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Steel and glass in the Flickr pool

This week, our contributors added a lot of steel and glass to the images in the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool. Are these places cool and modern, or bland and soulless?

Shaw Library. Photo by BeyondDC.

City Center. Photo by nevermindtheend.

Yards Park. Photo by Payton Chung.

Photo by wolfkann.

Silver Spring Civic Center. Photo by Rich Renomeron.

Massachusetts and New Jersey Ave. NW. Photo by Boris.

National Airport. Photo by ep_jhu.

Got a picture that depicts the best or worst of the Washington region? Make sure to join our Flickr pool and submit your own photos!

Aimee Custis is a wonk, communicator, and professional advocate at the Coalition for Smarter Growth. Her writing represents her own views, though they're often aligned with her employer's. Weekends, you'll find Aimee at home in Dupont Circle or practicing her other love, wedding photography


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That sculpture outside of Shaw Library is one of my least favorite in the city. The building is cool though.

by BTA on Jan 17, 2014 3:45 pm • linkreport

As usual, love the photos. Wolfkann's is this week's favorite.

by jnb on Jan 17, 2014 4:07 pm • linkreport

Back when I used to take the GU Law Center bus back from my internship I would sit in traffic next to that Massachusetts and NJ Ave building. Definitely one of my least favorite buildings in the city.

by RodricoStak on Jan 17, 2014 4:18 pm • linkreport

BTA: That sculpture outside of Shaw Library is one of my least favorite in the city.
I think it works ok with the building. My least favorite sculptures would be the NY Ave. bridge...

by Bob See on Jan 17, 2014 4:24 pm • linkreport

Definitely the City Center one, though the construction barrier mars the shot. Love the cube look to it.

by JDC on Jan 17, 2014 4:50 pm • linkreport

Thanks, @jnb!

We certainly have some talented Flickr pool contributors!

by Aimee Custis on Jan 17, 2014 5:57 pm • linkreport

Does that steel and glass at the front of the library have a functional purpose waste of money.

by kk on Jan 17, 2014 11:46 pm • linkreport

It's not a waste of money if it somehow adds to the architectural experience, like any decoration. That's not to say it's successful here, but it's clearly the intent.

Surprised not to see the newseum here, one of my favs.
"Are these places cool and modern, or bland and soulless?"
All the above, depending on one's tastes.

by Thayer-D on Jan 18, 2014 7:33 am • linkreport

Wolfkann's photo reminds me of the end of the "Pruit-Igoe" segment in "Koyaanisqatsi". But in a good way.

by Frank IBC on Jan 18, 2014 10:58 am • linkreport

The "arch" in front of the Silver Spring Civic Center adds an extra element of soullessness (spelling-bee word?) to that building.

by Frank IBC on Jan 18, 2014 11:05 am • linkreport

@ Thayer-D

It is a waste you can add architectural experience while also being functional. It could have solar panels, providing shade, structural support, insulation, pipes of the building could run through it etc.

by kk on Jan 18, 2014 2:28 pm • linkreport

I agree it could have had a "functional" aspect, but decoration has a function all its own in the service of art, which architecture certainly is.

by Thayer-D on Jan 18, 2014 6:09 pm • linkreport

I actually prefer glass and steel in historic districts because it's neutral and doesn't belittle the historic buildings by putting up grandiose imitations of period architecture or rival masonry architecture. (Big masonry buildings can be much more oppressive too.)

Europeans have the similar approach. You see many light glass and steel additions in historic areas. Americans tend to want to put big gaudy old-timey-granny-looking imitations next to historic buildings making the whole area cheaply suburban looking.

by Tom Coumaris on Jan 18, 2014 10:24 pm • linkreport

The next-to-last photo (Douglas' "Death Star") maybe isn't soulless, but it kills any opportunity at life on the block. For someone who knows how to do a good job at creating positive, pedestrian-activated streets, he managed to do it all wrong with his own HQ.

