Greater Greater Washington

Midnight links: I will protest injustice more

Traditional sidewalk values: Citing California's precedent of taking away minority rights by majority vote, a group of Princeton students is pushing Princeton Proposition 8, to "preserve traditional sidewalk values" that reserve sidewalks for sophomores, juniors, seniors, grad students, faculty, staff, visitors, and others, but not freshmen. (AmericaBlog)


This is where the sidewalk ends. Keep on the grass.

I will stop lobbying for huge oil company tax giveaways: The League of Conservation Voters suggests some alternate posters for Chevron's "I will use less energy" greenwashing campaign. Via DCist.

Yes train on Wayne: At Saturday's Takoma Park/Silver Spring Purple Line hearing, many residents testified in support of the light rail Purple Line. Despite many Wayne Avenue residents opposed to an alignment on their stret, one Wayne resident supports it, having lived in San Francisco near a light rail line. "It was a controlled street, very safe, very quiet, more so than on Wayne now with the buses," she said. (Just Up the Pike)

$235,000 from parking: JDLand attended last week's performance parking meeting in Ward 6. There's not much really exciting info, but the program earned $235,000 in about six months, which is about a quarter of the cost to install the meters and signs. But we needn't wait two years for community benefits: 20% of the revenue goes to the neighborhood right away.

Saved by the limit: The National Building Museum's Martin Moeller thinks the height limit saved downtown DC from becoming "a patchwork in which skyscrapers alternate with surface parking lots" like Cleveland or Detroit. He also talks about how visitors to DC miss the good parts of the city (the neighborhoods) while getting stuck on the Mall, and feels that thanks to our many historic districts, "novelty rarely gets a chance to breathe."

David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

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The interview was Moeller was interesting, but it's curious that so many architects feel the need (as he did) to make a sophistic, knee-jerk defense of modernism. DC may have been awfully progressive in the '60s (and I do mean awfully). Just look at pictures of some of the handsome buildings that were torn down to make way for monotonous office cubes. I think good architecture (as in architecture that's aesthetically appealing to more people than just professional architects) is an important part of walkability. Take New Hampshire Avenue from Dupont to W St, would anybody enjoy walking there if it were just a mile of insipid Mies van der Rohe shoeboxes?

by Steve on Nov 25, 2008 1:01 am • linkreport

How, exactly, is Moeller's suggestion that "it’s very important for a capital to foster a range of ideas and attitudes" sophistic? You'd rather write off the last 80 years of architecture simply because you don't like it aesthetically?

We've got monotonous office cubes because of the way that the height limits interact with setback codes (that is, no setbacks needed) and with a pricey real estate market.

Raw popularity makes a remarkably lousy criterion for good planning and design decisions. Dense, walkable development appeals far more strongly to the young and to architects/planners than to an older, non-professional crowd. You could make an equally strong case that what appeals to the greatest number of people is office parks, sensible and visible surface parking lots, and nice safe cul-de-sacs.

Assertions about what's "popular" have a way of changing with the tastes of the speaker. I think it's pretty clear, looking at new residential and commercial buildings, that developers can charge a premium for modernist and psuedo-modernist design. So too with mixed-use, walkable site planning.

by David Ramos on Nov 25, 2008 5:03 am • linkreport

As much as I'd love to jump into another modernist bashing fight....

I'd rather point out that if you look at an aerial photograph of downtown from the late 60's to mid 70's, it was a series of buildings surrounded by surface parking lots. It's truly striking to look at those photos. Maybe it wasn't as bad as Detroit, but it was still pretty bad. Perhaps the height limit prevented even more office building sprawl, but I think the main reason we got so many surface parking lots is that the office vacancies were so high that building owners made more money renting parking spaces than renting office space. So they tore their buildings down. It took a change in the economic situation, not the height limit, to "redensify" downtown.

Also, the very theories behind modernist buildings require terrible street-level presences. (I couldn't help myself)

by Reid on Nov 25, 2008 9:40 am • linkreport

I would argue that Metro has at least as much, if not more, to do with DC's lack of surface parking lots.

by Alex B. on Nov 25, 2008 10:27 am • linkreport

I find Moeller's analysis pretty trite--which I suppose is pretty fitting, like his soundbite treatment of hundreds of buildings in the AIA Guide. About what I expect from a architecture grad school paper. There's not much serious thought here about what "progressive" (is "modernist" the new "liberal"?) buildings like the Third Church on 16th St have on their surroundings, not to mention their users. In that case the congregation is desperate to rid of that dysfunctional albatross, but the HPRB makes them keep it. Instead Moeller rehearses all the usual mush about how we have to be "progressive" to be in step with the times. Add to that the gratuitous comment about the "moral imperative that green design presents, it would be totally ridiculous to make a neo-Gothic cathedral; it’s a poor use of energy." I suppose that means traditionally-minded buildings are hereby ruled "immoral." To refute nonsense like this I highly recommend David Watkin's "Morality and Architecture."

