Posts in category History
With spring weather almost here, it's time to get out and enjoy the less concrete-filled parts of our region. We asked our contributors to tell us about their favorite outdoor spots and why they love them. We also gave bonus points for places you can get to by transit!
The answers were as wide-reaching as our contributor base itself, but the District had the highest concentration of locations. We'll start there, then get to Maryland and Virginia.
Payton Chung named some downtown and Georgetown favorites:
The urban blocks of the C&O Canal in Georgetown don't just let you snack on a cupcake next to a waterfall while dreaming of escaping it all and riding a CaBi deep into the woods. You also get a great glimpse at what urban places (and transportation) looked like before the car.
Pershing Park is perhaps the most thoughtfully designed park in downtown DC, and a great quiet escape on a hot summer day.
One of the more fantastical park experiences in the District is to run a kayak aground on Theodore Roosevelt Island or Kingman Island and pretend you're an early explorer who's discovered an uninhabited island.
Dumbarton Oaks Park was Topher Mathews' pick:
Dumbarton is a hidden corner of Rock Creek Park tucked below its more famous and rich Harvard-owned sister in Georgetown. It has woods, glades, and a meandering stream criss-crossed by stone bridges, and it's a beautiful example of landscape architecture by one of the country's preeminent landscape architects, Beatrix Farrand.Tracey Johnstone enjoys the grounds of the National Cathedral:
It's on a hill, so there's often a refreshing breeze. Some of the lawns are large enough you can play catch without endangering others. Or you can sit in the rose garden on the lower, south side of the grounds. There are secluded benches and some small lawns ringed by azaleas and other foliage. It's a great place to read or to have a picnic.On top of Rock Creek Park and Beech Drive, both of which are largely closed to motor vehicles on weekends, Eric Fidler noted another road, Ross Drive, which parallels Beach Drive south of Military Road but runs along the ridge. It provides great views of the valley and gets very little car traffic. There are moments on Ross Drive when you can stop and not hear or see any signs of human civilization (aside from the road pavement, of course). It's surreal to think such a place exists in DC."
On warm weekends, you'll probably find Mitch Wander out on the river:
Fletcher's Boathouse at Fletcher's Cove is an absolute outdoors gem. You can rent rowboats and canoes to explore the Potomac River and C&O Canal. The fishing is beyond wonderful. Fletcher's Boathouse staff can sell you everything needed, including fishing gear, the required DC fishing license, and insider tips, to catch a variety of fish. Over the coming weeks, the annual shad migration from the Chesapeake Bay will a fishing experience not to be missed. The D6 bus goes to MacArthur Boulevard and then you can walk down to the Boathouse."Frederick Douglass National Historic Site has the greatest panorama of the city," added John Muller.
Another great view can be had from the top of the hill at Fort Reno Park, one of Claire Jaffe's favorite spots growing up. "It might be partly the nostalgia factor, but it is the highest land point in the city and has a nice view of the surrounding area. Especially in the warmer months when it's green and sunny, it's a wonderful place to sit and relax. You can also run up and down the hill... if that is what you're into."
Tina Jones gives a shout-out to the Melvin Hazen Trail:
The trail crosses Melvin Hazen Creek three times en route to the confluence with Rock Creek. At the eastern end there's a big, open green field, a covered picnic pavilion with a fireplace, bathrooms, Pierce Mill and the fish ladder, and access to more trails north and south.David Koch went with a classic, Meridian Hill Park:
From the west, you can get there from Connecticut Ave at Rodman Street, just north of the Cleveland Park metro, and by the L1, L2, and H2 buses. From the east it's accessible on foot from Mount Pleasant.
