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Architecture


This federal building is missing a corner. Here's why

The Department of Agriculture South Building an archetypal federal building: big, beige, and boxy. But it's missing a corner. Why? The L'Enfant Plan and a street that no longer exists.


The South Building, with the Jamie L. Whitten Building to the north. Image from Google Maps.

The South Building's fašade stands about 30 feet back from Independence Avenue. The south entrance to the Smithsonian metro stop fits so cozily into the corner, it almost looks as if the notch was built just for it. Of course, that doesn't square with the history.

This building was an exercise in making efficient use of the land. Unlike Federal Triangle, or Southwest's modernist buildings, its walls run right up to the property line. With long, thin wings connected at the perimeter, the South Building was as efficient as an office building could be before air conditioning.

When completed in 1936, it was the largest office building in the world. Only the Pentagon would unseat it. On Independence Avenue, its facade runs for 900 feet of beige brick and green-painted steel.

The architect, Louis Simon, wouldn't have built the setback if he didn't have to. Looking at a satellite photo provides no clues. But, if you look at an older satellite photo, the reason becomes obvious.


The South Building in and its context in 2012. The missing corner is on the left side of the image.


The South Building in and its context in 1941.

Pierre L'Enfant's Virginia Avenue slightly clips the block. You can't see it now, because urban renewal replaced that section of Virginia Avenue with bas-relief urbanism and highway ramps. Ironically, the sightline the architects so carefully avoided was erased thirty years later.

And this brings up the last reason it's so mysterious: the architects went out of their way to hide the difference between the corners. Rather than clipping it diagonally along the property line, Simon's team designed an orthogonal setback that seemed like it was the natural place for the wall.

With two pedestrian bridges and a long walk in between each corner, it's really hard to notice the difference. I wouldn't have noticed it had it not come up in the dispute over the Eisenhower Memorial's setbacks.

For now, it's another one of DC's carefully hidden quirks, like the off-axis position of the Washington Monument, or the Jefferson Memorial sitting slightly to the south where Maryland Avenue would be. As Southwest is rebuilt, and Virginia Avenue returns, the purpose of the notch will become more clear.

Public Spaces


This could have been the Silver Spring Transit Center

Though it remains unfinished, the Silver Spring Transit Center has been in planning since 1997. But 20 years before that, architecture students created this proposal for a giant box stretching across downtown Silver Spring.


A 1970s proposal for the Silver Spring Transit Center. All images courtesy of Neil Greene.

Silver Spring is one of the region's largest transportation hubs, bringing together Metro, commuter rail, local buses, intercity buses, and eventually the Purple Line and the Capital Crescent Trail. Fitting all of those pieces presents a pretty interesting design challenge, and naturally attracts architecture students. When I was in architecture school at the University of Maryland, I saw more than a few thesis projects reimagining the transit center.


A section drawing of the proposed transit center, which would have also contained stores, offices, a hotel, and apartments.

Recently, Action Committee for Transit's Neil Greene found this proposal for the Silver Spring Transit Center produced by a group of architecture students at Catholic University in the 1970s, right before the Metro station opened in 1978. Like the most recent plans for the transit center, which have since fallen through, they surrounded the transit center with buildings containing apartments, offices, a hotel, and shops. Except in this proposal, they'd all be in one giant superstructure surrounding the station platform.

In their design, Metro trains would pull into a giant, skylit atrium, surrounded by shops and restaurants, with apartments, offices, and hotel rooms above. That was a really popular idea at the time, pioneered by architect John Portman, though I don't know of any atria that included a train station.


Metro trains would have passed through a giant atrium.

Directly below the platform was the B&O Railroad, the precursor to today's MARC commuter rail. Below that were buses, taxis, and a kiss-and-ride, as well as an underground parking garage for commuters.

The entire structure would have stretched over multiple blocks from Colesville Road and East-West Highway, where the NOAA buildings are today, up to Wayne Avenue, where the current transit center is. Existing streets would go through the transit center in underpasses, while skybridges would allow visitors to travel through the rest of downtown Silver Spring without touching the street.


Skybridges would have connected the transit center to the rest of downtown Silver Spring.

Of course, this was just a student proposal, and was never carried out. But Montgomery County did propose skybridges in downtown Silver Spring as early as 1969 and, by the 1970s, had drawn out an entire network of them, most of which were never built.

