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Architecture


Building of the Week: Francis A. Gregory Library

Some of DC's most interesting architecture is hiding in its least-visited neighborhoods. The dynamic glass and timber Francis A. Gregory Library, which was designed by the same architect that brought DC the new African American history museum, sits on Alabama Avenue SE, near the Maryland border.


The Francis Gregory Library. Photo by Neil Flanagan.

This architectural gem's Fort Davis neighborhood is underserved. There's less developed public transit than in other parts of DC, the federal government isn't using any of the available land except for the military's Joint Base Anacostia-- Bolling, and nearby historic sites get little promotion.

Placing Adjaye Associates and Wiencek Associates' world-class library here, though, was no accident. In 2012, David Adjaye's company completed both the Francis A. Gregory Library and the nearby Bellevue Library, in the Washington Highlands neighborhood. The Tanzanian born, London-based architect has worked on projects in similarly marginalized areas of London and Johannesburg. This month, Adjaye's latest joint venture, the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture opens on the National Mall.

Adjaye's is often praised for focusing on the people who live in a given place rather than simply impressing the architectural elite, yet few in the District mention the unusually exciting contemporary architecture he is infusing into an aesthetically conservative city.

The main feature of the library's exterior is the glass curtain wall. That Adjaye could bring joy to a curtain wall speaks to his creativity. A curtain wall is simply a non-structural outer wall that separates occupants from weather. Huge glass curtain walls were once revolutionary, but they now typically signal urban homogeneity.

Adjaye made the curtain wall an exciting building technique again with diamond cutouts whose interiors are lined in wood. This gives both the facade and interior three dimensionality, as well as foreshadowing the woven look that he has implemented in the new Smithsonian's exterior.


Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

Unlike every new glass building the library truly relates to its environment. Surrounding trees provide natural weather moderation. They also have the rare effect of being mirrored in the library's low-emissivity coated glass. This design is beautiful but also logical, as the library provides passage to the park behind it.

Leaving the steel-canopied exterior for the 22,500 square foot interior does not mean abandoning sun. The atrium and reading rooms provide views of the vegetation, and visitors can sit in some of the wooden diamonds. Glass ceilings cut in a square pattern enhance the intended porousness of the space.


Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

In keeping with Adjaye's community interest, some of the library's rooms can transition from their public purpose to other uses, like event and conference areas. The space is intentionally intimate and uncluttered. Its 32 public computers and seven transformable rooms reflect an understanding of the rapid evolution of libraries' function in the 21st century.

These themes are all over the new African American history museum, too

Many of the elements from Adjaye's library are reflected in his new work on the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture: steel and wood construction, LEED certification, and evolution of a building typology.


The new National Museum of African American History and Culture. Photo by Michael Barnes, from the Smithsonian.

It is perhaps this last similarity that is most important. Adjaye's library is a place not only for its classic silent study, but also for presently celebrated ideals like community and learning from others. His new museum is perhaps America's highest profile attempt to understand a history that is still unfolding.


Image from ISEC.

African American history and culture permeate and shape every part of the American story; the ramifications of the subjugation of that race, during slavery and long after, is its ugly underbelly. The conflict between celebration and suppression is still being explored today. To approach such a living, contested subject will be done visibly in Adjaye Associates and Wiencek Associates' museum, but also in the architect's decisions.

The building's design draws inspiration from African American building. Its aluminum and bronze exterior cladding is a modern version of the ornamental metal casting that African Americans created in the south in the 19th century using their knowledge of West African techniques. While expensive to create, the bronze panels will darken over time, making a dramatic statement on the National Mall.

Adjaye's so-called "woodland folly" (a term referring to the fact that the building is supposed to become part of the landscape, suggesting an intertwined relationship with the surrounding nature, as woodland follies were small structures designed to allow users to relax in nature) on Alabama Avenue bears less of this weighty burden. Yet in designing libraries for overlooked areas, Adjaye brings innovation and beauty to neighborhoods others see unfit to visit. He is creating progressive places not for the sake of drawing wealthy people in, but to bring a wealth of ideas to nearby residents local libraries are meant to serve.

Architecture


Does DC want boring architecture? Sort of.

DC has a lot of boring architecture, and that's no mistake; a cheap federal government and a bevy of paper pushers keep the District that way. At least that's what a few experts on architecture and development in DC had to say at a panel last week.