It has a great classic design and a location that can't be beat, and it's mostly well-maintained by the National Park Service. It always brings a smile to my face to see the sheer variety of uses that it gets from locals, from picnics to Frisbee to yoga to tightrope walking, not to mention Sunday's drum circle. There's also a multitude of quiet, secluded places you can find to read a book in solitude, even on the most packed weekend afternoons. I'd say it's the closest thing DC has to Central Park, pace the Mall.Speaking of the Mall, Canaan Merchant gave "America's front yard" his nod, saying how much he enjoys people watching there while he bikes home in the summer.
Personally, I'll add the National Arboretum, a sprawling green space off New York Ave NE accessible by bike from NoMa or Eastern Market Metro stations as well as via the B2 bus. There's also Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens on the other side of the Anacostia River from the Arboretum, easily walkable or bikeable from Deanwood Metro, and Hains Point, a great biking spot along the Potomac.
To close off the District review, Neil Flanagan noted the solace to be found at Rock Creek Cemetery, and Dan Malouff called Dupont Circle "perfectly awesome" for its "mix of hard plazas versus landscaping, of city noise versus calm serenity, and of grand landmarks versus intimate hideaways."
Our contributors' Maryland favorites
Greenbelter Matt Johnson makes Buddy Attick Park part of his walk home from the bus when the weather is nice. It "surrounds Greenbelt Lake, and is an integral part of the green belt that surrounds and permeates the planned community. Some of the neighborhoods closest to the park have direct access to the loop trail that encircles the lake. And the town center is just steps away from the east entrance. The easy access and bucolic setting means that almost always, the park is full of families picnicking, teens playing sports, joggers exercising, and couples strolling."
Katie Gerbes loves Lake Artemesia in Berwyn Heights, alongside the Green Line between College Park and Greenbelt. "The lake has lots of gazebos, fishing spots, and a trail going around it. It also connects to the Paint Branch Trail, so a trip to the lake can be part of a larger run or bike ride. It gets a little buggy with gnats in the summertime, but it's a great place for a leisurely walk in the spring and fall."
Jeff Lemieux also takes to the outdoors in that part of Prince George's County:
My favorite natural spaces in the DC area are USDA's Beltsville Agricultural Research Center and MNCPPC's Anacostia Tributary trail system. USDA allows bike riding on most roadways through the research farms, which affords a lovely rural experience in the midst of sprawling suburbia. The Anacostia Tributary trails provide scenic recreation and also form the spine of an extensive commuter bike network in northern Prince George's county. Both areas are easily accessible from the Green Line's College Park and Greenbelt stations.Closing out Maryland, Little Bennett Regional Park in northern Montgomery County is great for rambles in the woods. The downside is that it's only barely transit-accessible, via RideOn route 94—
Meadowlark Park, Northern Virginia's only botanical garden, got praise from Jenifer Joy Madden:
There, paved trails wind through rolling formal gardens and around sparkling ponds. Wilder paths draw you into the woods and great stands of native species. Kids love the Children's Garden, where they are encouraged to smell and touch the fragrant herbs and flowers.Agnès Artemel recommended Great Falls Park and Huntley Meadows Park (both in Fairfax County), along with Daingerfield Island and Marina and Winkler Preserve (in Alexandria) for nature lovers, and added she appreciates the stream and trees along Spout Run Parkway between the George Washington Parkway and Lee Highway in Arlington.
Only a few months ago, the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority opened a beautiful paved trail that connects cyclists on the W&OD trail with Meadowlark. Also, Fairfax Connector 432 now gets within striking distance of Meadowlark, but unfortunately it only runs Monday through Friday during rush hours.
There's also the well-known Mount Vernon Trail, hugging the river through Alexandria and Arlington. And Founders Park on Alexandria's waterfront and Ben Brenman Park at Cameron Station, also in Alexandria, deserve mention as great open spaces.
Adam Froehlig, an avid hiker, goes a little farther afield, pointing out the hiking trails along the north side of the Occoquan and along Bull Run. There's Fountainhead Regional Park towards Manassas, as well as the Appalachian Trail, which isn't all that far from DC and is accessible by commuter rail, as it runs through Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, and served by MARC and Amtrak.
