Recently on a few community boards, I’ve seen posts arguing whoever replaces Harriet Tregoning is obviously going to disavow “smart growth.” The problem is: where are they gonna find someone like this?
I’ve never met a professional planner who opposes the policies that constitute smart growth. Give or take a few things, what gets called “smart growth” is the standard approach of almost all urban planners. Despite Tregoning’s involvement in consolidating the agenda of Smart Growth, most of what she supports is the product of 50 years of empirical study of what makes cities work.
Outside of the mainstream, there are socialist and libertarian positions to urban planning. Their positions are significantly more radical than anything OP has proposed.
The topic is worth discussing, because today the Post endorsed Muriel Bowser for Mayor and the Mayor, Vince Gray, appointed Rosalynn Hughey as interim director of the Office of Planning. Whether she becomes permanent or steps down, OP will probably view the city’s problems from the same position Tregoning did.
Gray’s development policies were basically the same ones as Bowser’s mentor, Adrian Fenty. Fenty’s policies were really just versions of Tony Williams’ strategies, developed by Ellen McCarthy and Andy Altman. Tregoning wasn’t that different. She was just more upfront – and willing to be hated.
So there’s little threat that Tregoning’s policies will be rolled back under a revanchist OP. The best the intransigent opponents of development can hope for is spineless. If they truly believe that Tregoning sold out the city to developers, what do they think spineless will do?
The more I’ve written for Greater Greater Washington, the more I’ve realized that I need to write for a different audience here than I do there. At the least, I’d like to be more specific about architectural issues here and write about its intersections with DC and Upper Northwest on Greater Greater Washington.
So, I’ve decided to stop cross-posting articles from GGW other than ones that are themselves pretty specific to discussions of architecture, for example, the Architects on the Height Limit series. However, I will periodically link to the articles I’ve contributed to for readers who don’t read GGW.
When I heard today that Bjarke Ingels Group will be producing a master plan for the core block of the Smithsonian Institution, I was not really thrilled. Their work is engaging and sharp, but it’s also can come across as trendy and disposable. The buildings I have visited feel cheap and unsubtle in their handling spaces. It’s personal taste thing, but I don’t like what they’ve built.
But then I remembered that the great thing about master plans is that you don’t have to follow them very closely, so you can keep what you want and take what you need. The drawings and guidelines are not permanent impositions on the urban landscape. They’re ideas. Ideas are cheap and BIG is good at rethinking basic concepts in fresh ways, even going so far as to be able to propose how to realistically bring unconventional projects to reality. I don’t know if I would like to see Morphosis’s intervention in the Arts and Industries building, but it did cause me to look at the building again, to see its qualities and how it might be adapted.
Too much architecture in DC starts out tame and ends up lame. Sometimes its because of design review and sometimes its because of style anxiety. So, it’s important to start thinking big here, and dial it down when it comes to a serious proposal. So, I say we see what BIG proposes for what has to be the most heterogenous block in DC – The Castle, the Hirschorn, the Freer, and the Ripley Center – that’s most of the past two centuries’ movements – and let their ideas challenge whatever architects complete each project.
If you look at a map of the old convention center site, there are six blocks. The southern three are owned by Hines-Archstone and are being designed by Foster + Partners and Shalom Baranes. Buildings there are now well above ground, destined for opening in 2013. A park by Gustafson Guthrie Nichol will eventually enliven New York Avenue and the middle block will probably be a hotel once the market shakes out. The last block, though, has been mysterious for years, appropriately noted in this map with a question mark.
The mystery property is owned by the Gould Property Group, headed by well-bearded parking magnate Kingdon Gould, III. It turns out that the project is much further along in development than I had expected: Gould has hired Pickard Chilton to design a rental office building, named 900 New York Avenue. You can find the plans here. Renderings reveal a gold-colored building with expressed floorplates and lots of glass.