Is DC architecture inherently boring? Photo by Bossi on Flickr.

Turncoats, an urbanist debate group, hosted its first DC debate last week on the question of whether or not the District wants boring architecture. The organization works to encourage provocative discussion, fueling everyone—including audience members—with a shot of liquor before things get started and only assigning the panelists sides after they've taken the stage.

Payton Chung of the Urban Land Institute (and a member of Greater Greater Washington's editorial board), Brian Miller of Edit Lab at Streetsense, Nooni Reatig of Suzane Reatig Architecture, and Mina Wright of the General Services Administration and National Capital Planning Commission (who was careful to stress that all of her statements were hers alone and not those of her employer) participated in the panel.

Initially, Payton and Nooni were assigned the position that DC does indeed want boring architecture, while Brian and Mina had to argue that isn't the case.

Despite their supposed sides, the panelists coalesced in agreement that DC architecture is boring... they just differed on the reasons why. For example, Payton argued that it is the embodiment of DC's culture of middle-management paper pushers while Mina said it was simply the result of a cheap federal government keen to maximize usable space in its office buildings.

We (Edward and Joanne) attended the panel and discussed our thoughts in a chat format.

Edward Russell (ER): It was clear to me that the panelists, whether they took the pro or con position, feel that DC's architecture is boring. I do wish those who argued that DC does in fact want boring architecture had said more about why boring architecture can still be interesting.

Joanne Pierce (JP): I expected the panelists to discuss DC's architecture as it is now, why it appears to be boring, and whether they agree (since boring is relative). "City architecture is boring" is a popular opinion. You can google any city and "boring architecture" and get dozens of articles decrying NYC, Boston, LA, etc., for being filled with boxy, glass buildings.

ER: Exactly. I felt that some were a bit of tongue-and-cheek, especially on the con side—though the two blended together a bit—with Nooni arguing that multiple streets lined with "Soul Cycle, Chipotle and Starbucks" made her feel comfortable, which was clearly a dig at the homogeneity of it all.

JP: There were lots of zingers, which were fun and spirited. I think everyone truly enjoys living in DC, and they can still poke fun at its stodgy reputation. That was an interesting comment on the sameness of our streets, which Mina echoed with her comment about Federal Triangle being lovely, but "you don't want to live in a city of Federal Triangles." I appreciated that comment because Federal Triangle happens to be that prime example of DC federal building run amok. It's just federal building after federal building. But it can be lovely!


Federal Triangle. Photo by Irakil on Flickr.

ER: It can be lovely. There is certainly a grandeur of the federal DC, with the ordered avenues and the neo-classical buildings.

JP: I'm a little biased because I work in the Ronald Reagan Building.

ER: One thing that surprised me was how the height limit only came up once, and it was an audience member saying they didn't think that is the issue holding back DC architecture. I expected it to be discussed more.

JP: I did, too. I think that's owing to the structure, where the panelists didn't bring it up, except to say that we don't need skyscrapers. The discussion seemed to be more about the overall uniformity that exists in DC. I was also surprised that the discussion focused mostly on public or semi-public buildings, and not much at all on residences.

ER: Yes, I think that was the result of, as Payton put it, the fact that DC is a city of "middle class, paper-pushing bureaucrats." A lot of the speakers built off that. I agree that the federal government has had an outsize impact on DC architecture for decades—centuries even—but the panelists took it a step further and argued that we're a city of bureaucrats who ultimately want an unadorned box (or row house) rather than some limit-pushing designed residence, whether in a tower or a house.

JP: There's some historical connection with that comment. Lots of our boxy tan buildings are brutalist, and a lot of those came about because of the federal government. For instance, the Weaver building, which is where Housing and Urban Development is now, was built according to President Kennedy's architectural initatives. So if we think the Weaver's big, boxy (it's actually kind of curved) look is unattractive, it is because Kennedy wanted it to represent the strength of America.


The Weaver Building. Photo by Kjetil Ree on Flickr.

ER: Like Brian said: "DC has lots of cutting edge architecture, it's just from 100 years ago." Or 50 years ago in the case of President Kennedy.

JP: Concrete is wonderful! You'll see! Going back to your comment about wanting unadorned, big boxes—I'm no architect, but it seems like when your primary need is space to house many people (for housing or for work) your most logical shape is a square or rectangle, not a curve or a triangle. It seems like there should be a way to combine the two, but then you sometimes get the 20 Fenchurch building, which was Brian's example of ugly design.