And when it comes to wildlife watching, nothing beats the beaver-tended wetlands of Fairfax's Huntley Meadows Park, accessible via Fairfax Connector routes 161 and 162, which connect it to Huntington Metro.
Do you have a question? Each week, we'll post a question to the Greater Greater Washington contributors and post appropriate parts of the discussion. You can suggest questions by emailing email@example.com. Questions about factual topics are most likely to be chosen. Thanks!
Washingtonians hoping to catch a bus in 1975 consulted this friendly-looking hand-drawn map. Charming as it may be, the map has no lines. Rather, designers wrote the name of each bus route over and over along its path through the city.
Transit riders and cartography experts can't fault the map designers too much. It was more challenging to illustrate detailed networks before the days of computers, and even in recent years some WMATA maps have been just as hard to follow.
Legibility aside, the map actually includes some very progressive elements considering its vintage. According to the legend, it only shows "all-day routes with frequent service," an incredibly useful idea that's picked up a lot of steam in the past five years.
Other progressive elements shown on the map include bike paths, although the Mount Vernon and Rock Creek trails appear to be the only ones, and much of its text is translated into Spanish.
The map also includes a fun vignette of the Metrorail system, which had yet to open but was less than a year away.
On the other hand, some things never change. The legend for the Metrorail vignette notes Metro's first phase was scheduled to open later in 1975. In actuality it didn't open until 1976.
Finally, there are several other vignettes on the reverse side:
The architecture firm John Wiebenson & Associates produced the map for the Bicentennial Commission of the District of Columbia.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
The Kennedy Center is a marble island cut off from downtown by highways. What if instead, it was the heart of a new urban neighborhood linking Georgetown and the National Mall?
In 1997, Andrea Aragon, Jon Hensley, and Robert Sponseller created the above rendering for Capital Visions: Architects Revisit L'Enfant: New Plans for the Millennium, an exhibit at the National Building Museum whose projects considered how different values could reshape the historic Federal City in the 21st century.
Their plan contemplates a Foggy Bottom where urban fabric replaces a mish-mash of midcentury projects like I-66, the Watergate, and the State Department. The stub of I-66 and the Whitehurst Freeway are totally gone. A new Roosevelt Bridge runs directly onto Constitution Avenue, and the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway runs underground from the Pennsylvania Avenue Bridge to Constitution Avenue.
Public space diagram. The dashed line is an underground parkway. The dots are commemorative sites, like the Arts of War and Peace on the Memorial Bridge.
A restored version of the L'Enfant grid, with some additions, takes the place of what's there now. E Street, which is currently a trench, becomes a boulevard that runs to the Kennedy Center and down to the water. New buildings with new uses break up what are currently blocks and blocks of Federal offices. Beyond new activity on the street, the reclaimed blocks offer acres for new residential and commercial development.
In addition to the practical street grid, the designers connect three neighborhoods with major corridors, punctuated by landmarks and parks, not unlike Pierre L'Enfant did in 1791.
E Street extends to the Kennedy Center, and Georgetown is just a skip away. The plan also extends Virginia Avenue and K Street across Rock Creek, which itself pools at an artificial basin since the Whitehurst Freeway is gone. The basin joints the burbling creek, the still canal, and the powerful river.
Along the Potomac, a boardwalk runs from Washington Harbor to the realigned Roosevelt Bridge. Buildings run right up to the edge of the waterfront. Kayakers and rowers move downstream from Thompson's Boathouse to a new wharf at the Kennedy Center.
The designers make some rather extreme changes to the Kennedy Center itself. The venue's three main halls have to be structurally independent for acoustic reasons, so they strip off Edward Durrell Stone's critically reviled exterior and work their exteriors into the street design. They also demolish and move the Opera House so pedestrians can walk from the White House, along E Street and down steps to the Potomac.