This was in keeping with the prevailing wisdom of the time, that cars and pedestrians should be kept separate. But as we've seen in places where this actually happened, like Rosslyn or Crystal City, this doesn't work very well, and those communities are getting rid of their skybridges.

Of course, had we actually pursued a design like this, the Silver Spring Transit Center might have actually opened by now. Repair work on the current facility is currently underway and Montgomery County officials say that it could open next year, just seven years after groundbreaking.

Architecture


To turn this Silver Spring street around, one building owner put in fake stores

For years, the ground-floor shops at the Guardian Building in downtown Silver Spring have sat empty. To lure new tenants, the building's owner brought the space to life with fake storefronts.


All photos from Devin Arkin.

The Arkin family has owned this six-story office building, located at Georgia Avenue and Cameron Street, for decades. But as owner Michael Arkin's health declined and he wasn't able to keep the building up, many of the retail tenants moved away, retired, or passed away. After a stroke a few years ago, his sons took over management of the building. "We had our work cut out for us," said son Devin Arkin, who grew up in Silver Spring but now lives in Chicago.


The Guardian Building before.

The sons renovated the building and commissioned an sculpture for the lobby of 1950s-era hardware they found in the basement. But they weren't sure what to do with its nearly 7,400 square feet of empty retail space until they read about towns in Northern Ireland who disguised their empty shops with murals depicting open, lively businesses.

Arkin's advertising firm Huckleberry Pie crafted scenes of busy stores, like a men's wear store and a bakery, and fitted them over the empty windows. Workers toil away behind the counter as ducks and chickens peer out from door frames. Discrete "For Lease" and "Build to Suit" signs appear between images of food and goods.


The fake storefronts seen from across the street.

Cameron Street is a few blocks away from the shops and restaurants along Ellsworth Drive, and as a result there isn't a lot of foot traffic. The Guardian Building isn't alone in having an empty first floor. The Cameron, an apartment building across the street, lost one of its two ground floor tenants, an outpatient surgery center. And two blocks away at Cameron and Spring streets, there are ground floor spaces at United Therapeutics' new headquarters that have been vacant for nearly four years.

If all of the storefronts on Cameron Street were filled, it might actually become a compelling destination that could draw shoppers and diners from other parts of downtown Silver Spring. But since most of them are empty, nobody wants to be the first to take the risk. (Other than Jimmy John's sandwich shop in the first floor of the Cameron, which as a chain can draw customers on name recognition alone.)

Hopefully, the Guardian Building can buck the trend. Its fake storefronts may not convince anyone, but it does look better than it did before. Hopefully, they'll catch the eye of potential tenants soon. According to this marketing brochure, the space is still vacant.

Roads


Honor Frederick Douglass and DC with a worthy new bridge design

The Federick Douglass Bridge, which carries South Capitol Street over the Anacostia, will soon be rebuilt. It's on one of DC's main axes from the Capitol and honors a singular champion of the rights of all people regardless of race, ethnicity, or sex. But the result, so far, is an anticlimactic highway bridge that hunkers down instead of soaring.


The most recent design for the bridge. All images from DDOT.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is in charge of replacing the 64-year-old rusting, pothole-filled bridge. DDOT's "preferred" design, produced in 2011, is the "arched bascule" (a seesaw-like drawbridge).

Originally, the new bridge was supposed to look like this:


Original "arched bascule" design.

It's not bad, but is basically a draftsman's modernized copy of the architecturally distinguished, neoclassical Memorial Bridge across the Potomac River that is a symbolic affirmation of a reunited North and South.

Doesn't Douglass deserve to be honored with an original design, one that's a visual metaphor for Douglass' very modern vision of human rights and its central place in the national narrative? (The Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery recognized Douglass as one of its 100 paragons of "American Cool" in an exhibition open now until Sept. 7.)

The bridge design got worse on December 31, 2012, when Mayor Gray unveiled a design that eliminated the drawbridge feature to cut the $660 million in costs by $160 million. The change removed most of the gracefulalbeit not soaringcurve of the arches. The result was the design at the top of this post.