20 Fenchurch Street in London. Photo by Matt Buck on Flickr.

ER: Yes, that is something DC architecture does well—maximizing the amount of space available for workers or for residents, within the limits that exist for buildings (height limit, plot size, whatever). As Mina put it, "I think the Feds are at fault. Why? They're cheap."

JP: The cheapness of government makes a lot of sense but I think it's more of a cultural cheapness. Maybe for a long time, we just didn't want to stand out. Or at least, the people in power who made the decisions didn't think the city needed to stand out. Except with The National Mall.

ER: Did you agree with the general conclusion that so much generally mediocre architecture will make the unique, interesting buildings in DC stand out? I agree with the premise but wonder how we get to the point where we have unique buildings to stand out from the crowd. Like Atlantic Plumbing (2112 8th Street NW), I do like it, it's more industrial then we generally have here, but at the same time it is still a steel and glass rectangular box.


Atlantic Plumbing. Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

JP: I think that the question of what is boring should be reframed. Are we boring, or are we just not a place where we have singular, instantly recognizable buildings. Things that show up in magazines, like Brian pointed out, and things that wow people as they drive by. Is that what we consider to be the most important?

ER: We have a few remarkable buildings, but I'd say they're iconic more due to their historical significance than their architecture (the White House, the Capitol).

JP: Certainly, we have the White House and the Capitol and the monuments. But beyond that, when we talk about iconic buildings that aren't Federal... I think the premise of whether our uniformity allows the interesting buildings to stand out is totally right. The African American history museum stands out because it's brown and not in the same architectural style as many others.

ER: It certainly does, whether you like the design or not.

JP: Sometimes, you just need one bold idea to start things off.

Architecture


How DC's central and outer neighborhoods differ, in 3 maps

Some of DC's residential neighborhoods feel a lot more like a city than others—just compare Capitol Hill's small row houses and the mid-century homes in upper Forest Hills, for example. These maps show the big divide between DC's inner and outer sections when it comes to house type, year built, and lot size.


Maps by the author.

In each map, there's an almost-identical area of light shading across the area that stretches from Capitol Hill to Georgetown and from Shaw up to Petworth. Generally, houses closer to DC's core are almost all older row houses built on smaller lots, while those closer to the edges tend to be newer single or semi-detached houses on larger pieces of land.



The divide becomes more distinct when looking at the data by ward. Here are DC's wards:


DC's wards. Image from the DC Office of Planning.

Below, you can see the median year a home was built, the median lot size, and the percent of homes that are not row houses. Wards 1, 2 and 6, which make up the inner part of the city, are all grouped together on the left.

Ward 2 has, on median, the oldest homes. The true median may even be older than 1900; that year is often used as default for building year when one cannot be determined. Homes in Wards 7 and 8 are the newest.

A peculiar vestige of the L'Enfant Plan—the fact that homeowners in the old city do not own their front yardsmay slightly downplay lot size within the inner city, so I didn't include front yards in lot size.

Ward 3 is by far the least residentially dense ward, with a median lot size of 5,100 square feet, three times that of Ward 6. Ward 3 also has the fewest row houses. In the inner wards, more than 80% of all homes are row houses.

A version of this post originally ran at DataLensDC.

Links


National links: How do bikes work? We don't really know...

Physicists disagree on what exactly makes bikes work. Kansas City opened a streetcar line earlier this year, and it's doing really well. A number of US companies are moving parts of their businesses into downtowns but keeping other parts in less urban places. Check out what's happening around the country (and beyond) in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by √Čtienne F on Flickr.

Bicycles. They're a mystery: Even though bicycles have been around over 100 years, we still aren't sure about the physics of why they work. Two competing theories, the gyroscopic and caster, are still being debated. A new research lab could solve the mystery once and for all. (Fast Company Design)

A successful streetcar: Given the poor ridership numbers for a lot of new streetcar projects around the country, it might surprise you to hear that Kansas City's new streetcar line has exceeded expectations. It's averaging over 6,600 riders a day even though it's a relatively short line, it's free to ride and goes through an up and coming district, and there are extensions on the way. (Slate)