The plan also integrates Navy Hill, which the General Services Administration is currently transforming it into State Department buildings. This was the original Naval Observatory and later housed the CIA. The designers could have left it as a semi-rural hill, but instead, the they integrated the historic buildings back into the grid and made one of the remaining telescopes into a local landmark.
It's worth mentioning that a few buildings need demolishing for the plan to work. To reconnect 22nd Street, the designers cut the State Department back to its prewar section, the "War Department Building." They also do away with better-liked 20th century projects, like the Pan American Health Organization and the Watergate complex.
What's great about speculative designs like this is that when politics and economics aren't an issue, designers are free to examine radical ideas that put our collective values up for debate. How that makes us think about pragmatic issues is important.
Should we preserve unloved buildings? How do we balance monuments and background buildings? Does recreation outweigh ecology? The project raises more questions than answers, and that's great.
Nolli map of the entire project.
According to the video, whether a city is pretty or ugly hinges on its balance of variety and order, how much life is on its streets, whether it brings people close together while keeping them comfortable, how much mystery exists within it, the scale of its buildings, and whether or not it's unique.
The video says these factors come from fundamental human preferences. They make it obvious that a city that's close-knit and vibrant is better than one that's full of parking lots and "soulless" skyscrapers.
DC stacks up great in some ways, and could be better in others
DC is very compact, and it's built to a human scale. For example, the video talks about squares making people feel contained but not claustrophobic, and we have our own version of squares in circles and pocket parks.
On the other hand, while many of us love the L'Enfant City, it lends itself to planned districts where there isn't any mystique. And as the video's narrator tells us, "Excessive order can be... a problem. Too much regularity can be soul destroying. Too much order feels rigid and alien. It can be bleak, relentless and harsh."
How would you apply some of these attributes of attractive cities to improving the Washington region?
The DC Public Library considered adding three floors of housing on top of the Martin Luther King, Jr. library, but recently backed off. Preservation concerns and opposition from activists were part of the reason, but the real issue was that the finances didn't work.
One mixed-use option for development of the MLK library. All rendering photos from Mecanoo/Martinez + Johnson via NCPC.
When the library trustees picked Mecanoo and Martinez + Johnson as the architects to rehabilitate the downtown library a year ago, they stressed that naming the firm as their design competition winner was only the start of the process. That has proven very true, as evidenced by the multiple options (pictured throughout this post) the team has had to produce since then.
At the end of January, after a year of negotiating, engagement, and redesign, the trustees voted to abandon the more ambitious designs. DCPL still wants to build on top of the library, but it's asked Mecanoo and Martinez + Johnson to go with something smaller and not mixed-use.
Instead, library officials are now considering two new designs, each with only a single new floor atop the existing building.
An alternative design that more closely models the the library's original 1972 design by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
Up top, more floors didn't add up
Financially, not pursuing a mixed-use addition was a relatively simple decision. CBRE, a real estate conglomerate, valued the remaining developable space at at $27.8 million, which is only 10-15% of what the proposed renovations would cost. A cost-benefit analysis by local developer Jair Lynch Partners saw this value as not worth the challenges.
CBRE concluded that office tenants would give the city the most value for the three extra floors. But from the beginning, the library has wanted to disrupt downtown's office monoculture, and building more offices doesn't do that. Rental apartments would bring in less annual revenue, particularly if they incorporated affordable housing. A hotel wasn't an option because the area is already saturated with high-end hotels.
Another challenge is that the building would likely need more parking beyond the current single floor. The appraisal included the cost of a valet or automated parking system; both might still be unappealing to a developer, and adding a new floor of parking below would be unimaginably expensive.
Difficulties in arranging public-private partnerships also pushed the library toward a simpler design. For the city, recouping investment is a multi-decade process; most developers, on the other hand, look for a five-year return. According to Lynch, other concerns like developing a unique ownership structure, or even changing the zoning, made the proposition too risky for the financiers.
