AU's Tenley campus proposal is pinned to the past
American University plans to move its law school to its land two blocks from the Tenleytown Metro. That has enormous potential, but the design should more directly engage the surrounding urban fabric.
Unfortunately, as expansion plans are presented it is becoming clear that AU's designs remain pinned to the past. Despite the urban location of the Tenley campus, plans for it are based on flawed and outdated suburban design principles.
Site Plan as of June. Tenley Circle, Wisconsin Avenue, and the front lawn are to the upper left. Up is north. Image from AU.
It makes sense to move the law school to the Tenley campus. Most law school faculty and students live off campus and commute to the school from homes and jobs elsewhere in the city, making the site's accessibility a strong feature. In addition to the Metro, bus lines in eight directions link the circle to points all over Northwest DC. This level of accessibility will make it easy for students to attend classes without ever parking a car on local streets.
The law school should also benefit the community. The Tenley campus is near two functional but underdeveloped commercial strips on Wisconsin Avenue that have been struggling for years. An expanded campus would energize the South Tenley and Tenleytown strips by creating a bridge of activity between them where there is now just a narrow sidewalk and an empty field.
Change in lot coverage. Blue areas are new area, yellow is removed, gray is no change. Dark gray represents preserved buildings.
But as of July, the designs do not meet of the location's potential. AU asked the architects, SmithGroup, to mass the building in the footprints of the 1950s campus. Those objects relate to each other, but to the city or the local streets.
The worst consequence of this decision is the retention of the marginal green space between the main building and Tenley Circle. Instead of a place for people, the most visible and accessible part of the site becomes a large no-man's-land. At precisely the spot where the campus should best engage the city, it turns its back.
Around the sides, the site plan leaves even more empty shrub-filled spaces. AU has assured worried neighbors that these large setbacks will screen the bulk of new buildings, but they are a half-measure. As at East Campus, AU is trying to screen the buildings as a substitute for designing more attractive or exciting buildings. Here, the choice makes all of the perimeter conditions the same, front and back, and all relatively unproductive.
Moving the buildings to the front would let the designers consolidate the green space into useful parks at the rear of the site, rather than left as unused spaces on the fringe. It is completely contextual to have a larger building with strong streetwalls fronting the main street, with smaller structures set back on the side streets. This is how nearby blocks have developed, and how most blocks on Wisconsin are zoned.
The 4900 block of Wisconsin Ave has a wall of attached storefronts on the avenue and detached homes behind.
SmithGroup's challenge at this site has been to lay out a plan that creates a campus environment internally, and that meets the neighborhood on one side and greets the city on the other. Their plan achieves a campus feel and blends into the neighborhood relatively well, but does not greet the city.
The campus needs an urban front, a kind of civic space where the main building meets Tenley Circle. One way to achieve that would be with a public staircase.
There are many precedents of public staircases connecting dense urban areas with campus environments, both grandiose and intimate. Columbia University's enormous cascading plaza does double duty as the main social location on campus and and as a threshold between the busy street and the academic campus above.
Left: Columbia's Low Plaza. Photo by Julia Fredenburg on Flickr.
Right: Pioneer Courthouse Square. Photo by Bob I Am on Flickr.
And these don't have to be so grandiose. Polshek Partnership's entryway to the Brooklyn Museum includes two large stair-like seating areas with pragmatic ground-level access. Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland is a more casual example of an urban stair.
Also out in the Pacific Northwest, the FDR Memorial's designer Lawrence Halprin designed two fascinating parks that reveal the natural environment and the experience of spaces on sites with significant slopes.
These are all great places to wait, socialize and people watch. They are quintessential urban spaces, and illustrate how clever architecture can connect an urban environment to a campus by a great front door.
AU's choice to locate the law school at Tenley Circle is an opportunity to dramatically improve the character of the neighborhood, leaving it more vibrant and green. To take advantage of this opportunity, AU needs to rethink the urban design of their site plan.
In part 2, I'll discuss the historic preservation issues about the proposed campus.
Cross-posted at цarьchitect.
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