With a more creative approach to preservation, American University’s plan for its Tenley Campus could produce better urban design and a more compelling presentation of the site’s history.
AU has agreed to preserve several structures on the site: the a former farmhouse called Dunblane House, Capital Hall the main building visible from Tenley Circle, and a Chapel. Together, these buildings form an axis that the Historic Preservation Office has insisted on preserving.
The Historic Preservation Office is right to emphasize this axis; it is probably the most interesting part of the site. The architects at SmithGroup have worked within these requirements to create a private quadrangle between the old house and Capital Hall, which looks good so far.
But AU has also decided to build on the footprints of the existing 1950s buildings and not construct anything that would obscure Capital Hall. The buildings are preserved, but no part of the campus will feel different from the others, even if they are in a slightly different style. The new buildings offer no key to understand on the site they inherit.
To understand what I mean by interpretation, take a look at Machado & Silvetti’srenovation of the Getty Villa. They combined the pragmatic need for an an entry stairway with architectural promenade that helps visitors understand the museum’s curatorial approach. Treating the 1970s replica of a roman villa as an object in a collection, stairs and pathways frame the building in a sequence that calls to mind an excavation. The stair gives visitors a lens with which to understand the building and clears their minds of the drive out to Malibu.
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.”