Going forward, the library may choose to reinforce the building to support a design like the one Mecanoo and Martinez+Johnson proposed last year. That's similar to what happened with the Tenley-Friendship library, where developers have the option to add a tower in the future. That also means that the city can't sell the air rights to the site, worth $27.8 million.
The final way to use private money to fund the renovation would be to sell the library's historic preservation tax credits. National landmarks are eligible for credits meant to defray the cost of restoration, and public entities can sell the benefits to third parties. The market analysis suggested a tax sale at MLK could net $20-30 million.
Below, a long process for what is approved
Even without the mixed-use addition, the renovation still faces DC's legendary design review process.
So far, all of the changes to the competition-winning entry have responded to historic preservation concerns. But the designers have to get approval from a number of agencies that deal with more than preservation.
- Though the District owns the library building, any projects in this part of DC also require input from the federally-run National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC). NCPC will have to conduct an Environmental Assessment and a Cultural Resources Study.
- If the library decides to sell its historic preservation tax credits, it has to bring in the National Park Service (NPS) which runs the tax credit program. Even if the other agencies approve of the design, NPS could deem the changes to be too invasive.
- The design team has received positive feedback from the the US Commission of Fine Arts (CFA). In January, CFA members asked for a more decisive approach, favoring more open space inside and additions that contrast stylistically from the Miesian architecture.
- Finally, the Historic Preservation Review Board has to approve changes to the building, which Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed in 1972 and which is both a national and local landmark.
Correction: This article has been changed from the original version to make it clear that all three pictured renderings came from Mecanoo/Martinez + Johnson after they won the design competition. You can see the designs submitted for the competition here.
In a booming city, construction is part of life. But when construction closes sidewalks it makes walking more difficult and dangerous. The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) has a policy requiring that construction closures keep a safe path open for pedestrians and cyclists, but that often doesn't happen in reality.
Is this a "safe and convenient accomodation"? All photos by the author.
This new series, in collaboration with pedestrian advocacy group All Walks DC, will examine one sidewalk closure each week. I'll look at why the sidewalk is closed and how it fits with the city's policies on paper.
Is there a blocked sidewalk near you? Email the location and photos to firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet with the hashtag #dcwalkblock.
Location #1: The former Third Church at 16th and I
Our first location is on the west side of 16th Street NW, north of I Street. This is the site that formerly held the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, a Brutalist building that stirred up a major historic preservation fight when the church asked to demolish it. The building is gone, and a new building will rise in its place.
Meanwhile, the sidewalk is closed in the heart of downtown, two blocks from the White House, in an area with many people walking on the street.
The red line on the left shows the closed sidewalk on 16th St NW. Base map from Google Maps.
DDOT granted permission
I checked the online permits, and it appears that the construction company got the permits and signage from DDOT necessary to close the sidewalk.
Even though DDOT granted permission, this might not comply with the agency's own policies. The policy on closures, which dates to 2007 and was updated in 2014 to include bicycles, requires construction sites to maintain "a safe and convenient route for pedestrians... that is equal to the accommodation that was provided... before the blockage of the sidewalk." Despite this policy, we continue to find sidewalks closed throughout the city, making walking inconvenient, putting people on foot in serious danger, and eroding the city's image as a world-class multimodal city.
At the 16th Street site, I have routinely seen people walking in the roadway, adjacent to moving traffic. George Branyan, DDOT's Pedestrian Program Coordinator, said that sidewalk was closed because the building was being demolished. According to Branyan,
The developer expressed the need to keep the sidewalk and parking lane closed on 16th Street for unloading and deliveries. At the time, we did not see placing pedestrians in the roadway a viable option, and we considered it safest to direct pedestrians to the opposite sidewalk.While we agree that pedestrian safety is paramount, the prevalence of pedestrians walking in the street shows that the sidewalk closure is neither safe, convenient, or even well-respected. It clearly fails to meet DDOT's own policy to maintain safe and convenient access.