What happened? I put the question to Sanjay Kumar, Anacostia Waterfront Initiative program manager for DDOT, in March 2013. Kumar's answer:

One of biggest concerns with the new bridge is the poor soil conditions that exist in the project area. These poor foundation conditions make construction of a deep arch structure such as the Memorial Bridge highly expensive due to the significant weight of such a structure.
When DDOT sought approval of the design by the US Commission of Fine Arts last September, members disparaged it, saying it was "little advanced from the nearby uninspired highway bridges built in the last six decades, including the existing Frederick Douglass Bridge and the recently completed 11th Street bridge." The CFA deferred action and called on DDOT to produce an "inspired" and "bolder" look.

"This is something we can work toward," then-DDOT Chief Engineer Ronaldo Nicholson was quoted saying in the Washington Business Journal. The agency formed several design teams to come up with an answer to CFA's criticisms. But it also has to watch the ever-rising overall budget for the bridge. Deeper arches, as Kumar said, would be "highly expensive."

It looks like a Hobson's choice, but actually there's a way for the District to produce an inspired and bolder look, and within budget. DDOT doesn't have to go back to the drawing board. All it has to do is go into its filing cabinets and take out this "stayed-cable design." The cables soar soar high beyond their anchorsa perfectly fitting metaphor for Douglass.


Cable-stayed design.

DDOT determined, in its environmental analysis, that the cable-stayed design is in the same price range as the arched bascule design. So cost is not an issue. DDOT officials said they chose the arched bascule because it fit in with other bridges crossing the Anacostia and Potomac. But when it turned out that the proposed arch would require a more expensive foundation, they made the arches shallower instead of changing course entirely.

Why don't the DDOT designers take the short drive from their M Street SE offices across the old Douglass Bridge to Historic Anacostia, park their cars near the intersection of Martin Luther King Avenue and Good Hope Road SE, and do a little walking. They can go down one block to W Street and then proceed three blocks east and climb the steps to No. 1411 W Street. That will take them to Cedar Hill, where Douglass spent the last 17 years of his life. It's the highest point in Historic Anacostia.

From it, they would see across the Anacostia River exactly what Douglass saw before he set out on his own walks: the US Capitol and the Washington Monument. Maybe they'd also see a bridge across the Anacostia that makes a web of steel a visual expression of triumph over struggle.

Then all the designers have to do is go back to their offices, get the stayed-cable design out of their file cabinets, and show it to a public that is waiting to be inspired.

Transit


Metro plans a unique canopy for Dupont's north entrance

Metro plans on covering Dupont Circle's large, circular Q Street station entrance with a tweaked version of its iconic canopy.


Rendering of the proposed Q Street escalator canopy. Image from NCPC.

The elliptical shelter will be the first unique design since Metro began regularly adding canopies to protect escalators. While most outdoor Metro escalators go underground in tight rectangular shafts, at Q Street the escalators pass through a huge drum-shaped pit.

Because the pit is such an unusual shape, Metro needs a different canopy design.

The unique design passed reviews by the National Capital Planning Commission and Commission of Fine Arts this spring, with only minor alterations.

If all continues to go as planned, WMATA expects to complete construction in 2018.

History of the canopy program

The engineers of the original Metro system didn't think it would be cost-effective to cover all the system's many escalators. But by 1999 increasing escalator breakdowns and a change to DC's building code required WMATA to build canopies over its entrances.

After a bad reaction to early canopies at Petworth and Glenmont, Metro held a design competition. They ultimately chose a simple glass design by Lourie & Chenoweth Architects because it evokes stations' coffered ceilings and can be easily adapted to multiple sites.

After finalizing the designs, Metro installed the first of its standardized canopies in 2003 at Virginia Square, Brookland, L'Enfant Plaza, and Medical Center.

The standard canopy design

Imagine a doughnut that's standing upright, 600 feet in diameter, buried in the ground. The architects took a rectangular patch of that doughnut's surface as the overall shape for the new canopy.

This meant a double-curved surface could be made out of flat pieces of glass and simple pieces of stainless steel.

If this idea sounds familiar, it was used to build the Sydney Opera House and the glass wall at Arena Stage.

Other glass roofs curved in two directions require expensive triangular construction, fragile cold-bent glass, or glass that pops out slightly. The latter is how architects designed the ceiling at the Kogod Courtyard.


