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Architecture


An NFL stadium in DC could be suitably urban, but it probably wouldn't be

Rumors are swirling once more that the Washington NFL team could be moving from its stadium in Landover, possibly to the District. A new stadium in DC is almost certainly a bad idea, though it's possible—just very unlikely—it could actually have positive effects.


RFK in the 1960s. Photo by DDOT DC on Flickr.

The most logical place for a stadium is the Anacostia riverfront site where there's an existing, unused, aging stadium already: RFK. But RFK occupies a massive amount of waterfront land that could be far better used for new housing, fields for community sports, monuments, or just about anything else.

It's not that a stadium is so noxious. But around it is 80 acres of parking lots. Not only are they almost always empty, they're damaging ecologically, pouring stormwater runoff directly into the river, absorbing heat, and depriving the District of other ways to use valuable land.

Could a stadium exist without such surface parking lots? In theory, sure. Since games are on weeknights and weekends, one could imagine a new district with office buildings, each with underground garages that serve workers by day and football fans during games.

That, however, would interfere with tailgating, a strong fan tradition outside football games. It also would mean yielding some control over the parking arrangements, something owner Dan Snyder is unlikely to do without strong incentives. He makes big bucks on parking charges at FedEx Field (and tried to charge fans for walking to the stadium instead).

The team recently made news by hiring Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), a highly-respected architecture firm, to design a potential new stadium. The team didn't announce where, but if that's DC, BIG is capable of creating something much more innovative than the typical bowl-in-sea-of-parking.

Citylab's Kriston Capps says that even if Snyder were willing to go with an urban design that doesn't involve massive surface parking, the NFL would not then let a Super Bowl be played there, and a Super Bowl represents massive revenue.

What else a DC stadium should have

If a stadium were to come to the District, a few other elements should be prerequisites for any deal:

Change the football team's name. It's offensive. This has already been discussed extensively and need not be rehashed here. But the team should change it.

No public money. Economist after economist has demonstrated that public subsidies for pro sports stadiums rarely come anywhere close to paying off for cities, and least of all for football, where teams play just eight regular home games a year.

No free tickets for public officials. The mayor and DC Councilmembers get free tickets to Nationals games. This is a big perk for top officials, who can enjoy the games and give out tickets to staff, constituents, and donors. It also means that everyone potentially voting on such a deal has a massive conflict of interest—they can spend taxpayer dollars and get a perfectly-legal kickback.

Some argue that a city-controlled box is a valuable tool for wooing economic development to DC. If that's true and not just a rationalization, perhaps there's a way to set up an independent body that gives out tickets only when there's a strong enough case, and sells or lotteries the tickets to residents the rest of the time. But it shouldn't be yet another perk of incumbency.

This probably won't happen

Unfortunately, there's little reason to believe DC would successfully push for such features or that Snyder would accept. There's too much political pressure on officials just to get the team to DC regardless of the cost, and a traditional parking lot-ringed stadium would serve Snyder's interests fine.

The chance of that got a little stronger thanks to a baffling Washington Post editorial that called a stadium at RFK "the logical and obvious move" because of its transportation access and "waterfront vistas that can't be beat." (Never mind that there are trees in the way of waterfront views from RFK; trees on federal parkland have not stopped Snyder before.)The editorial made no mention of the opportunity cost of foregoing ball fields, bucolic parks, and buildings.

If a football stadium won't be urban in nature, there's no reason to have it in DC. The District has scarce land and huge demand for housing and offices. For something that needs 80 acres of almost-always-empty land around it and gets used eight or so times a year, suburban areas are far more sensible.

Landover is a fine place for a stadium. A site in Loudoun County, near a future Silver Line stop, has been widely discussed as a likely contender, especially since Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe has been wooing the team, and its practice facilities and headquarters are already in Ashburn.

DC might have once needed the kind of pride and reputation that comes from having a team inside its borders, but now it has plenty of other reasons for pride (and the team will still be called Washington, anyway). A stadium that truly anchors a new neighborhood could be great, though. It's just extremely unlikely. I'd love to be surprised, though.

Architecture


Seven designers are bidding for Obama's presidential library. Here's what they've done in DC.

Seven teams are bidding to design Barack Obama's presidential library. They're all well-regarded modern architects, and a few have projects in the DC area.


Like all US presidents, a library will be dedicated to Barack Obama. Photo by IIP Photo Archive on Flickr.