Moving downtown... kind of: Many US corporations have long preferred suburban headquarters, but a number of CEOs are moving their offices downtown in hopes of attracting high-skill workers. At the same time, some are keeping lower wage jobs in suburbs and smaller cities, leading to questions of equity. (New York Times)

Where are all the great urban spaces?: In the last fifty years, the US has slowed down on building small streets with human scale buildings, and there's been an explosion of sprawl. If city administrators want great urban places, they need to focus on non-auto transportation and streets that put stores, schools, homes, and churches within walkable distances. (Governing Magazine)

A home to grow old in: Universal design is a way of designing places for people of all ages and abilities. Having a gradual slope instead of steps so that wheelchairs can access a room is one example of the practice. Designers don't always apply the practice to housing, especially those building in bulk, but with so many people aging, it's becoming more necessary to create dwellings that accommodate people through all stages of life. A Seattle company that makes prefabricated housing is focusing on universal design. (Fast Company Design)

Redevelopment in London: For a long time, the area around King's Cross rail station in London was a mixture of banged up and dangerous. But over the last few decades, redevelopment around the district's old rail lines and canals have formed the centerpiece of a great urban place. (Travel and Leisure)

Quote of the Week

"Hoover's zoning program, however, was created specifically to facilitate master-planned suburbs on virgin land. It was never designed to work in existing, built-out areas. So it should come as no surprise that today's city planners struggle to shoehorn urban diversity into suburban zoning schemes that assume car-dominated mobility and a neat separation of uses."

Mott Smith and Mark Vallianatos in the Los Angeles Times, discussing why we need to stop zoning and planning in cities as if they were suburbs.

History


Building of the Week: Downtown's Woodward & Lothrop building

Located 11th Street NW between G and F Streets, DC's Woodward and Lothrop building is iconic: it appears in books and as a case study for developers, and we've even featured it ourselves (twice!). But while most of the attention focuses on the famous department store that lived in it, the building itself tells the story of how fast fashion eclipsed department store retail in the United States.


The Woodward & Lothrop building, sometime in the 1910s. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

Woodward and Lothrop was founded in Washington in 1880 and settled into its flagship location on the 1000 block of F and G Streets NW in 1886. Architect James G. Hill designed the company's eclectic five-story headquarters, and real estate investor Calderon Carlisle funded the project.

The building was no skyscraper, but it shared the language of taller buildings: arcade windows and expansive showrooms covered in neoclassical ornament. The rich mix of materials included mahogany and French glass.

Thanks to continued success, owners Samuel Woodward and Alvin Lorthrop purchased most of the block by 1897. New acquisitions were renovated or expanded, notably a large addition in 1902 on G Street.


A picture from an advertisement in the 1913 edition of Rand McNally's Pictorial Guide to Washington. Photo from Streets of Washington.

Chicago architect Henry Ives Cobb was hired to unify and modernize the building. The result was eight stories and 400,000 square feet of retail space adorned with cast iron and leaded glass.

Cobb's design spoke to his Chicago roots. The building's two commercial levels featured elaborate ornamentation and American-made cast iron piers. The third floor was narrower and hid its steel frame under rustication. The subsequent four stories wear a Beaux-Arts uniform and end in a heavy cornice. This segmentation resembles that of Chicago skyscrapers.

For F Street, Woodward and Lothrop hired Frederick B. Pyle to build a terra cotta segment of the building. While designed to appear as a distinct structure, it was always integrated into the larger building.


Here, you can see the terra cotta part of the building, which runs along 10th Street. Photo from Douglas Development.

By 1927 the building took on its present appearance after the original Carlisle Building had been destroyed. Woodies, as it was affectionately known, operated here until 1994 with only modest changes.


The Woodies building after 1926, viewed from 11th and F Streets, NW. Image from Streets of Washington.

By the end of the 20th century, the entire chain was bankrupt. The Washington location was abandoned, and its building auctioned to the Washington Opera. The Opera's plans to convert the landmarked space into a theater failed, and five years later it was acquired by developer Douglas Jemal.

The company renovated the space in 2002, putting offices on most floors and returning the ground level to retail space. Now a jaunt around the block allows you to shop at Zara, H&M, and Forever 21.


Image from Douglas Development.

Woodies led the way for department stores, both the rise and fall

These new tenants are no modern Woodies—because the department store as a business model is long in decline. In Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, author Elizabeth Cline delves into how department stores were revolutionary when they arrived at the turn of the 20th century, but by the end of the century, that revolution turned against them.