The glass roof of the Smithsonian's Kogod Courtyard. Image by Foster + Partners / Buro Happold.

Because of the doughnut-like "toric" shape, the Metro canopy's glass only needs to be cut into trapezoids, and the steel girders need curves in only one direction. Most of the units repeat, simplifying manufacturing. Depending on how wide or long the escalator shaft is, Metro can stretch the geometry to fit. The architects got a lot of visual play for Metro's dollar.


Schematic drawing of the standard Metro escalator canopy. Image from WMATA.

The Dupont canopy

For the Q Street canopy, Metro brought back Lourie & Chenoweth. Their design relies on a geometric trick that keeps the structure light and window system simple, while allowing for a large enough canopy to cover the escalator pit.

To adapt the system to the circular opening, Lourie & Chenoweth simply cut an elliptical section from the torus, instead of the regular rectangular one. This means the entire rim will require curved cuts. The steel girder will take the form of a bent circle, directly above the lip of the drum.

The design is meant to keep the plantings down below alive, in addition to all the usual requirements of canopies.

Growing up, I thought the Q Street entrance was an incredibly cool way to see the sky. But as an adult, my enthusiasm is tempered by all the umbrellas I've lost to the winds this pit creates. Hopefully, this design will retain some of what makes the entrance unique, while more effectively keeping riders and escalators out of the rain.

What do you think, is it a great twist on an existing idea, or should they have gone for something totally new?

Development


Northern Virginia skyscraper rivalry has a new leader: Fairfax approves 470′ Capital One tower

Last Friday, Fairfax officially approved a new headquarters tower for Capital One in Tysons Corner. At 470 feet tall the new building will be the tallest in the DC region after the Washington Monument.


Proposed Capital One skyscraper. Image from Fairfax.

If that news sounds familiar, it's because in May of 2013 Fairfax approved developers proposed a 435 foot tall building, then the tallest in the region yet. And when Alexandria approved a 396 foot tall tower, that also would've been the tallest. Meanwhile, Arlington's 384 foot tall 1812 North Moore tower recently finished construction, officially taking over the title of region's tallest skyscraper (for now).

There may not be an explicit competition, but the fact is undeniable: Northern Virginia's in a full-on skyscraper rivalry. And Tysons is pulling insurmountably ahead.

At 470 feet tall, this new Tysons building will be the first in the DC region to officially eclipse Richmond's tallest, the 449 foot tall Monroe Building. Baltimore and Virginia Beach each have towers above 500 feet, often considered to be the breaking point for a true skyscraper.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

History


Downtown DC could have been more like L'Enfant Plaza

Poking through the archives of the Washington Post, Tom at Ghosts of DC found a plan to sink several roads in downtown DC into trenches, build tunnels, and create a large underground parking structure beneath a big plaza where Freedom Plaza now stands.


Image from the Washington Post, May 31, 1964.

Tom writes that, "The motivation for this was the push to make Pennsylvania the 'grand axis of the Nation,' removing unnecessary bottlenecks and messy intersections."

From the Post article:

Between 6th and 13th sts., E st. would be simply a "depressed street"a road sunk beneath ground level and roofed over at intersections, but mostly open to direct sunlight.

At 13th, however, it would become a tunnel, dipping under the proposed National Square and continuing beneath the southern fringe of the White House grounds, emerging at a point just west of 17th st.

Under the plan, E st. would be widened to six moving lanes and two access lanes and would have separate underground levels for traffic, parking and pedestrians. ...

Pennsylvania ave. itself would be kept at its present 8-lane width but would be repaved with a tinted, decorative material, such as hard brick laid over concrete.

Because of the distinctive materials used, one architect commented, "it will not only look different but sound different" to motorists.

This would have turned E Street into something close to a freeway downtown, continuing the existing freeway west of the White House. Downtown would have felt a lot more like another product of that era's transportation mindset, L'Enfant Plaza, with its multiple levels of roadways that go under and over in an effort to speed cars while forgetting about what's best for the pedestrian experience.

A "depressed street" creates a big barrier, psychological as well as physical. Even if people only cross at the corners, a street with stores on each side but a huge trench of traffic in between feels much more like two disconnected places than one with a solid street in between.