Only one of the teams, John Ronan Architects, comes from Chicago, where the library and museum of the 44th president will eventually rise. Most work out of New York, but teams have roots in London, Genoa, Paris, and Oslo as well. Like a lot of high-profile architecture nowadays, all have projects flung across the globe.

Their work is different from the previous generation of designers, who tended to create object-like buildings that feel aloof from street life. The potential architects of the Obama library all have projects that sit carefully in their context and play nice with existing streets, even if they don't disappear into the neighborhood stylistically.

That's a big deal because both of the proposed sites in Chicago are landmark parks in socially diverse neighborhoods. And that means a monumental building floating in a parking lot, like the elder Bush and Clinton's libraries, isn't going to happen.

Will it be good? The real test is seeing these architects' buildings in person. Luckily, you might be able to do that at lunch.

Three of the candidates them have projects in DC

Out on New York Avenue NW, John Ronan Architects created the Yale Steam Laundry Condominiums by converting a landmarked commercial laundry facility. The architects highlighted the irregularities of the original building with minimalist alterations in industrial materials like wood and steel.

A different architect designed the larger new building to the east, but Ronan designed both building's rugged amenity spaces in the wing set back from the street.


A Yale Steam Laundry apartment. Photo by Nathan Kirkman, courtesy of John Ronan Architects.

Tucked into the base of a glass office building on 10th Street NW, the First Congregational United Church of Christ could easily be mistaken for another storefront, just set in black, textured brick and a raw bronze column. Really though, what you're seeing is the church's foyer, designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien. Through the lobby's massive doors is a softly lit sanctuary that blocks out the noise of downtown.


The aisle of the sanctuary looks onto G Street. Image from TWBTA.

Design writers often pick London-based architect David Adjaye of Adjaye Associates
as the likely choice to do the Obama library. His influence is unusually strong in DC: Only London has as more buildings by his office. So far, the most notable Adjaye building in DC is the National Museum of African American History and Culture near the Washington Monument.


The NMAAHC. Photo by the author.

Farther afield are two libraries Adjaye designed a few years ago east of the Anacostia River. Both use transparency and reflections to create atmosphere. His firm divided up the Bellevue Library into a series of rooms that overlook Atlantic Street in Southwest while still offering seclusion though panes of colored glass.


Bellvue Library. Photo by Edmund Summer, courtesy of Adjaye Associates.

The Gregory Library is a more extroverted design, with a fašade that alternates transparent or mirrored panels. The effect is that a pedestrian on the street sees the neighborhood overlaid on the interior. At oblique angles, the library disappears into the woods of Fort Davis. The wood-lined interior is more conventional, except for a staircase the plunges into the airy popular collection room.


Francis Gregory Library. Photo by Edmund Summer courtesy of Adjaye Associates

If plans to go through, Adjaye will also design a high-end residential building at Georgetown's West Heating Plant. With the plant needing to go through at least five design review stages, though, the Obama Library might get built first.


One option for the West Heating Plant, courtesy of Adjaye Associates.

Two candidates almost have a presence in DC

In addition to that heating plant project, two of the other firms have designed unbuilt projects for DC.

New York-based designers SHoP are designing the new Fannie Mae headquarters on L Street. The U-shaped glass office building at the former Washington Post headquarters will have a slightly unusual facade, with the angle of the glass changing gradually from end to end and top to bottom. This is similar to a lot of their work: boxy forms fitted out in shifting steel and glass facades.


Rendering of 1150 15th Street NW, courtesy of SHoP Architects.

In DC, Diller Scofidio + Renfro are best known for their "bubble:" an inflatable temporary structure that was going to sit inside the Hirshhorn courtyard. That scheme deflated for cost and feasibility reasons under the last director. They also submitted a design for the NMAAHC.


Rendering of the Hirshhorn bubble, courtesy of DS+R.

A couple don't have anything to show

The Norwegian firm Sn°hetta has no buildings in DC. They did, however, renovate Times Square, so it's not hard to find their work. Rather than try to tame the iconic space, they covered the ground in rugged concrete pavers embedded with steel disks that echo the billboards that crossroads is famous for.

The last firm, run by Renzo Piano, is the most established choice. His company's recent designs using glass and natural materials have been expertly detailed, austere, and conservative. That sounds like Washington's reputation, so it's sort of odd that he's never had anything even considered in Washington.