Seems like a bit of retro-eighties work, which is odd since Pickard Chilton are known for their glass. Considering that it’s such a massive building it’s unfortunate PCA chose to not express vertical elements to break up the length of the block. The central atrium, on the other hand, looks like a really great opportunity for social space, while the “urban layer” bottom seems primed to enliven the streets. Putting aside my aesthetic preferences, the project will really add vitality to the area. In particular, the large atrium, shown here in ground plan and rendering, looks promising as a space that engages the pedestrian alley.
It’s interesting that the building cantilevers about five feet out over the sidewalk above the second floor. I wonder if this is meant to open up sidewalk space, or if it is a strange reading of the projections law. More renderings here.
All images courtesy Gould Property Group/Pickard Chilton.
All-singing, all-dancing design giant AECOM is sponsoring a student design contest for urban-scale interventions in cities with complicated relationships to their borders:
This year, we are seeking integrated design, planning, environmental restoration and engineering responses that address border, gateway and edge/fringe conditions in cities worldwide. Proposals should address urban sites currently facing chronic liveability challenges that are largely the result of a city’s location on a physical, political, cultural or economic border.
Now, I bet they’re are talking about urban centers near international borders, because those borders are much more absolute and lead to fascinating instances of disparity and extrastratecraft as business and humanity grind against governmental systems. Nonetheless, given the expectation of feasibility, I see an opportunity for proposals involving DC because its unusual legal condition is so intensified by its small size, unique economy, and structural formation.
Consider the consequences of legislative boundaries around DC: voting rights, income tax losses, diminished school funding, job opportunity, metro funding, etc. Or the geographic limitations of the Potomac, Anacostia, and Rock Creek Park: income distribution, commuting bottlenecks, racial division, and so on. Finally, what about the relationship of DC to the rest of the United States and the world? DC requires the usual things cities import, like food, but it also transfers enormous amounts of wealth, power, and human capital globally. Just because this infrastructure is not physical, does not mean that it does not have physical consequences, e.g. the security duck and the extensive but inadequate infrastructure.
I suppose that the crises are less severe in DC, but I don’t think design will solve these problems. Instead, the curiousness of Greater Washington’s legal structure can be a much more subtle way of understanding the mechanics of government.
If you haven’t read Phillip Kennicott’s brutal critique of the new USIP building by Moshe Safdie, you probably should. There’s a lot to think about in it.
I don’t buy his assessment of Safdie’s career (namely that his only good building was Habitat ’67) or that Safdie is somehow different than Terragni, OMA, Yeang or any other architect that has produced institutional work for a statist client. If anything, his work for these groups is a less seductive option simply by virtue of his staidness. Regardless, Kennicott hones in on the idea that the building is a duck: a work of architecture where all formal characteristics are subsumed into an “overall symbolic form.” Yes, the dove-shaped roof is easily the worst formal decision in the building. Except that in a more important sense, the building is not a duck.
What the building is not is a security duck. Contrast this withSafdie’s other work in DC, the ATF Headquarters Building.That fortress in Northeast is a security system for itself, where its defensive features become an architectural statement. The grand gesture is an enormous, inaccessible pergola developed from the moat, fence, setback, and blast walls required. Other features, like the gateway-within-a-gateway front entrance and the row of shops on 2nd St. reflect the primary design concept: security. Security subsumes form gloriously. But the ATF building has taken enough of a critical beating, so let’s examine two other examples:
Gwathmey Siegel’s US Mission to the UN indexes the required distance for blast resistance through the size of its windows. The walls of the building simply could not be further from the edge of the small urban site to meet US embassy requirements, so the architects manipulated the windows on a tower already set back into absurd slenderness. The only way you know it’s not the bitter provocation of a grad student is its desperate banality.