The Woodward & Lothrop floor at Christmas time, sometime in the 1960s. Photo by StreetsofWashington on Flickr.

In 1900, textile, patterns, and readymade home and clothing items under one roof gave upper class women a safe, socially acceptable escape from the household. These items' relative affordability meant a person didn't have to make all their own clothing anymore. By the post-war era, American pockets bulged, ready-to-wear was king, and competition was fierce in the industry. Mail order catalogs allowed you to peruse your regional chain's offerings, or you could drive to Montgomery Ward, Belk, or Burdines for mid-market sales.

But like its contemporary the land line, the department store model was due for change. Cline notes that by the 1970s malls and discount retailers mushroomed across America. These were descended upon by price conscious Americans—with an evaporating middle class, who would shop for mid-priced clothing? At the dawn of the 21st century, shopping preferences were clear: Forever 21 or the designer from whom the chain borrowed inspiration.

In the era of fast fashion—piles of stylish clothing go from sketch to store in a matter of weeks, selling for small sums—the moderate department store was too slow and expensive. Department stores tried to meet the new expectations, hastening their own demise with untenable discounts and a dwindling clientele.

Woodies was a casualty of this changing economy. Many of its stores were acquired by Macy's and Bloomingdales, chains that expanded nationally and weathered the shift partly by focusing on higher end customers. Woodies fell victim of its refusal to evolve—or as critics of fast fashion's labor and environmental effects argue, devolve.

Yet the signature building remains intact. The space itself epitomizes the changing retail tides of history. The eclectic buildings first brought together by Woodies have been recycled, reorganized, and parceled out to individual owners again. The structure remains to tell the tale.

Links


Worldwide links: France

Today, we mourn for France, which was again the target of a horrific terrorist attack.


Photo by Kristoffer Trolle on Flickr.

Tragedy in France: A man killed over 80 people and injured at least 200 more when he drove a truck through a crowds celebrating Bastille Day in France's southern city of Nice. The attack on the pedestrian-filled promenade was the third major terrorist attack in France since January 2015.

Tramways of Paris: Light rail and streetcar lines continue to go up around the country, and while some have been successful others suffer from low ridership and poor design. Across the Atlantic, however, Paris built a system of "trams" that has a ridership in excess of 900,000. The Paris tram's successful integration with the city's existing network, along with its dedicated right of way, are things we should learn from. (TransitCenter)

Catch them all: The Pokemon Go phenomenon has urban thinkers excited about a new possibility for getting people out of the house and exploring their neighborhoods. People playing the game have been roaming the streets and complaining of tired legs while going places they normally might not in order to capture Pokemon for their collections. (Curbed)

Pre-fabulous: A new method for building prefabricated housing in England has cut construction time from eight weeks to three. Using timber construction, architects build self-supporting boxes and ship them to the site. At around £100,000, these homes could be a new source of affordable housing. (Wired UK)

Exhibits, but no musuem: Stadiums and museums cost a lot of money to build and keep running. But maybe the best place for what happens in those buildings, like concerts and exhibits, is festivals. While buildings require up keep and become a liability, festivals can use public spaces and temporary structures to fill their needs. It's an idea to ponder for places that don't have much budget to waste. (Des Moines Register)

Old burbs: As the generation known as the Baby Boomers ages, the structure of the suburbs will become more challenging: as people age, driving cars and climbing stairs will become more strenuous on both physical and mental health. But there are ways for people downsizing to prepare, and it's possible for them to move into more walkable neighborhoods. (The Herald)

Brew tube: To bring down the number of beer-filled tanker trucks driving through historic Bruges, Belgium, a local brewery decided to build a two-mile beer pipeline to its bottling plant on the outskirts of town. The pipeline allowed jobs to stay in the UNESCO historic district while upholding not just architectural heritage, but also continuing the tradition of brewing beer. (Guardian Cities)

Quote of the Week

"During multiple sessions, attendees have expressed concerns that the streetcar will speed up gentrification and displace long-time residents. Thus, the plan, these opponents say, should be discarded in the name of affordability... Over the years, studies have shown that transit access will be a factor in increased rents and gentrification, but transit access isn't the only factor. It is, then, possible and necessary to implement zoning and housing policies that can tamp down on the upward pressures transit access exerts on the affordability of a neighborhood and stave off displacement."