Harriet Tregoning has stated a belief that after the Connecticut Avenue underpass near Dupont Circle cut one side of the street off from the other, it hastened the decline of retail along that stretch. Besides, this plan would have demolished most of the buildings along E at the time and made it far wider, curb to curb.


Image from the Washington Post, May 31, 1964.

What's now Freedom Plaza (and large Pennsylvania Avenue roadways on each side) would have instead become a square with special pavement to create perhaps a sort of shared space not solely for cars. The picture from the Post doesn't seem to depict any cars nor any people, so it's hard to know how it might have worked.

It perhaps couldn't have been much worse than the complete failure of a plaza we have today; a fountain would have been far more appealing to people than a giant marble dead zone only appealing to the skateboarders Park Police constantly chase off.

Maybe this could have been a bustling European-style square. Or, given what we know of the federal design mindset of the time (and sometimes of the present day), perhaps it would just have looked very stately, monumental, and devoid of life.

Public Spaces


Federal board wants "dignified," dull Southwest Waterfront

The Wharf development has the potential to create an exciting pedestrian-oriented, human-scale space along DC's Southwest Waterfront. But a federal board of artists and architects, most of whom don't live in the Washington region, is trying to make it much more boring.


Is all this human activity too "carnivalesque" for CFA board members? They might prefer a dead yet monumental space. Images from PN Hoffman/Madison Marquette.

On March 27, the US Commission on Fine Arts issued preliminary comments on the proposed development that were as predictable as they were disappointing. While strongly supporting the project and noting that its design has "improved substantially," commission members continue resisting some key elements at the heart of the plan.

The commission's letter to the DC Deputy Mayor for Economic Development argues that:

[T]he design continues to present unnecessary emphasis on specific moments or events within this linear urban spaceusing too many materials, too many elements, and too many unrelated formswhich may result in a carnivalesque character, and they suggested editing the vocabulary of design elements to create a calmer, more dignified effect. ...

The commission members recommended that the design of the esplanade be continuousnot interrupted by new paving patterns from incidental features such as piers, pavilions and streetsto reinforce this central organizing element within the project.

These suggestions, like others in the past from CFA, undermine opportunities to build pleasing, lively gathering places in favor of an austere architectural monument. Such input is one explanation for Washington's many underwhelming and little-used public spaces.

This fascination with "continuous" features is precisely what has created dead zones throughout the city, from the expanse of M Street SE leading to Nationals Stadium, to Massachusetts Ave. from Union Station to the Convention Centerdubbed the "mediocre mile"as well as the existing design of the Southwest Waterfront that this project aims to replace.


Diagram showing how different materials emphasize varying spaces.

Stretches of new development that are indifferent to pedestrians and provide little or no animation produce unappealing public spaces. At best, they are devoid of activity until a special event is superimposed; at worst they become havens for crime for lack of "eyes on the street." The best new development needs the very design features that the commission's members dismiss.

As the councilmember for Ward 6, home to the Southwest Waterfront, I challenged Monte Hoffman, president of the site's major development company, to:

  • Design buildings with variation and architectural interest at the ground levelthe opposite of suburban buildings that are appreciated from the window of a car;
  • Create surprises and interactive features like those on the banks of rivers and waterfronts in European cities with romantic, signature public realms;
  • And most importantly, reject the failed architecture around Nationals Stadium that has created cavernous, blank, uniform design for blocks on end.


Top: Oslo, Norway. Bottom: Pike Place, Seattle, Washington.

Large areas become more interesting when changes in pavement and vertical elements create recognizable "neighborhoods" by varying the built environment. As architecture experts at Gallaudet University have told me, such features are exactly what it takes to signal that you are moving into a new room or area.

This delineation and animation recognizes the failure of the soulless, uniform development across the countrythe "Applebee's effect." Yet commission members oppose features such as an arch to announce the entrance to Jazz Alley, calling this and other structures "both formally and tectonically extraneous to the project."

It's time to end the drumbeat of new developments in the nation's capital, from the convention center to TechWorld, that provide the type of architectural simplicity the commission favors but establish mammoth dead zones which inhibit activity and entertainment and ultimately compromise safety.

We must resist federal reviewers' impulse to stamp out street-level interest and animation, especially when projects like the Southwest Waterfront development offer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get it right.