Both lanes of car traffic on 16th Street, however, remain open as usual; the burden of construction falls exclusively on those on foot and not at all on those in cars.
People in cars move as normal, while those on foot take a detour.
What does the future hold?
After the building's construction is complete, the church and developer plan to rebuild the sidewalk, expand the tree boxes, and plant a double row of trees where now there is just a single row. This was part of the project's zoning approval.
For this streetscape work, the sidewalk will again close, but this time there will be a barricade to let pedestrians walk in the lane next to the curb. According to Branyan, "With such heavy pedestrian traffic in this location, it was appropriate to maintain pedestrian access."
This solution provides a reasonable accommodation that is both safe and convenient. One just wonders why this wasn't part of the current construction phase as well. DDOT's policy is good; its leaders just need to take it seriously all the time and be consistent in enforcing it.
A New York sidewalk scaffold. Some DC construction projects also build these, but many don't. Photo by Matt Green on Flickr.
Where the policy works: New York
DC is a great place to walk, but sidewalk closures make walking less safe and send a clear message to people walking that they are not a priority in DC. New York City, on the other hand, has made a clear and visible policy to keep sidewalks open during all stages of construction, including demolition. That sends an explicit message that walking is a top priority there.
Let's learn from another world class city, and make DC an even better place to walk.
Perhaps Brutalist architecture never got a fair chance because of a false cognate. The public has long misunderstood this least lovable of architectural styles, but several local buildings show that even Brutalism can be beautiful.
In English, "brutal" architecture sounds harsh and cruel. Yet the term originated in French, where "brut" means wild, rough, or unfinished: "brut" Champagnes haven't been sweetened with added sugar.
Le Corbusier, the controversial Modernist architect, marveled at how reinforced concrete combined steel's flexibility with concrete's rigidity. Reinforced concrete could leap in organic curves and span vast distances without support; it could be cast into novel shapes and its surface raked with three-dimensional textures. Corbusier left his concrete structures "brut," thus inspiring "Brutalism."
"It does no good to pretend that Brutalist buildings are easy to like, or that everyone can be convinced to like them," writes New Yorker critic Paul Goldberger. "But ease and user-friendliness are not the only architectural virtues.... The earnestness of the best Brutalism—
Brutalism's brash idealism—
The results surround us here in Washington, where Brutalist buildings house Great Society legacies like HHS and HUD, plus the university libraries of Georgetown and George Washington. Few will mourn other infamous local examples of Brutalism, like the FBI headquarters or the now-demolished Third Church, particularly since they suffer from the clumsy and pedestrian-unfriendly streetscapes common during their era.
But Washington also boasts several buildings that showcase Brutalism's sculptural and textural possibilities, while also supporting the urban fabric around them.
1. Washington Metro stations, completed in 1976 and onwards by Harry Weese & Associates.
Last year, the American Institute of Architects bestowed its 25 Year Award, which goes to an architectural design that has stood the test of time, onto the Metro system.
The "Great Society Subway," as Zach Schrag's landmark book called it, shapes simple concrete into heroic vaults that impart a bit of the capital's majesty to commutes. The coffered vaults also serve practical purposes, distributing structural loads and keeping sightlines open.
The book District Comics includes a comic-strip retelling of Metro's design process by Jim Ottaviani and Nick Sousanis.
2. Federal Home Loan Bank Board and Liberty Plaza (now Consumer Financial Protection Bureau), completed in 1977 by Max O. Urbahn Associates (architect), and Sasaki Associates (landscape architect).
This structure shows that Brutalism can respectfully frame not only a variety of historic buildings but also human-scaled open spaces and the mixed-use street grid. The building shelters a small plaza that is one of the most popular paved plazas downtown.
The Commission of Fine Arts recently panned proposed renovations, saying they "would have the overall effect of transforming noteworthy modernist architecture into a more conventional, contemporary office building."