As DC's downtown shows, it's tough to make a monumental building that also fits into an urban site nicely. Too often notable architects produce unfriendly places that photograph well. But perhaps this time, the Obama Library Foundation will pick a design that's not a monument, and connects with the public space around it.

Take a look at these buildings. Do you think that could happen?

Architecture


Twenty-five gorgeous but non-famous US train stations

America has abundant famous train stations, from New York's iconic Grand Central, to Denver's fabulously remodeled Union Station. DC is blessed with a particularly lovely one. But if you only know the famous stations, you're missing out.

Here are 25 gorgeous train stations from around the US that you may not have seen before.

1. Worcester Union Station


Worcester Union Station. Photo by C Hanchey on Flickr.

Some of the buildings on this list are still active train stations, and some aren't. But all were originally built as gateways to their city.

2. Albuquerque Alvarado Station


Albuquerque Alvarado Station. Photo by Karen Blaha on Flickr.

3. Omaha Union Station


Omaha Union Station. Photo by Chris Murphy on Flickr.

4. Buffalo Central Terminal


Buffalo Central Terminal. Photo by Bruce Fingerhood on Flickr.

5. Richmond Main Street Station


Richmond Main Street Station. Photo by rvaphotodude on Flickr.

6. Barstow, CA Harvey House Station


Barstow, CA Harvey House Station. Photo from Ron Reiring on Flickr.

7. San Bernardino Santa Fe Station


San Bernardino Santa Fe Station. Photo from Oakshade on Wikipedia.

8. Kansas City Union Station


Kansas City Union Station. Photo by Ron Reiring on Flickr.

9. Boise Union Pacific Station


Boise Union Pacific Station. Photo from Doug Kerr on Flickr.

10. Scranton Lackawanna Station


Scranton Lackawanna Station. Photo from Andrew Baskett on Flickr.

11. Utica Union Station


Utica Union Station. Photo from Carol on Flickr.

12. Nashville Union Station


Nashville Union Station. Photo from Megan Morris on Flickr.

13. Indianapolis Union Station


Indianapolis Union Station. Photo from the.urbanophile on Flickr.

14. San Diego Santa Fe Station


San Diego Santa Fe Station. Photo by Penn Station University Library on Flickr.

15. Salt Lake City Union Pacific Station


Salt Lake City Union Pacific Station. Photo from SounderBruce on Flickr.

16. Ogden Union Station


Ogden Union Station. Photo from railsr4me on Flickr.

17. Springfield, IL Union Station


Springfield Union Station. Photo from Ron Reiring on Flickr.

18. Tacoma Union Station


Tacoma Union Station. Photo from SounderBruce on Flickr.

19. Louisville Union Station


Louisville Union Station. Photo from Pam Culver on Flickr.

20. Saint Louis Union Station


Saint Louis Union Station. Photo by Dustin Batt on Flickr.

21. Oklahoma City Union Station


Oklahoma City Union Station. Photo from Raymond Woods on Flickr.

22. Topeka Overland Station


Topeka Overland Station. Photo from Ron Reiring on Flickr.

23. Cheyenne Union Station


Cheyenne Union Station. Photo from railsr4me on Flickr.

24. Chattanooga Terminal Station


Chattanooga Terminal Station. Photo from Andrew Jameson on Wikipedia.

25. San Antonio Sunset Station


San Antonio Sunset Station. Photo from Tony in WA on Flickr.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Architecture


When it redesigns its campus, Gallaudet hopes to pioneer architecture for the Deaf

The southwestern edge of Gallaudet University borders a growing urban center, but fences close the campus off. Now, the school is rethinking its design and redevelop some of its land to bolster finances. To do this, it's reimagining 6th Street NE as a corridor that zips together deaf and hearing communities.


Gallaudet's 6th Street gate is not exactly community-friendly. Photo by the author.

Gallaudet is using two projects to create the first urban environment designed for the deaf. First, it's redesigning its public spaces, including the 6th Street streetscape, the campus grounds, and a few small buildings. Second, it's developing four large parcels of land that front 6th Street NE.

As the world's only university for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Gallaudet has a set of design guidelines the school calls DeafSpace; the redesigns will fit with both that and the 10-year master plan that zoning requires.


Base image from Google Maps.

