I’ve written up a post on the the 11th Street Bridge Park for Greater Greater Washington. It’s an exciting idea, but it’s important to slow down and consider what’s possible.
The Bridge Park is really more of an elevated park than a bridge. But its bridge-like form means it can be much more than just a deck with greenery. Since it’s elevated over water, it offers something special related to depth. Its section can go up into the sky and down into the water in ways that no other park can. No excavation is required, and people on the deck can interact with what’s below.
Since there is only one precedent for such a structure, the Providence Greenway, perhaps it’s worth looking a things that are typologically adjacent: bridges, linear parks, and buildings that address the water in noteworthy ways.
The first kind of bridge that’s worth noting is one that carefully frames the intersection of the stream and a road. The Ponte Alexandre III is a well-known example. It’s a tetrapylon, a marker of the intersection of two equal routes.
Another interesting type is a bridge that’s asymmetrical along the axis of the flow. If you have a road, there typically are two directions of traffic. Each one is usually equal in value. A river, however, does have a direction: downstream, downhill. That by itself can be a source of impressive architectural effects – as how water rushes around bridge piers.
With symbolism, you get something very poetic. Otto Wagner’s Nussdorf bridge-wier seems to fight the force of the water coming down to it. Massive stone pylons, scrolling up against a sturdy truss, support columns topped by lions. The design expresses the strength of the flood protection it offered Vienna.
In the article, I suggested that the High Line was an inappropriate comparison to the Bridge Park, because one is through dense neighborhoods, while the other is over a river. The level of activation influences the level of activity. The High Line has the luxury of limiting access to create a nice level of calm in the city. The Bridge Park will only ever have two entrances.
But – James Corner: Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the designers of the High Line, made a few design decisions that are worth examining. For one, they distributed little spaces along the way that focus your attention on city life. Even the most jaded visitors end up gawking at the flow of traffic and people-watching.
At the ICA Boston, a museum on the outer harbor, DS+R turned guests’ attention to the horizon. Every space, like comfortable main porch to the disorienting research room, makes you look at the sky and the water with fresh eyes.
There’s something surreal about water that’s as relentless as the sky. Take a look at James Turrell’s understanding of the sky. Could a basketball player understand what’s going on here:
Sure. We all know the sky and the water.
Plus, if you want to get beyond vision, steps down to the river, like at the Oslo Opera House might form an incredible amphitheater.
There are a lot of options for this park. I look forward to seeing what the designers come up with. What I think will be important, though, is looking for a designer who wants to relate the communities’ prosaic needs – like a play structure – to fundamentals that are so prosaic we’ve forgotten how wonderful they are.
Tenleytown: The armpit of the area, a former bank parking at 4501 Wisconsin Ave, has sprouted scaffolding. Developed by the Pedas Family, the site will become a one-story, 3,677sf retail site, although the developer has not listed a client. The Pedases are better known for their empire based around the Inner Circle cinema, but also for Circle Parking and Circle Management. Physically, their most distinctive building is the Michael Graves-designed International Finance Corporation building at Washington Circle. Always a good improvement to see an empty lot get filled.
Tenleytown: The Ward 3 Aquatic Center, or the Wilson Pool, as everyone will call it, will have a formal opening, complete with Fenty, on Monday, August Third, at 10:30 AM. The Hughes group have put together an inoffensive structure, but it supposedly boasts the capability for daylighting, natural ventilation, and water-loss mitigation, earning it a LEED Silver certification. The pool has been desperately needed since the shoddily built predecessor started falling apart at a more rapid rate in 2003.
Hawthorne, Palisades, Green Acres?: Opposition to sidewalks continues in the hinterlands of DC, where DDOT has been adding the badly needed infrastructure. This time, it’s over in Palisades, on Chain Bridge Road and University Terrace. Roger Lewis and Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh went on the Kojo Nnamdi show. Lewis shared some interesting history, but it was Cheh that laid down the law, insisting on sidewalks, but also demanding DDOT involve community members more. The two both agreed that the rational need for a network of sidewalks was a no-brainer. Callers disagreed, for some reason, mostly that “they’re not used” and they’ll “ruin the character of the neighborhood.” The panelists offered reasonable responses to the entitled views of opponents.
However, aside from the Cheh-Lewis lovefest, the two missed some important points, such as the dubious wisdom of low-density, limited-network streets in the middle of the city. One of the callers declared that residing in the area seemed like living in the country, but near the city. That’s just swell, but neither addressed whether having such low density a mere 4 miles from the center of town was a good idea. Also, Nnamdi and Lewis both guiltily admitted to driving on University Terrace routinely. Listen to the conversation, it’s worth some down time.
Landscape-oriented architecture blog Pruned is carrying an excellent post about the wastewater-recovering wetland installed at the center of their new campus. The LEED Platinum building, which opened in 2007, was designed by KieranTimberlake of Philadelphia. The firm designed the building to recycle all of its graywater and brownwater through an elaborate wetland, as one of its many sustainable features. If you go visit the building, the trickle filter is wrapped with a sign that explains how the system works. The sign rests at a child’s height and leads readers around and around with arrows, which I find a little obnoxious. Luckily, Pruned has explained the process more clearly, so without further ado, go read their article.