3. The American Institute of Architects, completed in 1973 by The Architects Collaborative.
The AIA's headquarters stand as an elegant, tiered rear scrim for the curious Octagon House, built in 1801 as one of Washington's grandest private houses. Although it's hardly visible from the street, the building's dynamic boomerang curve stands apart in a city filled with acute angles. The yard interposed between the two buildings, split between a hardscaped plaza on the headquarters side and a soft lawn on the house side, creates a quiet, shaded respite from the busy roads in front.
4. Sunderland Building, completed in 1969 by Keyes, Lethbridge & Condon.
Just south of Dupont Circle and behind the Heurich House, this office building is just a bit taller than it is wide, but the pattern of window and door openings lighten what could otherwise have been a plain concrete cube. The windows sit deep behind angled frames that score the facade with a grid of of shadows that subtly change depth from different perspectives, while the top floor's wide porches keep the façades off-center. The ground floor arcade lifts most of the ponderous concrete mass well above the sidewalk.
5. Brewood Office Building, completed 1974, Wilkes & Faulkner
This tiny townhouse-sized building, a leftover from before the Golden Triangle flowered with hulking office blocks in the 1980s, might inspire a double take. At first glance, the facade's irregular, flowing texture and drilled "nail holes" read as a wooden structure, but like its high-rise neighbors it's entirely concrete.
"Board-formed concrete" takes its texture from wood that disappeared years ago—
In addition to these five buildings, two other buildings garner honorable mentions for being fine examples of Brutalism, although one's located outside the District and the other had to hide its concrete under limestone panels.
1. Dulles Airport, completed in 1962 by Eero Saarinen.
Surely the most striking concrete form in this area is the suspended roofline of Dulles' soaring terminal. Its roof upends all conventions, dipping inwards with what looks like an unstable curve and inexplicably resting its massive weight upon airy glass walls. Yet this instability subtly reminds us that flight itself is no mean feat of physics. The recessed curtain wall appears like a solid Washingtonian wall of stone columns on the exterior, and on the interior it dissolves into a faceted lens that scatters light throughout the day.
2. Embassy of Canada, completed in 1989 by Arthur Erickson.
Although this building is mostly clad in the federal precinct's requisite limestone and was completed decades after the others on this list, Erickson has a reputation in his native Canada for sculpting concrete into daring, angular geometries. Here, Erickson allowed unfinished concrete to peek out from underneath the limestone skin in key locations, like this rotunda of columns at the building's prow.
In the four decades after it opened, the National Air and Space Museum has become one of Washington's most well-loved attractions. Its building hasn't aged so well.
The window walls are outdated, skylights leak, the mechanical systems are dying, and the terraces are leaking into the basement car storage. But much worse than that, the stones that clad the building are bowing and cracking, which threaten to make it uninhabitable.
Usually, there's nothing wrong with getting wrinkly at 40, but here, the 12,000 stone panels are pretty much the only thing keeping water out of the building. When they deform, they expose the building to more and bigger leaks. They could also break and fall onto someone.
We think of stone as unfailingly solid. But, like in most buildings built after 1900, the stones at the Air and Space Museum form a veneer that carries no weight. This approach has worked quite well in most cases, but if the stones are too thin, or installed the wrong way, they can deteriorate.
When thin stones fail
The museum's stones are 5 feet long, 2½ feet high, but only 1¼ inches thick. Beginning in the 1950s, engineers and architects tried to apply stone as thinly as possible to make buildings more cost-efficient.
Things went well for denser stones like granite and on buildings in warmer climates. But beginning in the 1970s, spectacular failures started to occur when soft marble covered a building in a cold climate, like Finlandia Hall in Helsinki or the Standard Oil Building in Chicago.
Imagine a slab of stone sitting in the sun. One side gets warm from the sunshine, while the other does not. The sunny side expands and contracts differently from the other. If the stone is too thin, the flexing can damage the crystalline structure.
Stone comes to the National Mall
The Air and Space Museum is clad in a stone called "Tennessee pink marble," although it's technically not marble, but a particularly crystallized form of limestone.