Ben Kabak of New York City transit blog Second Avenue Sagas on the link between transit and gentrification.

Development


This map shows what all of DC's houses are made of

Did you know the vast majority of DC's houses are made of brick? That might not surprise you if you've walked around the city much, but this map confirms it, and shows how common other types of building materials are.


You can click this map for a larger, interactive map of all the houses in DC. Map by Kate Rabinowitz via DMPED.

Kate Rabinowitz of DataLensDC created the interactive map, which shows what materials make up the facades on DC's houses, based on data from the city.

DC has been around for a while, so it makes sense that a lot of our buildings are made of old-school materials like brick. While new construction generally uses cheaper materials, brick was the material of choice for decades, especially in residential areas closer to the core of the city. For a long time, it was the cheapest, most fireproof construction material available, which was especially important in DC at one point.

Looking throughout the entirety of DC, some areas in the northeast and southeast quadrants have a lot of aluminum and vinyl, which are characteristic of newer construction. There are also a fair number of homes in the northwest quadrant that use wood or stucco. But for the most part, we live in a brick city.

Do you notice anything else in the map? Can you offer any more insight as to why we've used the materials we have?

Links


National links: How the highways happened

The US highway system is around partly because of a road trip Dwight Eisenhower took right after WWI, and if our leaders don't invest in our transit infrastructure, we'll have to sit back and hope for the best until they change their minds. Check out what's happening around the world in transportation, land use, and other related areas!


Photo by Ken Lund on Flickr.

Interstate prelude: On July 7, 1919, Dwight Eisenhower struck out on a road trip across the country. His military convoy, the first to cross the US by car, was partly a WWI celebration and partly an effort to gather info on the state of American roads at the time. It averaged 52 miles per day. This road trip and a view of the German autobahns would plant the seeds of the future US Interstate Highway System (History)

Alphabet soup: Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet (which is basically Google), has offered a suite of tools to Columbus Ohio, the winner of a contest for city design. It includes a program called "Flow," which would help the city modernize its parking system and coordinate ride sharing for low income residents. Though some worry the program will take away from standard transit services. (Guardian Cities)

Surviving the storm: Transit in the United States is often set back by ideological rigidity and under-investment. Laws that keep tax money from going toward infrastructure, for example, make it impossible to get the support needed to repair and expand transit, and they'll stay in place unless leaders change them. The real question is whether transit can survive until those changes happen. (The Hill)

Try something new!: The developers behind a Harris Teeter in Carrboro, North Carolina, want to build something familiar: a grocery store in a tired strip mall. The design has remained very suburban and auto-oriented despite the city's multiple efforts to make it more urban and increase its potential tax base. It's an example of what happens when bean counters at the home office believe what they've always done (strip malls) is the only way to make money. (City Beautiful 21)

No Mickey Mouse ride: Disney has been pushing for a streetcar line from a commuter rail station in Anaheim to the theme park, and local officials were going along with the plan until now. The streetcar has been cancelled by the Orange Country Transit Authority board, with opponents citing low demand for the existing commuter rail and a high speed rail station that's coming in the future as reasons. (Voice of the OC)

Geek city:This week bay area tech incubator Y Combinator has put out a request for applications for its city research endeavor. The agency hopes that in the future, it might be able to find out the best way to build a city from scratch in a way that's better than what exists now. Good luck with that.(Treehugger)

Quote of the Week

"Drive-ins shifted the film industry's focus to the teenage demographic, a tactic that still informs studio decisions in 2016. And drive-ins unwittingly became both cause and casualty of urban sprawl."

- Urban planning expert Ryan Baker on the heyday of the drive in theater.

Architecture


Building of the Week: Terminal B/C at National airport

Ronald Reagan Washington National airport turned 75 years old this month, having served the region since president Franklin Delano Roosevelt welcomed the first American Airlines DC-3 in 1941. Today, terminal B/C, which opened in 1997, is the focal point of the airport and an instantly recognizable part of the region's architectural heritage.


Terminal B/C at National airport. Photo by ep_jhu on Flickr.

The most striking elements of terminal B/C, which was designed by Cesar Pelli, are its domes. Considered "Jeffersonian" in their design, each of the 54 in the terminal building is a modular, 45-foot square bay made of steel with a glass oculus at their center, according to National Airport Terminal, Pelli's book on the project.