I hope that, not too far in the future, his building will be torn down and replaced with something that doesn't suck.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Jan 18, 2014 11:59 pm • linkreport

It's funny to think of a traditional looking infill building as "belittling" it's neighbors when trying to blend in. It certainly can look cartoonish if not done right, but for centuries that was considered good urban manners.

by Thayer-D on Jan 19, 2014 2:26 pm • linkreport

Geoff, I don't see why you'd need to tear that building down. In fact, of all of the strip-window buildings built in DC in the 80s, it's one of the best. It's massed out at the corners, with a central setback that dramatically reduces bulk. The strips don't stand out against the black, reducing the horizontal lines to a contrasting pattern.

It's demure. With some slight tweaks, it could be a good background building. A renovation that made the ground floor more permeable and less bleak would, I think, do more for the city than a knockdown.

I also don't think Douglas built it - they bought it in 2002.

by Neil Flanagan on Jan 19, 2014 3:41 pm • linkreport

The next-to-last photo (Douglas' "Death Star") maybe isn't soulless, but it kills any opportunity at life on the block. For someone who knows how to do a good job at creating positive, pedestrian-activated streets, he managed to do it all wrong with his own HQ.

As Neil noted, Douglas didn't build that building; they bought it 20 years after construction.

Also, it's not their HQ (which is at 7th and H in the historic buildings above the Fuddruckers). The black building is leased to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services:

by Alex B. on Jan 19, 2014 4:05 pm • linkreport

Well, I stand fully humbled and corrected regarding the provenance of the Death Star.

I still say it's ugly as hell.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Jan 19, 2014 4:35 pm • linkreport

That it hosts a part of DHS probably also explains why it's desolate at the ground.

by Neil Flanagan on Jan 19, 2014 5:14 pm • linkreport

" In fact, of all of the strip-window buildings built in DC in the 80s, it's one of the best."

That's quite a compliment. I think it would take a bit more than slight tweaks to make it a good background building.

by Thayer-D on Jan 19, 2014 8:42 pm • linkreport

I suppose creativity and imagination would be required too.

by Neil Flanagan on Jan 20, 2014 12:30 am • linkreport

Thayer-D I appreciate legitimate infills done to match where there's an otherwise unbroken row. The 1400 block of Swann has a new 2-story stucco being built to match the identical row it's in the middle of. The original had burned.

But where you have a variety of buildings or you're building a 8 or 12 story next to 2 and 3 story buildings and imitate the architecture it makes the originals seem much less important and sort of cheapens the whole area in a suburban imitation way. I'd prefer clear glass that isn't noticed more than necessary.

by Tom Coumaris on Jan 20, 2014 12:06 pm • linkreport

We're all entitled to our opinions and as I've pointed out, I like my glass and steel also, but I question the whole notion of what you call imitation or "legitimate" infills.

I guess I don't see there being a right or wrong way to work with-in historic fabric without considering the specific context. At this point that the preservation movement considers modernist buildings and neighborhoods as historic. Would a neo-federal townhouse in a SW modernist rowhouse block be "legitimate"? I don't think legitimacy has anything to do with it, but I certainly think it would look dumb.

All sorts of building types and styles can be oppresive and but some of what I think your "suburban imitation" characterization reflects is work done by architects who lack the training and eye to do good traditional work. It's not a matter of picking up some plastic ornament and gluing it on a box. But by in large, there has been a fundamental change in how architects work with historic contexts since WWII. I don't think anyone would decry the many neo-federal townhouses in Georgetown that sit next to original federal townhouses, assuming they could pick them out.

I respect your preference for glass buildings in historic contexts, but how exactly does the traditional styling of a new 8-12 story building next to an historic 2-3 story context "cheapen the whole area in a suburban imitation way"?

by Thayer-D on Jan 20, 2014 12:27 pm • linkreport

Thayer-D 1. A much larger new building imitating the style of a historic building next to it makes the original look not so impressive. But while modern technology makes it possible for every single mortar line, every single foot of cornice, in the new building to be absolutely perfect, it's the imperfections of the original that gives it an aged look like a patina.

2. The precision detailing of the new imitation makes it look too much like suburban pastiche, too plastic-like, and out of place in a historic neighborhood. While I like empty lots in a historic row to be infilled with like houses, those imitation federals in Georgetown were done very poorly.

3. I prefer glass and steel to masonry because the glass buildings don't stand out as much and blend away more easily. Any masonry building is going to have it's own style and is going to be more imposing, not in a good way.

by Tom Coumaris on Jan 20, 2014 7:51 pm • linkreport

Aping historic styles is an insult to the great work being done now; in fact, in every period (okay, maybe not the 1970's). A great building is a great building. We adapt our built environment to our present, we don't try to pretend the present doesn't exist.

by Crickey7 on Jan 20, 2014 9:04 pm • linkreport

I think it's like mixing diamonds and cubic zirconias.

by Tom Coumaris on Jan 20, 2014 11:05 pm • linkreport

"the historic buildings above the Fuddruckers"


by Frank IBC on Jan 21, 2014 8:20 am • linkreport

Calling any of these diamonds is like pretending a rotting, aesthetically mediocre and functionally disastrous building is worth "saving"--by essentially rebuilding it--simply because a famous architect designed it.

by Crickey7 on Jan 21, 2014 9:06 am • linkreport

I respect your opinion, but you still haven't made the case for why some approaches to building are "legitimate" while others are not. This idea that one must be original was a fiction promoted by modernists intent on eliminating history, not realizing like a child, that one day they too would grow old. What's original about the next glass box that hasn't been done a thousand times since WWII?

I've yet to see the scenario you laid out of a historic building being replicated exactly. Usually a sensitive infill building will be a take on an existing style or sensibility. By your logic, all the historicism of the 18th, 19th century and early 20th centuries where "cubic zirconias" since they where revivals of previous european styles. If you acknowledge that even modernism can never be "forever young", that it's infact historic, does the quest to be "original" even relevant? Like in music or any other art, it's the quality that tends to outlive novelty, and in the case of modernism, it's all been done before. Most buildings will outlive the current fashion cycle if they are well built and well loved, thus the whole preservation movement that saved "immitative" areas like Dupont Circle from becoming extensions of K street.

If as Crickey7 said, "Aping historic styles is an insult to the great work being done now", then the Capitol and its surrounding buildings would be a "cheap suburban imitation" since every architect that added to the original Capitol building respected the classical vocabulary set by Thorton and Latrobe (while not strictly immitating it). Clearly a city street can have multiple styles, and in fact those are the ones that I tend to prefer, but the idea that a traditional infill building is an imitation and therefore illegitimate while a modernist infill building is original is completely illogical. I would submit that if you appreciate the aged patina of traditional buildings, you might prefer an infill building with similar materials, because when glass and steel age, they don't exactly weather like brick and stone. You have to scrub them clean to get that "like new" feeling where as time can make brick and stone buildings more beautiful. See MLK.

Like I said before, I have no issue with your personal preference of glass and steel buildings in a historic context, although I question whether they actually "don't stand out as much and blend away more easily". But this obsession with what is "of our time" is an ideological construct that makes no sense when viewed through just about any other aspect of one's life. Is my language a "cheap and illegitimate immitation" of english because it bears a strong resemblance to the language of my father's? What's new today will be old tomorrow, surely we can learn from all of our past, whether it be modernist or federal.

by Thayer-D on Jan 21, 2014 9:26 am • linkreport


Perhaps not my most artful phrasing, but I hope you get the picture (and the location) I am describing.

by Alex B. on Jan 21, 2014 10:48 am • linkreport

I'm not sure the "death star" building is even a steel and glass building. Looks like a stone building with the ubiquitous kitchen counter finish that makes it hard to distinguish.

by Thayer-D on Jan 21, 2014 10:57 am • linkreport

These places are definitely modern and cool. The architectural glass designs display clean lines and interesting shapes.

by Nic on Feb 17, 2014 10:15 am • linkreport

Great photos! These photos show the architectural advances in both building structure and glass display. Thanks for sharing!

by Caryl Anne on Mar 28, 2014 11:15 am • linkreport

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