by Paul on Nov 25, 2008 10:42 am • linkreport

The Dwell magazine article in which I am quoted was edited down from several hours of conversation with the reporter. As a result, unfortunately, the context for many of my comments was lost. My remarks in "defense of modernism" should not be taken as a general preference for new buildings over old ones. There are great modern buildings and terrible modern buildings. I agree with Jane Jacobs that the most successful cities are those in which buildings of many different eras and types coexist (as a reminder, when asked about "my favorite building" in Washington, I responded by talking about the city's row houses, which I love for their simultaneous consistency and diversity). As for the "moral imperative of green design," I would emphasize that the greenest building is one that already exists--which is one of the main reasons that I am a staunch preservationist. On the other hand, when we DO build new buildings, I would argue that they should indeed be truly new, taking advantage of the best environmental technologies and yielding structures that reflect the culture of the time. As for the comments about my guidebook, I reluctantly accept the criticism that it is full of soundbites, but would point out that it is difficult to avoid such an approach in a book that is intended for tourists and other casual readers who may be completely unfamiliar with the city's architectural and social history.

by Martin Moeller on Nov 25, 2008 12:16 pm • linkreport

Thanks for posting!

I have a question for you. How should the face of modernism be judged when many of the theories the structures are based on are in direct contrast with what is now considered better urban design and practice?

In other words, places like the Third Church and Hilton which have been recently landmarked by the HPRB seem to now lock in bad urban design. Should the context of the streetscape weigh into the decision-making process?

by William on Nov 25, 2008 1:00 pm • linkreport

William: You are absolutely right in saying that many aspects of modernist architecture were/are at odds with good, sound urban design. The issue is, however, a little more complicated than it might first seem. Several of the key figures in early modernist architecture--most notably Le Corbusier--proposed countless projects that were unquestionably anti-urban. (Many people would lump Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in this category, but I actually think that some--SOME--of his projects are reasonably city-friendly, such as his Toronto Dominion center in Toronto, Canada.) More to the point, however, I think that in recent years, many architects have come to believe that the principles of modern architecture can and should be separated from the principles of modern "urbanism"--that we might throw out out the bath water but NOT the baby, as it were. Around the world, there are now many examples of buildings that are clearly modern in terms of their materials, composition, and details, but which respect their streetscapes, incorporate pleasant, pedestrian-friendly open spaces, and complement their immediate contexts. I really do think we can have it both ways--we can create buildings that reflect our time (and yes, I do think that is important, even though I understand that some people disagree) and reinforce our cities.

by Martin Moeller on Nov 25, 2008 1:17 pm • linkreport

I, too, would like to thank Martin for posting here.

Martin, my question is a natural follow-up: How should we go about separating the principles of modern architecture and modern urbanism in the context of a dynamic, living city? In the case of preservation, which element holds the trump card? In a case by case evaluation, on what grounds can we judge what to keep and what to discard - and more importantly, how we should continue to build?

by Alex B. on Nov 25, 2008 1:21 pm • linkreport

Brookings will have an event about the Purple Line on Wed., 12/3 from 9:30 AM - 11 AM. The title of the event is "Remaking the Suburbs in a Carbon-Constrained World: A Case Study of Maryland’s Purple Line." Here's the link: http://www.brookings.edu/events/2008/1203_carbon_constrained_world.aspx?p=1

by Ben on Nov 25, 2008 1:30 pm • linkreport

Alex: Yours is a good question, and I am afraid my answer will not be very satisfying, because I don't have a blanket solution--I truly do think that these things need to be hammered out on a case-by-case basis. I have been trying to avoid weighing in on the Third Church issue for various reasons, including the fact that I myself am conflicted. If I were czar in this case, I would probably try to find a way to retain the basic Third Church complex while allowing substantial modifications to the building and the site. You may find this ironic, but I actually think that the scale of the building and the presence of the little plaza are, or at least COULD BE, welcome amenities in an area filled with monotonous office buildings. Having said that, I do recognize that the building does not work well for its congregation, that the quality of the concrete throughout the complex is generally poor, and that the current condition of the plaza is uninviting to say the least. But I think these problems could be solved through a compromise that would allow significant improvements while retaining the basic structures (which, by the way, also have a degree of historic importance because they relate to other work that Pei's firm was doing for the Christian Science Church in Boston at about the same time). Back to your direct question, I think the "trump card" changes from case to case. In some instances, historic signifance or association with a great architect might outweigh practical or aesthetic concerns, while in others, the overall contribution of an existing building to an urban context might be the primary consideration.