Each Jeffersonian dome in terminal B/C is 45 feet square with a glass oculus at its center. Photo by Brian Allen.

The domes serve as a connection between the terminal and the "civic architecture of Washington DC," which is purposely visible through the floor-to-ceiling glass wall that faces the aircraft ramp and the District, says Pelli.


Travellers can see the US capitol, other monuments and the Potomac River through terminal B/C's floor-to-ceiling glass wall. Photo by the author.

Pelli placed all of the terminal's functional elements, like ticket counters, baggage belts and restrooms, on the landside of the building to allow for the glass wall.

The domes also feature in each of terminal B/C's three piers, with nine atop the atriums at the end of each concourse.

"[The terminal] has a kind of industrialized Gothic quality inside," wrote architecture critic Paul Goldberger in the book. "The architect has managed to combine the lightness of late Gothic architecture with the tensile quality of twentieth-century modernism."

He notes that the design benefitted from the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority's (MWAA) desire for a terminal that had sufficient "aesthetic stature" to serve as a gateway to the US capital.

A long-needed upgrade

Terminal B/C was a long-overdue solution to the problem that was National airport. By the 1980s, the airport's three terminals—the main terminal (terminal A today), north terminal and commuter terminal (see a map here)—were outdated and overcrowded.

"It is a major horror story of modern planning," James Murphy, then head of airport policy for the then Air Transport Association and a former manager of National airport, told The Washington Post in June 1986. "You can't overstate the problems. It has the most severe facility constraints per square foot of any airport I have ever seen."

Work on a new master plan officially began in 1982, MWAA documents show. However, it was not until the formation of the airport authority in 1987 that the project moved into high gear.

MWAA approved a master plan that included terminal B/C in March 1988, less than a year after its formation. The first project, the demolition of hangar one and construction of a new parking garage, began that July.

A key consideration for the project was access from the Metro. When the station opened in 1977, it was only somewhat convenient for passengers flying out of the commuter or north terminals and a long walk through parking lots to the main terminal, which handled the bulk of airport traffic. Terminal B/C was sited where it is and designed to eliminate this inconvenience and make it easy for travellers to access the building from the rail system.

In 1989, Pelli was hired to design the new terminal that at the time was expected to cost about $200 million and open in 1994.

The same year, an interim terminal opened on the north side of National to accommodate passengers displaced by the demolition of the commuter terminal and old north terminal during construction.


A diagram of National airport with the interim terminal from the early 1990s. Photo by the author.

The terminal project encountered a setback in 1990. As it was laid out, the new building would obstruct the view of the threshold of one of National airport's three runways from the old control tower atop the main terminal. The issue was rectified by the addition of a new tower to terminal B/C.

Pelli unveiled four potential designs for the terminal in early 1992. Later that year, MWAA selected the one dubbed "Jeffersonian Domes" but was forced to scale down the plans due to airline and congressional concerns about rapidly rising costs that had nearly doubled to $400 million by that time.


The four proposed designs for terminal B/C at National airport, the ultimate Jeffersonian dome design is in the bottom right. Image from National Airport Terminal by Cesar Pelli.

Construction began on terminal B/C in November 1993 and took nearly four years, with the facility opening on July 27, 1997—three years late and about $250 million more than originally expected.


A US Airways map of the new north terminal, terminal B/C today, from 1997. Photo by the author.

Adapting for more passengers

National airport again faces congestion issues. Passenger traffic increased by nearly six million to 23 million from 2009 to 2015, placing strain on facilities that were designed to handle roughly 17 to 18 million people annually.

MWAA plans to build a new commuter concourse on the north side of the airport replacing gate 35X, which is the bain of many passengers flying on small regional aircraft. The concourse will replace 14 remote aircraft parking positions with the same number of gates with jetways.


Outline of the planned commuter concourse at National airport. Photo by MWAA.

The concourse has been planned since at least 1998, when the authority approved a regional concourse on the same site for then US Airways. The project was cancelled later the same year as the airline faced financial difficulties.

MWAA also plans to move national hall—the hall with Pelli's floor-to-ceiling glass wall overlooking the tarmac and capital—in terminal B/C behind security in order to reduce chokepoints at the entrance to each pier and ease passenger connections between the concourses.

The new concourse and reconfiguration of national hall will be the first major changes to Pelli's iconic terminal B/C.

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