Update: The original version of this post said that many CFA members do not live in DC, but it is even more descriptive to point out that they don't live in the Washington region at all. We have changed this to better reflect Wells' original intent. Intro paragraphs are often significantly reworked in the editing process for clarity, length, and to get main points up top, including in this case, so any blame for this phrase should go to the editors and not Wells.

History


How politics sank a radical monument 105 years ago

The simple Commodore Barry monument in Franklin Square gets lost among the many dead generals of Washington. The original design was very different, but was scuttled amid battles over how much a memorial in Washington, and immigrants in American society, should maintain a clear identity or assimilate into the conventional.


A plaster model of Andrew O'Connor's winning design.

In 1906, an alliance of Irish-American groups decided they wanted a monument that would assert their participation in the founding myth of the United States. This had been denied; before 1700, the principal means of Irish immigration was through indentured servitude. The Irish, upwardly mobile and increasingly tired of their second-class ethnic status, were arguably making a bid to become fully a part of white culture.

The Ancient Order of Hibernians, a friendly society, saw the Revolutionary War naval hero John Barry as precisely the man to plug into the American foundation myth. The French had done it with Rochambeau and Lafayette. The Poles would do the same with Kościuszko, and the Germans with von Steuben.

The Hibernians wanted the best, so they courted the judgement of stars like Daniel Burnham, Frank Millet, and Herbert Adams. They had no idea what they were getting.


Andrew O'Connor in Paris.

The jury's eyes smiled upon an Irish-American devotee of Rodin, Andrew O'Connor. From Paris, he contrasted a naturalistic portrait of Barry with impressionistic depictions of Irish history. A freestanding personification of Ireland blends into a low relief depicting Irish history. After St. Patrick, the frieze turns quickly toward English oppression, until it terminates in tormented nudes looking west across the ocean to a new life. (R-L)

Situating Barry in a narrative of British violence was wildly unconventional, but completely accurate. Protestant landowners expropriated the Barry family farm when John was a child, casting him into even more abject poverty. He was at sea by 14.

The statue of Barry is tough, if not butch. He's leaning into the deck of a rocking of a ship, staring at a threat unseen. O'Connor exaggerated his hands and face to realize a psychological intensity that is present in only a few monumental sculptures in DC, Henry Schrady's Grant, and the Adams Memorial.


Left: Detail of the Emigrants. Right: Detail of the John Barry portrait.

As far as I know, only the Eisenhower Memorial combines freestanding portraiture in front of bas-relief sculptures in a way that comes close to O'Connor's layering. The flickering of a radical direction for traditional sculpture appealed to artists steeped in psychology and modern philosophy but made enemies of Washington elites and populist conservatives.

The Hibernians balked at what they saw as a reification of hot-tempered Papist carnality. It's an altar behind a rail, for God's sake! And all that affliction was just so terribly 1545. It wasn't hard for the groups to push the stereotype further and see the statue of Barry as little more than a Bowery thug in Colonial duds. And those eagles...

The Hibernians wanted a statue that would include one of their own into the genteel pedigree of the memorial landscape. Looking around, that seemed to be mostly men in Classical repose with bald assertions of greatness. All this emphasis on misfortune and victimization was effete nonsense.

Controversy over the design went on for three years. A number of Beaux-arts sculptors and architects spoke out in favor of the design. In the end, the Hibernians reminded President Taft of their voting power, and he rejected the design on June 1st, 1909. The replacement is a competent statue by John Boyle, with an aristocratic commodore and a vacant female allegorical figure.

Like so many competitions, the winner judged by peers was brushed aside by the actual power behind it. After having a contest to make it look open and democratic, they put up whatever they actually wanted.

As one might expect, the appeal to respectability didn't work. At the dedication in 1914, Woodrow Wilson sniped at "Americans with hyphens" who wanted respect without shedding their identities.

Franklin Square, which seemed so promising at the time, never became a memorial ground like Lafayette Park. It never worked as a city park, either. Attention shifted elsewhere, leaving Barry adrift and alone.


John Boyle's completed Commodore Barry Memorial after completion.

Images: O'Connor design from Kirk Savage and the National Archives. Boyle design from the Commission on Fine Arts. A version of this post appeared on цarьchitect.

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