Pruned also notes a very important civic issue this solves: the cost of runoff on municipalities and local watersheds. This beautiful oasis reduces the amount of water that flows out of the building, or flows off the hard surfaces of the building (there is a separate rainwater recycling system), and into Rock Creek and the White Plains treatment facility. Among the general public, a lot is made of water conservation (which this building also assists), but the strain on public facilities caused by sewage and stormwater is quite severe. At least up in Cleveland Park and Tobago, we do not have combined sewer overflow systems, like the do downtown.
For elite Washingtonians worried that their children will become astronauts or mutant mer-men, the recycled water is dyed blue with a non-toxic coloring agent and reused in toilets and janitorial sinks. Meanwhile, St. Albans School’s non-LEED Marriott Hall, by SOM is in the interior-fit out phase, and has just gained its green roofs. More on that some other time.
Unless they are receiving unemployment benefits, the stimulus package is not something that will benefit most architects in any direct way. Mostly consisting of spending for non-physical programs, the ≈$94,000,000,000 that is there for infrastructure and construction is not going to any public projects that conventionally get the high-end architecture treatment. Yet if governments and agencies receive grants for utilities or other community assets and approach these structures with an eye to aesthetics, there is the potential for incredible additions to the fabric of our of towns and cities.
If the average architect wants to get design into these buildings, they’re going to have to look to practice architecture differently than they currently do. Firstly, they need to embrace building information modeling. Secondly, they need to emphasize designing details rather than looking at sophisticated conceptual schemes as justifications for form. Thirdly, architects need to look for different opportunities than what they have conventionally seen as prestige architecture projects.
In choosing to spend so much money to build new infrastructure, Congress and the President have committed to constructing utilities and transportation for the next fifty years. Consequently, all of these structures and systems must reflect this long-term goal, not only in the quality of construction but also in the quality of design. As they allocate the federal funding, governments and agencies should consider the very real need for public projects to employ an architecture of civic responsibility. Architects, in turn, should be ready to adapt their practices to meet the need for basic public design, a major shift many are eager to try.
First off, it’s worth explaining what the stimulus bill offers architects and agencies? There are two major categories: firstly, sustainable or “green” renovations and expansions of housing, schools, and government offices, and secondly, the money granted to local utilities chance to be creative with unconventional programs and types with a thin budget. The former type of project is not too different from what they’d be doing most days, although those firms would benefit greatly from improving technological capabilities, such as employing building information modeling, which reduces cost and improves quality by reducing errors, simplifying design, and allowing for sophisticated environmental testing. The government should encourage the use of these programs, setting a standard for 21st-century architecture and construction.
In the second category, there are many types of buildings that have been neglected aesthetically or financially that are now receiving large grants as part of the stimulus. Transportation, power plants and electrical systems, water treatment facilities, housing projects, and port facilities will all be receiving funding for improvements. The government owes it to the people who live by, pass through, or otherwise see the underside of public infrastructure to improve quality. More attractive overpasses, wind farms, and customs houses will make a small but important improvement of the built environment, definitely impacting the daily lives of Americans.
Similarly, funding for transit organizations can go to better bus shelters or bike stands. As the recent competition in New York showed, small firms are ready to make simple but interesting designs for little bits and pieces on the street. Both proponents and opponents of spending are fixated on monumental projects, things that will last. However, wide projects of small improvements might make just as much of an economic and physical improvement. Planting thousands of trees would pay off far more than another highway resurfacing, especially as part of a greater streetscape improvement plan. Moreover, agencies should set aside a small portion of their funds to ensure that a little art and a little design make it into every project, improving the quality and distinctiveness of each and every location. Many of these facilites are in people’s backyards; planners need to respect the neighbors.
A notable exception to the recent pattern of charmless public architecture is the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, in Queens. Designed by the ever-pragmatic and flexible Polshek Partnership Architects of Newseum fame, the multi-million dollar project has met with universal praise and become an icon of the area, while still efficiently treating blackwater sewage. Polshek designed it with a modern industrial look, simplifying and beautifying the fascinating shapes of anaerobic digesters and aeration buildings. Additionally, the building is designed for tours and educational visits, while a 1% allotment for art has allowed for bold lighting that stands in contrast to the dull orange glow of the city.
Through all the praise for both the Newtown Creek plant, critics and officials have emphasized how different they look from conventional buildings and how much more attractively these massive plants interact with the rest of the neighborhood. People are surprised that the buildings aren’t ugly, as though this is an innovation that took a genius. However, architects have historically approached such facilities as civic assets, building them out in a monumental fashion. Likewise, the New Deal introduced art and architecture to almost every project it executed, from libraries to TVA dams. These buildings reflected the cultures and programs of their builders. It would reflect poorly on our time if we settle for bare function and apathy.
Government’s role in improving and stewarding common places means that it must provide and demand attractive, functional facilities for its people. For this reason, renewing America means not only fixing it up at basic levels, but also making it more beautiful at the same time. Architects are ready and eager to improve the country, but they will have to adapt to new conditions. Indeed, they may be better for it if they grow creatively in response to limitations and employ technology in making practice faster and more transparent. But they have to get the work. If agencies set aside only a small portion of funds for architecture, lay out the goals, pick like-minded architects, and insist on good results, the resulting cultural effusion would boost the resolve of Americans and leave a long-lasting improvements in the most desperately needed places.