More recently, KieranTimberlake’s US Embassy in London, scheduled to be completed in 2017, improves on the ugliness of buffering, but is unable to escape duckhood. The building is set upon a plinth that creates private assembly spaces above, and a security perimeter below. By emphasizing the severe cubic form set within a circle and again in the middle of a field, the architects have called all the attention to the space between the building and its context, at least compared to the looser glancing forms some of the other competitors’ entries. Richard Meier’s design is particularly distinguished because the renderings show bollards: discrete, non-architectural supplements that do not change the fabric or utility of the building.
Venturi & Scott Brown’s alternative to the duck was the decorated shed: a relatively banal structure, with a highly articulated facade conceptually detached from the overall functional design. His examples were renaissance palazzos and the Vegas Strip: big, bold facades loosely related to the interior. Now, Meier’s design may be a formal duck, but the security is attached loosely, a protected shed. The same is true of the USIP building, where Kennicott’s review demonstrates that security was not a conceptual concern for the project. The building has large, clear atria one can get close to. It has relatively good permeability, and its security pavilion is prosthetic to the main building. Perhaps it does not need the security of the Pentagon. But even many of the most effective safety measures at DOD headquarters have not been grand design choices, but rather building system details like laminated glass in windows and column casings.
This applied, rather than integral, security is already common. Like the Las Vegas Studio, we have to look at the disreputable defenses of Washington: the bollards, the planters, and the barriers that are almost all right. Those dumb little planters are an embarrassing icon of Washington, but they have their virtues. Ugly and ordinary, they offer both protection and the symbolism of security. They’re not part and parcel with the architecture, letting designers focus on expressing more important things. Maybe most importantly, they’re temporary. Eventually (theoretically) we can get rid of them and the buildings will not be compromised.
These not-so-great forms of security do not have to be so ugly and haphazard. The classicist bollards and walls around the Capitol and congressional office buildings are an attractive and historically sensitive application to the buildings they defend. They’re not ideal, but for something more innovative, take a look at the IMF’s Headquarters 2 in Foggy Bottom. For all the banality of the aesthetics, Pei Cobb Freed combined the barrier structures with small-scale elements like planters, benches, bike racks, street lights, and even a water feature. It creates a livelier streetscape than setbacks and walls.
The formalization of security is a tempting venue for architectural expression. The culture of the past twenty years has been one where institutions have had to fortify and militarize against threats both real and perceived. Making architecture of that defensibility is a tacit acceptance – if not embrace – of a perpetual security culture. That public buildings need protection against specific threats is undeniable. But that those protections need to exist forever and be manifested significantly in buildings, I believe, is an irresponsible and sad architectural position.
Is there a building you think is a security duck? Suggest it in the comments.
I can’t embed it, but DOT, HUD and USDA have created an excellent map of their grant programs. You can see relative amounts of money spent (“invested,” as they say) in each state, county, and then even down to the project level. 35 DC organizations, including supplemental nutrition programs and shelter and housing nonprofits recieved money from the various formula grant programs. The total allocation is $48.7M, determined by formula.
For the cartophobic and verbal learners, a list of all the USDA and HUD programs in DC is available here, beginning toward the end of the page.
USDOT’s map lacks the visual breakdown to individual projects and uses a totally different base map, but it still has projects lists in a pop-up window. DC’s distribution claims to be largely railroad investment, but a quick look reveals that the sum includes the $1B grant given to Amtrak, as though DC is the only beneficiary.
Seen here is the new Walgreens in Van Ness, at Veazey & Connecticut. A big improvement on the gas station that’s there, and an even bigger improvement over the previous plans. In terms of land use, the site would be better as a multistory building, and not as another chain convenience store, but it’s also limited by zoning.
Designed by Rust|Orling, I think the building is a really poor imitation of a mid-mod style, an eyesore in a place where we don’t need any more. R|O are otherwise a good firm with a keen ability to manifest architectural diversity, but it looks like modern architecture is not their strong suite. They’re also restoring the art deco Walgreens in Cleveland Park and are the designers of Potomac Yards.
Construction has not begun, and these are working renderings.