by Martin Moeller on Nov 25, 2008 1:38 pm • linkreport

I wanted to add a thought in relation to Alex's last question as to "how we should continue to build." In my work as a curator, teacher, and occasional critic, when assessing the quality of a new building, I always consider how successful it is in creating a "place." That may sound like a very generic--or even rather wimpy--term, but I think it sums up what we are all getting at. Does the building really invite people to occupy it, be near it, or use it, as the case may be? Is it a positive landmark (not necessarily a draw for international tourists, but at least something that fills that role for a given neighborhood)? Does it have its own character and identity--and once again, I do think that's important--while also making the city a better place? Does it use materials and resources wisely and appropriately (not only in environmental terms, but also in cultural and aesthetic terms)? Those are my key criteria for judging architecture.

by Martin Moeller on Nov 25, 2008 1:50 pm • linkreport

Thanks for posting, and for some interesting thoughts.

I think most everyone agrees that the height limit played a key role in the survival of a vibrant downtown. But Washington's status as a government company town and the building of the Metro also played key roles.

Cities like Detroit and Cleveland saw their populations evaporate in the '50s and '60s, starting with the flight to the suburbs. The central business districts were no longer the main shopping destinations, and many hundreds of small shops failed. The carriage trade department stores closed, and eventually even the major depatment stores closed.

What remained were places like Tower City in Cleveland and RenCen in Detroit - skyscraper or mega-developments. And they sucked the life our of their surroundings. Cleveland's downtown was built to serve a city population more than twice what it is today. So you have blocks of boarded up windows, dollar stores, fortune tellers....and surface parking lots.

Of course, the death of American industry in these Rust Belt towns cannot be overstated - nor can the racial problems.

Here, we suffered the same riots and the same flight to the suburbs. Lansbergh's and Kann's and other stores are no longer here. Woody's closed. And most of the shoe stores, clothing shops, and even wig shops in the old central business district are gone. And the population of our city proper declined by probably 30%. But we never suffered the jolt of Republic Steel closing. Or a major auto plant shutting down.

Uncle Sam just keeps getting bigger. The FBI Hoover Abomination took up space that might have been one of those surface parking lots. And - since the federal jobs remain in town - people have embraced the new/old idea of wanting to live close to work. Areas like NoMa have developed a critical mass, and the young professional class has returned. And Metro makes it possible for hundreds of thousands to get into and out of the city without the need for cars and parking lots.

Millions of tourists spending in hotels, restaurants, and stores makes it possible for a city of our size to support what we enjoy. Detroit and Cleveland can't say that.

All this goes back to the ECTC and the battle against freeways and for mass transit. And the "Don't Tear it Down" movement, which fought to keep a sense of place and history in a liveable, and walkable city.

None of this would have been possible had we allowed 60 story skyscrapers amid patches of surface parking and decay. But none of it would have happened without Uncle Sugar, Metro, an enlightened citzenry, and other home field advantages that other cities just don't have.

Again, Martin, thanks for posting and for your thoughts.

by Mike Silverstein on Nov 26, 2008 10:11 am • linkreport

Mike, an excellent brief historical urban analysis. Martin, the piece was an excellent read, despite its truncated state. It was also great to hear you expand on some ideas in that piece.

by Cavan on Nov 26, 2008 10:35 am • linkreport

we might not have suffered the closing of Republic Steel here in DC , but when the Naval Gun Factory closed in 1963, it was the single largest employer in the entire region and the vacume it's closing created accelerated both suburban flight and the construction of many horrible public housing projects in the SE & SW areas of DC. People who are not from DC are oftentimes not aware of the real life blue collar & manufacturing aspects of DC's history and how it has impacted us today. It is only in the last 10 years or so that the SE part of DC- even the close -in and affluent areas- have truly begun to recover from the closing of the Naval Gun Factory.

by w on Nov 26, 2008 2:11 pm • linkreport

I love "Uncle Sugar"--I'd never heard that before. And of course you are correct that the consistent strength of our main "industry" has been key to Washington's continuing urban vitality, along with the success of Metro and an educated, civic-minded populace.

by Martin Moeller on Nov 26, 2008 3:51 pm • linkreport

It is heartening to read that some people are waking up to the charade pulled over ours eyes that makes scum like M V D Rohe into some kind of un-assailable god of architecture. I will feel much better when people begin to stop apologizing for that other horrible anti-city vandal, F L Wright- who was the real inventor of cookie cutter suburbia ans is the most over- rated and blown out of proportion excuse for an architect in modern times. Just go into any art museum bookshop to the architecture section and you will find a million books on this creep's "works" and nothing on William Van Allen or Julia Morgan.It is incredible. Sickening.

by w on Dec 1, 2008 1:42 pm • linkreport

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