John Russell Pope introduced the stone to the National Mall with his 1941 National Gallery of Art. The warm color and faintly glittering texture was a welcome alternative to icy marble, dull limestone, and harsh granite. Because the National Air and Space Museum was across from the National Gallery, the Commission of Fine Arts pushed its architect, Gyo Obata, to match it.
But Pope used stones four to eight inches thick and installed them in a heavy and redundant way. IM Pei's stonework on the 1978 East Wing also had serious problems, but those stones were 3 inches thick and the problems primarily came from the way the stones hung on the building, which the Gallery was able to fix.
That will not be possible at the Air and Space Museum.
Too thin is just the beginning
The panels are pinned together end to end through holes drilled through the stone. As the panels warp at different rates, stainless steel rods apply enormous pressure to an extremely thin layer of stone. The brittle stone is liable to crack and even shed pieces.
The stones also sit on metal rails connected directly to the steel frame, so unlike with the National Gallery buildings, they're subject to the frame's motion. Already by the 1980s the Smithsonian had to widen the joints between the stones to reduce damage.
As the stone cracks, an inner cavity opens to the elements. Normal buildings have a membrane or second wall to prevent moisture from moving through the outer walls. Here, the only protection is foam insulation sprayed onto the inner face of the stone.
Finally, between the stones and walls of the exhibition halls is a large open space that carries used air back to the ventilation system. This means that the thin stones are the only thing between inside and outside. Ironically, reconstruction architect Larry Barr remarked that the constant airflow was probably the only reason there wasn't severe water damage or a mold problem. Moisture could simply never accumulate with the continuous flow of dryer air.
Some solutions are obvious, others require tough choices
The building needs a new facade, new windows, new equipment, and repairs to the terraces. You shouldn't have to renovate a building, let alone a monumental one so soon, but the renovation offers the opportunity to correct 40-year-old mistakes and build for at least another hundred.
In the 1970s, inflation encouraged cost-cutting and buildings were adding elaborate mechanical systems long before their performance was understood. Sustainability was not yet a concern for architects. The museum, which had stalled for two decades, was then rushed to be ready for the 1976 United States Bicentennial and opened days before the 4th of July.
But building technology has improved a lot, so there is a silver lining. Fixing a relatively typical problem like the terrace waterproofing affords the opportunity to replace it with more proven systems, brush up the planting, and improve circulation around the site.
Much better glass technology including durable films to block unwanted radiation, newer seals, and better insulation would make for a better experience on cold days and muggy afternoons. The design team is even considering installing solar panels onto the roof, reducing carbon footprint and partially shading some of the skylights.
Other projects, such as redesigning the entrance for security purposes, offers the opportunity to make the building's entrance more engaging. A similar level of attention could be paid to the Independence Avenue side of the museum, which stands out as particularly pedestrian-unfriendly.
The big decision is how to replace the stone and its supporting system. The museum asked Quinn Evans Architects to prepare for a reconstruction of the exterior, in four options: thicker Tennessee stone, sturdier pink granite, a ceramic system, or titanium. The latter two would bring new materials to the Mall and disrupt the match between this and the National Gallery, but would be more resilient and arguably interpret the building's content better than stone.
The four options are deceptive, because of the wide range of textures possible with each material. Titanium can come in flat, smooth panels, or it can be scalier, like the titanium used on the Guggenheim Bilbao. Ceramic systems, too, can take a wide range of textures and forms. The options go beyond just copying the 2.5' by 5' stones as the rendering above suggests.
In any event, it makes little sense to fret over preserving the architecture. It is not a universally loved building. In a chat about America's landmarks, Stanley Tigerman characterized it as "not even architecturally interesting," pointing out that the building's content occupies a more prominent role in the memory of Americans than the architecture itself
Perhaps a little bit more ambition and thought can mean we needn't repeat this renovation in 2055.
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