigantism.