Posts about Architecture
DC is awash in murals. Four new murals recently went up as part of an arts festival sponsored by Heineken. Ward 7 residents banded together to give a beloved restaurant a mural. And a filmmaker's making a documentary about what murals mean to DC's culture.
Located on Pennsylvania Avenue SE just east of the Anacostia River, Thai Orchid is the sole sit-down restaurant on a block with a beauty supply store, liquor store, and empty storefronts. Opened in 2010, the locally-owned spot quickly became a local gathering spot. On her blog Life in the Village, Veronica Davis raved about the food, while commenters expressed excitement that they could eat out without crossing the river.
To say "thank you," neighbors want to beautify Thai Orchid and its block with a mural.
It's a testament to a business that took a chance on Ward 7 and represents a continuing commitment to local businesses. Supporters applied for funding from MuralsDC, a partnership between the DC Department of Public Works, the DC Commission on the Arts and the Humanities, and nonprofit group Words Beats & Life that uses street art to enliven neighborhoods and combat graffiti.
They had commissioned an artist to create the mural, but a small group of residents put a halt to the project, arguing that District funds should be used for more worthy causes. Now, the community is raising money to move forward with the mural without public help.
But murals are still going up elsewhere in DC. Working with MuralsDC, Dutch brewing company Heineken sponsored four murals in Shaw and NoMa and installed them last month. It's part of a larger series of murals Heineken commissioned in Atlanta and Miami. The DC installation coincided with the G40 Art Summit, a street art festival sponsored by the Art Whino gallery in National Harbor.
It makes sense that Heineken chose DC as a location, with its long history of murals celebrating its African American and Latino communities. Filmmaker Caitlin Carroll was so inspired by the city's mural culture that she started working on a documentary about it called Painted City.
The film features art historian Perry Frank, who documents murals both past and present, and includes stories about murals that have been lost, highlighting the art's fleeting nature. Community pride and beautification is a recurring theme in the documentary, and Carroll also highlights the work of local artists who work with residents and kids to beautify their neighborhoods.
Murals, along with public art in general, can let communities show neighborhood pride, inspire others, and provide hope. In an area struggling with unemployment, poverty, and crime, residents see art as a way to uplift and inspire.
As Carroll notes, "Every mural has a story." The stories often have an end as murals disappear due to new development or get damaged in building repairs. But even in their temporary nature, they still serve as a form of community expression.
Supporters of DC's height limit say restricting building heights has worked to keep Paris beautiful. But embracing the Parisian built form would have unintended consequences on DC's neighborhoods.
The mid-rise Paris that we know today was built not by a democracy, but by a mad emperor and his bulldozer-wielding prefect. As Office of Planning director Harriet Tregoning said in a recent WAMU interview, "Paris took their residential neighborhoods and made them essentially block after block of small apartment buildings."
"If we were to do that in our neighborhoods, we could accommodate easily 100 years' worth of residential growth," she added. "But they would be very different neighborhoods."
A haunting exhibition of photographs by Charles Marville, now on view at the National Gallery of Art, offers us a glimpse at how this change manifested itself in Paris.
The city government hired Marville to document the systematic demolition of central Paris' low-rise neighborhoods, the construction of new mid-rise neighborhoods (the ones we know today) in their stead, and the widespread displacement of the center's low-income residents to the urban fringe. (Numerous books have been written about the era, notably "Transforming Paris," by David Jordan.) There were technological limits on buildings in that era, too: elevators were slow and expensive, and the new water mains could not supply satisfactory water pressure to the upper floors of many buildings.
Not dissimilarly, downtown DC's horizontal march has steamrolled numerous low-rise neighborhoods in its wake, from Chinatown to Foggy Bottom. Now that only a few blocks are left for downtown to grow into, office buildings are muscling into Shaw. This is only natural for a mid-rise city: Paris' mid-rise urban fabric superimposed on DC would spill outside the diamond, vastly larger than the existing downtown.
That path of destruction is why most other growing cities in this century (i.e., built-out but growing central cities, from London and Singapore to New York, Portland, Toronto, and San Francisco) have gone the Vancouver route and rezoned central industrial land for high-rises. This method allows them to simultaneously accommodate new housing, and new jobs, while keeping voters' single family houses intact.
By opposing higher buildings downtown, DC's neighborhoods are opposing change now, but at the cost of demanding far more wrenching changes ahead: substantial redevelopment of low-rise neighborhoods, skyrocketing property prices (as in Paris), or increasing irrelevance within the regional economy as jobs, housing, and economic activity get pushed further into suburbs that welcome growth.
Among large North American cities, only Toronto has joined DC in making a concerted effort to redirect growth into mid-rise buildings along streetcar lines, and only as an adjunct strategy in addition to hundreds of high-rises under construction. (The two metro regions are of surprisingly similar population today.) Yet there, just like here, neighborhoods are up in arms at the very notion.
DC cannot put a lid on development downtown, in the rowhouse neighborhoods, in the single-family neighborhoods, and on the few infill sites we have left, and yet somehow also accommodate enough new jobs and residents to make our city reliably solvent, much less sustainable. The sum of remaining developable land in the city amounts to 4.9% of the city, which as OP demonstrates through its analysis, cannot accommodate projected growth under existing mandates.
Something will have to give. A good place to start is a loophole-ridden law imposed back when DC was a protectorate and when Greater Washington counted fewer residents than today's Asheville or Quad Cities.
The Office of Planning has suggested a reasonable framework for a subtly revised Height Act that can accommodate growth and change while preserving the city's cherished urban design and historic neighborhoods. Adapting the rigid 130' cap to a street-width rule maintains the Height Act framework along our ceremonial avenues, where our city's namesake actually set a height minimum.
Along streets like L'Enfant Promenade, Washington had the right idea: taller buildings will better frame vistas. Beyond the L'Enfant City, the Comprehensive Plan and zoning ordinance will continue to ensure that most buildings never reach the 90' Height Act maximum, but the city will have the flexibility to adapt to evolving construction techniques and special opportunity sites.
As DC re-adjusts to a new century of urban growth, after a lost generation of population decline and disinvestment, inaction poses a far greater risk than action. Paris' combination of horizontality and verticality is undeniably beautiful, but its unique form resulted from a peculiar historical process that I would not wish upon an American city today.
The District of Columbia Council is accepting written testimony about the Height Act until next Tuesday. For more information or to send your comments, visit their website.
A version of this post appeared on West North.
DC's great public spaces work that way because they're surrounding by active and visually interesting things. How can new places become great as well? By making sure they aren't surrounded by blank walls. Murals are a good start.
Like many, I joined the herd that flocked to District Flea, the new flea market from the creators of Brooklyn Flea, on its opening day in September. But by the time I entered the market at 9th Street and Florida Avenue NW, a blank grey wall disrupted my train of thought. The wall belongs to the Floridian, a condo building completed a few years ago.
Have you ever walked in a space and said, "This is wrong?" That's what I did.
After regaining my composure, I thoroughly enjoyed the event and vendors, especially the shop that had two amazing terra cotta pipes for sale. (Hopefully they aren't sold yet.) Thankfully, District Flea will continue until the end of November, and hopefully it will return next summer.
But if District Flea officially makes its home in this lot, something has to be done with this tidal wave of a wall intimidating patrons like me. A mural would be a good way to enliven this space and make it more visually appealing and inviting.
Compare it to Brooklyn Flea, where the historic neighborhood context provides several beautiful vantage points for visitors to enjoy. These buildings may not be part of the market, but they add to its atmosphere and character in a way a blank wall simply doesn't.
Painters have created murals around DC for decades, but they can be hard to find. In Cincinnati, my previous home, it seemed as if every empty wall in the city had art on it.
The District is fortunate enough to have Murals DC, an organization that helps to replace illegal graffiti with artistic works, revitalizing sites within the community while teaching young people the art of aerosol painting. They are responsible for over 30 murals throughout the city, and perhaps could help to create one here.
"A People Without Murals Is A Demuralized People," a mural in Adams Morgan. Photo by art around on Flickr.
I might be crazy for feeling bullied by an inanimate blank wall, but a mural is still worth pursuing. I'm sure District Flea's parking lot is already a likely site for a new apartment building. But until it's forced to move, we should still strive to make this site a better a place to be.
As part of a new weekly series on Greater Greater Washington, we'll take a topic that is relevant in the week's news and allow our contributors to briefly weigh in on it. This week: proposed changes to DC's height limit.
Dan Malouff had a great post on the topic and there have been several stories featured in the Breakfast Links recently on the subject. Should DC keep its height limit, tweak it, or get rid of it all together? Are there possible consequences people aren't considering? Two of our contributors weigh in:
Canaan Merchant: I think the original reasons for it are outdated and the current arguments insufficient. That doesn't mean I think we will start digging foundations for skyscrapers on the Mall anytime soon. I think we can protect the things we like about the height limit by changing the argument from "why should we let this building be tall?" to "why shouldn't we let this building be tall?"
In his original post, Dan Malouff compares DC's height limit debate to Paris'. I would like to point out the lessons we can learn from London. London has a special neighborhood for high-rises at Canary Wharf, similar to Paris' La Defense or our own Rosslyn. But it has started building very tall buildings in central London as well because there is still a lot of demand there. In DC, demand will remain high for downtown office space as well, even if we do allow much taller buildings in areas like Friendship Heights or Poplar Point.
London hasn't stopped protecting its views either, like King Henry's Mound, a hill that is 10 miles away from St. Paul's Cathedral. In DC, we can do the same thing from some of our most famous viewing points while still allowing taller buildings in many other places as well.
Eric Fidler: One point that was largely absent from last Monday's DC Council hearing is that new housing exceeding the 130-foot height limit will produce more affordable housing thanks to DC's Inclusionary Zoning laws.
Critics often refute the supply-and-demand argument for greater heights by noting that all the new tall apartment buildings are expensive. That is true because new apartment buildings, like new clothes and new cars, can command a price premium over their older counterparts. Today's pricey, new buildings become tomorrow's discounted, "lived-in" buildings.
However, DC's Inclusionary Zoning law requires that new residential projects with more than 9 units set aside 8% or 10% of units for affordable housing.
Assuming Congress relaxes the Height Act, then DC amends the Comprehensive Plan, then the Zoning Commission amends the zoning text and map to create taller zones with higher height and FAR limits, these new, taller buildings will produce more Inclusionary Units. Think of it another way: 10% of a 22-story building is greater than 10% of a 13-story building.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments.
The Metro can be disorienting for a newcomer. For a long time after I moved here, I got turned around every time I changed trains at L'Enfant Plaza, and always ended up having to go back and read the signs. Could mosaics of the world above make it easier to navigate?
Mockup of a mosaic depicting the convention center at the Mount Vernon Square Metro station. All images by the author.
Metro's uniformity makes it difficult to navigate. I was describing this for a friend who grew up here, and he knew what I meant. My mother doesn't take the metro at all, he told me, because she can't read. The signs aren't any help to her, so she has to stick with the bus where she can see landmarks through the windows and not miss her stop.
Here I was griping because I had to read the signs to navigate the metro, while my friend's mother, like millions of other American adults, isn't able to use the metro system at all because she can't read the signs. I am a mosaicist, which means I make mosaics. When my friend told me about his mother's situation, it gave me an idea: why not put mosaics in the metro depicting the view on the street above?
Here is a picture of a 4'x4' mosaic I made of my dog, Buddy. Notice how the background in the mosaic meshes with the fence behind it. Imagine mosaics similarly made mounted inside the coffers (those pockets you see on the sides and ceilings of the underground Metro stations) depicting the street view overhead. As a train pulled into a station, you could "look out the window" to see where you were.
The mosaics, especially if illuminated, would help dispel the Metro's gloominess by adding color and "sunlight" to the platforms. At the same time, because they would sit inside the coffers, they wouldn't interfere with the grand vistas of architect Harry Weese, who designed the stations.
This project could engage the community, bringing in neighbors of each Metro station to select the subject matter for their station's mosaics. WMATA could set up a website where residents could offer suggestions for neighborhood landmarks or vote on others' submissions. WMATA could even advertise the submission process as a way to give every DC area resident a stake in "our Metro."
Mosaics could be of recognizable landmarks specific to the area around each station, like the Friendship Arch at the Gallery Place-Chinatown station or the Capitol dome at Capitol South. Or they could be of an interesting view, like the tops of rowhouses, or the entrance of the Thurgood Marshall Academy for the Anacostia station.
Each mosaic would have to satisfy artistic and technical conditions. For example, a mosaic of the skyline wouldn't work because the subject matter is too big to be rendered mosaically with sufficient detail. After passing WMATA review, the local ANC could select a final design from a list of top vote-getters.
The cost could be very reasonable. Each metro coffer is 100 inches wide. If the mosaicist used standard 5/8" x 5/8" ceramic tiles, the rendered mosaic would look very much like the mock-ups depicted here. The cost to complete a station would be less than the $250,000 per station WMATA already has budgeted for public art along the new Silver Line.
Mosaics would be resistant to vandalism, easy to maintain, and easier to clean than the concrete they would cover. They could be made in sections, then installed all at once overnight with no disruption to service. They would also be durable. In my view, one of the primary benefits of installing mosaics in the Metro is that they could be historical windows into our time for future generations of riders.
Visual cues in the Metro system could add interest to every rider's experience. They're especially helpful for visitors and newcomers as well. But for those who struggle with illiteracy or a learning disability, mosaics below ground depicting the street scene above ground could provide life-changing benefits.
Architects Eric Colbert and Associates shared renderings of the latest design for their proposed apartment building at 5333 Connecticut Avenue. Few renderings of the project have been available until now, so it's been difficult to understand how it will look.
The design depicted in the renderings is substantially the same as the one presented at an ANC3G meeting in August, when commissioners voted for the Memorandum of Understanding with developer Cafritz.
Colbert applies planes of glass and white frames to a glass block in manner similar to the neomodernist apartment buildings of Richard Meier. Two of those buildings are regarded as kicking off the trend for glass-enclosed apartment buildings in New York.
The sides of the building that face single family homes have significantly fewer windows, addressing the light pollution concerns the neighbors are reasonably worried about. Having such an dramatic transition from one side to another puts a lot of pressure on the corner, architecturally. Colbert negotiates this shift with a line of windows on the edge of the Kanawha Street wing, shown above. Whether this shift succeeds will depend on how transparent the glass appears at a given time of day.
The change of transparency is driven by the sun, whose heat and light are serious concerns in a glazed building. The renderings show similar treatments on both the north and south elevations of the building. That much glass on the southern exposure will lead to an excess in heat in light, but on the northern side, the glass might also abate the worries about shadows by reflecting light down to the street.
To me, the building is the most successful at the edges of the projections from the sides of the building. There, the relationship between interior walls and the opaque frame around the edge makes it feel like volumes have slid out from the building. This could have been a simplistic, cheesy move, but Colbert's office wove translucent balcony railings into the white frame. The result is a sensitive corner, a feature often absent in glass-heavy modern architecture.
Unfortunately, this sensitivity is absent where the building touches the ground. Considering that the ground has been so controversial, the design would be better if the walls changed as they met the landscape designed by Trini Rodriguez. Whether becoming more solid, showing the weight of the building, or simply transitioning from vertical to horizontal, this relationship is key to producing a building that feels appropriate for its site.
Developer Cafritz has stated their desire to have a building that is contemporary and of its time, and meant "glass." However, glass is only "modern" when it calls attention to relationships of inside and outside, ground and sky, and between the people who look through it as neighbors. Like any materials, how a window shapes our environment is more important than the sheer technological thrill of transparency.
Many complain that Metro's subway stations aren't bright enough, but they're surprisingly not that dim compared to other systems. Better surfaces can ensure that the limited lighting available is used more effectively without altering Metro stations' iconic appearance.
Which of these stations do you think is better lit? This one in Vancouver:
TransLink system lighting standard for subway platforms: 4 foot-candles. Photo by monnibo on Flickr.
Or WMATA's Gallery Place-Chinatown station?
WMATA system lighting standard for subway platforms: 10 foot-candles. Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.
Believe it or not, Vancouver's transit agency specifies platform lighting 60% dimmer than WMATA's: their standard is 4 foot-candles, versus 10 foot-candles for WMATA. I usually read when I'm aboard transit, and whereas I have to seek out light on Metro subway platforms, I've never thought twice about the brightness on TransLink platforms. (Admittedly, I've spent much less time on the latter, partly due to the automated system's startlingly low headways).
It's not how much lighting, but how to use lighting
The difference is that TransLink also specifies high-reflectance, light-colored walls and floors, which direct light into occupied areas so that they feel much brighter. With "passive illumination," it's not just how much light is used, but also what the space does with that light.
Seemingly minor increases in reflectance for surfaces like walls and ceilings, particularly for indirect lighting scenarios, proportionately increase the brightness one can achieve with a given amount of light.
By comparison, much about the classic Metro station design thwarts attempts at improving lighting, and in fact intentionally so. Our standards of brightness have increased, partly because illumination has become so cheap.
Yet the stations' dark material palette, which includes unpainted concrete walls and ceilings, burgundy tiles, chocolate brown panels, even the bronze railings, absorbs what little light new fixtures add. These materials also attract dirt, which further darkens the stations over time.
Metro points to the efforts that it's taken recently, including regular power cleaning of the concrete station vaults, existing efforts to add fixtures, and replacing lighting fixtures system-wide with more modern (and thus brighter and more energy-efficient) equipment. The fruits of these can be seen at stations like Judiciary Square, which does indeed seem like a beacon of light compared to others in the system.
Reflective materials can improve lighting
However, using more reflective materials can also improve station lighting. That's the gist behind Metro's proposed changes to the Bethesda station, like replacing brown metal panels and concrete walls with brushed metal and clear glass. These changes will definitely help, but a more comprehensive approach could look at other changes that can improve lighting without dramatically impacting the stations' canonical appearance.
Laying a clear polymer coat on existing concrete surfaces could increase reflectance, reduce porosity and repel dirt, making cleaning easier. Painting the station vaults has proven controversial throughout Metro's history: Zachary Schrag's book The Great Society Subway points to a 1968 disagreement between the designers Harry Weese and William Lam as to whether to paint the vaults, and notes Weese's "commitment to 'pure structure in plain concrete' " in criticizing a 1990s decision by WMATA to paint some vaults.
But advances in construction materials now mean that light reflectance surprisingly has less to do with color as one might expect. A darker color with a slight gloss reflects more than a brighter color with a dull finish.
Today, much of the lighting in underground stations come from fluorescent tubes recessed within wells that are out of sight, beyond the platform edge or between the tracks. Since these surfaces are so close to the light sources, small changes here will result in big changes throughout.
Cleaning and brightening surfaces within these wells will result in more light reflected upwards into the station, as well as adding reflectors below the tubes to "catch" light that's currently pointing downwards, moving wire conduits so that they're below lights instead of blocking them, and replacing bronze-colored diffusers above the between-track tubes with clear plastic diffusers.
The stations' coffered ceilings have acoustic panels in them, which can be made brighter. These panels cover a surprising amount of the vaults' surface area, but because they're literally in the concrete's shadows, we don't tend to notice them very much.
These, too, accumulate dirt and dust over time, and over time they could be replaced by more reflective panels. The new Rosslyn entrance has highly reflective panels embedded within its coffers, which I didn't even notice the first few times I walked through it.
Similarly, WMATA could replace the drop-ceiling tiles underneath station mezzanines with tiles that reflect more light. Given the low ceiling heights in these spaces and the fact that they're largely hidden from view, a more ambitious upgrade could replace these with ceiling tiles with embedded LED lamps, reducing both shadows and glare in these areas while improving efficiency over the existing can lights. LED ceiling tiles might sound gaudy, but look no different than the fluorescent panels embedded in most office drop ceilings.
Attention to these details can ensure that the maximum possible amount of light is available within Metro's subway stations, improving energy efficiency, safety, comfort, and accessibility without altering their iconic appearance.
To power the Purple Line, Maryland will have to build power-converting substations along the 16-mile route. Transit planners plan to help the structures blend into existing neighborhoods by disguising them as single-family homes.
"Houses" like this one in Toronto could appear along the Purple Line. Photo from MTA.
According to a recent Washington Post article, the Purple Line will require multiple support structures and buildings, including 14 signal bungalows, or small buildings with radio and signal equipment, and a nine-story ventilation tower in Bethesda. There will also be 18 of what the Maryland Transit Administration calls traction power substations, which would feed power to the electrified rails.
Spaced at one mile intervals, these facilities house equipment to convert alternating current carried along high voltage transmission lines to the direct current used by trains. The buildings would be about 50 feet long and 14 feet wide.
Recently, people living along Wayne Avenue in Silver Spring got their first glimpses of the substations. Because they have the potential to introduce visual and noise impacts into quiet residential areas, some neighbors are concerned. In an interview with the Post, resident Anne Edwards described one substation proposed for the corner of Wayne and Cloverfield Road as an "industrial monstrosity."
Because the Purple Line is a federally-funded transportation project, MTA was required to prepare an environmental impact statement. According to the document, which is open for comments until October 21, the line's preferred alternative along Wayne Avenue is a highly sensitive visual corridor. The proposed substations would be visually intrusive, according to the MTA analysis, and the equipment housed in each is expected to emit "transformer hum" sounds.
MTA plans to mitigate the substations' visual and noise impacts with insulation to prevent equipment noise from leaking out and by camouflaging the buildings to make them appear like single-family residences. According an MTA flyer on the substations posted at the Purple Line website, "The substations can be screened with fencing, landscaping and, as appropriate, the MTA will identify further measures to minimize their presence or make them blend in with the environment."
Typical light rail substations are basic windowless boxes. They have all the architectural appeal of a cargo container or a construction trailer. That's why the MTA will make Purple Line substations look like single-family homes instead.
In an April email to a Silver Spring resident that was posted on various community listservs, Purple Line project manager Mike Madden noted that these substations can be found in residential neighborhoods around the US and the world. The MTA can design the buildings to "be more square in shape," making them look more like houses, and give them landscaping and lawns in front, just like a normal house.
The substation designs MTA distributed include a brick veneered building that looks a lot like the ranch houses or ramblers common in Montgomery County neighborhoods developed after World War II. Utilities and transportation companies around the world have used tricks like this for more than a century to minimize the visual impacts of unsightly infrastructure.
Photographers love engineering simulacra like the proposed Purple Line substations. Historic building facades conceal massive substations built to power New York City's subways. Some of these were captured in Christopher Payne's 2002 book, New York's Forgotten Substations.
In 1987, Canadian photographer Robin Collyer began documenting transformer houses, also called "bungalow-style substations," throughout Toronto. Each one was built "in a manner that mimics the style and character of the different neighborhoods," Collyer wrote in 2006.
Closer to home, Pepco built transformer houses in residential neighborhoods in the Colonial Revival style popular at the time as early as the 1930's. According to a 1954 Washington Post article on Pepco's program, the company identified neighborhoods with increasing electricity demands and then went to work designing the faux homes. Pepco employees photographed existing homes surrounding the proposed sites, then a company architect designed compatible substation buildings.
Efforts to conceal infrastructure in the Washington metropolitan area weren't limited to power substations. Today, telecommunications facilities disguised as pine trees, dubbed "monopines," or as flagpoles and building bulkheads are found throughout the area and the nation. There's even a monopine at Mount Vernon.
One of the earliest examples of concealed telecommunications infrastructure in Washington is the 1947 Western Union Telegraph Company microwave terminal in Tenleytown. Architects and engineers went through several designs to minimize the tower's visual impact to the established neighborhood.
One design that included a clock mounted in the façade was discarded and the plain limestone clad tower that still looks out over 41st Street NW was completed with no apparent complaints from neighbors. The former Western Union tower was designated a District of Columbia historic landmark in 2003.
The Western Union Telegraph Company building in 2002. Photo by the author.
It's far too soon to know whether the Purple Line's faux home substations will inspire future generations of photographers or if at some point they may be considered historic. It is fair to say that once they are completed, they may be better neighbors than occupied "real" homes.
MTA will mow the lawns and keep the exteriors neat. Neighbors can rest assured that there won't be any wild parties or competition for street parking. And it's not likely that the new neighbor will be coming over asking to borrow a chainsaw or generator the next time a storm rolls through.
If you like the FDR and MLK Memorials then you'll probably like the Eisenhower Memorial. The latest designs follow the now-familiar model for new federal memorials, with an informal stone centerpiece amid a pleasant park.
Earlier this month, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) released the latest Eisenhower plans, in preparation for a September 12 review meeting.
The proposed design will re-conceive the mess of turn lanes and parking lots where Maryland Avenue SW meets Independence Avenue as a lovely city square. From that perspective, the design is a great victory for DC.
Since the buildings around the memorial are generally uninteresting and devoid of activity, architect Frank Gehry has included several elements that will make the square function as a better and more interesting urban room.
Tapestries form the border of an urban room (left), while an amenity-filled promenade helps draw people to the site (right).
Tall tapestries, covered with graphics, will surround and help frame the square, and will hide the eyesore buildings behind. Along the back edge, an activity-filled promenade will add an element of mixed-use, helping to draw more people. The promenade will include a sidewalk cafe, an art exhibition area, and a visitor center.
The memorial itself, at the center of the new square, will consist of stone blocks and metal statues arranged in a casual, informal plan. Like the FDR Memorial, it will be more introspective than monumental.
But I do wonder how many more similar memorials we can build before the idea becomes a cliche. Ironically, a classical alternative would be more daring.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
Among all of the new DC public libraries, the Bellevue and Francis Gregory branches east of the river have the strongest design. Without sacrificing functionality and accessibility, they put sophisticated works of architecture in historically underserved neighborhoods. But photos don't tell the whole story. You have to go see them yourself.
Designed by British architect David Adjaye, who's also designing the Museum of African-American History and Culture, the libraries are a reminder that it's possible for a work of world-class architecture to also be a comfortable third place.
When the first renderings of the new libraries were published, I was unimpressed by them. But after a day-long excursion to see all of the libraries built under the tenure of library director Ginnie Cooper, I have to admit that I was surprised at how brilliant Bellevue and Francis Gregory are.
Unlike the new libraries at Benning, Anacostia, Tenleytown, and Shaw, which were designed by Freelon Group and Davis Brody Bond, Adjaye's libraries don't have an immediately recognizable, iconic look.
They're both fairly straightforward. Bellevue Library is a box pierced with skylight shafts and a few large "pods" in front. Francis Gregory library is a diamond-patterned box, filled with blocks to divide the space. What distinguishes them is how Adjaye and associate architect, Wiencek+Associates, divide the spaces with layers of books, glass, and glossy surfaces that produce a warm, flexible environment.
Both libraries use glass to interact with the street
Glass is an important part of Adjaye's recent projects, like the Moscow's Skolkovo School of Management, the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, or the Whitechapel Idea Store in London, which like Bellevue and Gregory is a library in an inner-city neighborhood.
Adjaye doesn't use glass to erase a building's form like so many modern office buildings. Although the architects typically want the building to be transparent, minimizing the difference between outside and inside, this effect only works under the right light. Otherwise it's a mirror or it's so dark you can't see the building. This is why we see so many depictions at the twilight "rendering hour." Dusk is the only time when, because the interior of a building is as bright as the exterior, the glass disappears.
Instead, Adjaye uses what are usually undesirable reflections to multiply the sensation of the building's surroundings. Viewing the Gregory Library from dead on, the alternating diamonds of gray mirror and clear glass playfully juxtapose reflections of the neighborhood with views of the interior.
Moving to the side, the reflectivity of the clear glass increases, and the diamonds, the walls, and the building disappear more and more into its wooded site, leaving a steel canopy soaring above a symmetrical forest. In the back, the building disappears. In the front, inside and outside are superimposed on each other, reminding viewers that both are public spaces.
The Bellevue Library has a stronger street presence, but it still plays with openness and transparency. Its glass facade creates a relationship between the interior and the street. Adjaye placed windows to provide clear views out to the sidewalk. Outside, glulam beams, a kind of timber, help screen the interior and heighten the transparency by cutting glare on the windows.
Like a sidewalk cafe, Bellevue's front room "pods" become wonderful places to observe city life while feeling comfortably separate from it.
Inside, reflective surfaces create a sense of place
Inside the Bellevue Library, the wide-open spaces are divided by different-colored sheets of glass that reflect and distort views. Black glass hides the bathrooms on the first floor, while upstairs, dark yellow glazing hides the glare from a skylight. Through the glass partitions you can see to the other end of the library, through several sheets of glass. However, because each pane is also reflecting its surroundings, you see transparent images of the space you're in, with other reflections giving readers the feeling of being in an intimate, private room.
Dark, reflective walls also add to both libraries' sense of place. They use the well-worn trick of implying space behind the wall's surface, "opening it up," while avoiding the hokiness of an optical mirror. They bring light in from outside, and mix it with the colors of the room they contain.
Both the dark walls and the translucent glass let readers sense their surroundings, but loosen the figure of reflected individuals. A viewer can perceive a presence without having to worry about staring or even looking up. To have that kind of casual awareness while focusing on a book felt very relaxing.
However, the most astonishing use of reflective surfaces is in the story room at the Gregory Library. Physically, it's just an oval room bounded by walls of vertical lumber. Every other piece is removed at a child's eye level and the resulting slots are painted gloss black. Within the wall reflect in the trees, books, and structure through drawing in street scenes. As you move around, the angles change and the reflections move and blur, like you're animating them.
See buildings in real-life, not renderings
Neither the Bellevue or Gregory libraries have a "wow" moment. They are very much about the experience of individuals in the spaces the building creates. Because the architecture relies on a person's physical presence, it's hard to understand through a photograph. In fact, the images I've seen are less beautiful than the ambiance of the building.
In 2013, architecture is seen mostly through carefully curated images. An architect's largest audience is often on the web, who will consume and discard architecture through images. Renderings, because they look almost real, can be the most misleading. This emphasis on the photograph feeds back on itself to aggravate a fixation on "iconic" buildings, whose memorable images can be telegraphed around the world and recognized instantly.
But the people who are most affected by a work of architecture, whether positively or negatively, are the ones who live with the building. Dramatic architectural gestures are only so relevant to the creation of great urban spaces. Often, they're detrimental to to the sense of place.
More than anything, Adjaye's buildings remind me that to understand a work of architecture, you have to visit it. The basic architectural elements of space, program, and material are so interrelated that the quality of the buildings is impossible to capture. Don't trust me, and don't try to form an opinion during your lunch break. Go east of the river and see for yourself.
Cross-posted on цarьchitect.
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