Gallaudet wants new buildings and new ideas for tailoring its design to the Deaf

Gallaudet's main entrance on Florida Avenue NE is nearly half a mile from where Union Market, the neighborhood's new attraction, sits on 6th Street. Redeveloping the parking garages and auxiliary buildings there will tie the campus to its surroundings without harming its historic campus by Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., who also designed Central Park.


JBG's conceptual plan for the 6th Street development project. Image from JBG/Gallaudet.

A large part of the development plan has already started. In 2014, the school selected the developer JBG and architect Morris Adjmi; the team behind the Atlantic Plumbing project at 8th & V NW, to build 1.3 million square feet of building on the parcels.

Gallaudet has already used internal workshops and two design processes to pioneer a way of designing spaces for the Deaf. The school wants to stay innovative in this field as moves forward, so it's holding a two-part design competition to shape its public spaces.

For now, it's gathering input from neighboring communities and asking for designers to form teams with specializations like interaction design in addition to architecture and urban planning.

A panel will narrow those teams down to just a handful in October, and the teams will then submit rough designs for feedback from the student and neighborhood communities. After a round of revisions, a jury of experts will pick a winning approach in February.

Using a competition allows Gallaudet to draw on a range of expertise that goes beyond the immediate community, which is important given that this is the school's largest planning endeavor to date.


The Gallaudet master plan emphasizes connections towards the NoMa-Gallaudet Metro. Image from Gallaudet.

Creating spaces for deaf people presents unique challenges

Gallaudet is promising vibrant streets and high standards of sustainability, both of which are now common in DC projects. But making spaces for deaf people will require designers to think a little harder than usual.

Gallaudet developed its DeafSpace guidelines when it realized its campus didn't suit how the Deaf use buildings and streets. The guidelines go way beyond the "universal design" requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Instead of focusing just on patches for audiological deafness, uncapitalized, DeafSpace is custom tailored to culture shared by people participating in Deaf (capitalized) communities.

It's not an overstatement to say there's a distinct Deaf Culture. Many of our social norms, from how we say goodbye to what kind of art we enjoy, rely on hearing. The Deaf have different norms, and the way they talk is also different from English speakers. Although most deaf students can read and write English, American Sign Language is an entirely distinct language, with different grammar, vocabulary, and dialects.

In sign language, a single hand sign changes meaning depending on where the signer makes it, its orientation, movement, and what their facial expression is. To communicate in ASL, you need to see the whole upper body. A bar with low, intimate lighting will kill an ASL conversation the same way loud background music does for the hearing.


DeafSpace concept diagrams. Dangermond Keane Architecture / Gallaudet

Since Deaf Culture prefers clear vision and generous personal space, those are the conceptual building blocks. Sign language requires people to stand further apart and use more space, so, hallways have to be wider. Signers have to keep their hands free, so in DeafSpace, there are as few manually opening doors as possible.

If a deaf person can't see through a door, they can't tell if someone's in a room, so windows are helpful. But at the same time, an ASL user can spy on a conversation through that glass. In this case, translucency balances the competing needs. In general, reflective surfaces on cabinets or walls a deaf person might often face help with spatial awareness. Even paint helps: blue walls help hands and faces pop no matter the skin tone.

DeafSpace is a distillation of these needs and solutions into what the architectural theorist Christopher Alexander calls "patterns:" generic rules and forms that a designer can combine to create a multifunctional, comfortable space. The leader of the DeafSpace project, Hansel Bauman, sees it as a way of designing spaces around Deaf interactions and experiences.

But DeafSpace has few patterns that apply to open areas and urban space. Do crosswalks have to heighten visibility? If sidewalks have to be wider, do they cut into sidewalk cafes and increase the area of surfaces impermeable to rainwater? There are a lot of new issues open spaces present. I think bringing more brainpower to these issues is why Gallaudet is holding the design competition.

Plus, Bauman wants to take the concept further, to design spaces more tightly around human behaviors and sensations, irrespective of specific abilities. That might seem basic, but between a tendency to stick to financially proven conventions or get lost in an artistic vision, it's easy to forget the human interaction behind the built environment. The competition could bring this idea some much needed attention.

Tailoring an urban space for Deaf experience may force competing teams to get back to basics about how spaces facilitate interaction between people. Maybe the competition will let designers to reexamine the patterns of design for a sidewalk cafe or a multi-story building's front door.



The Flipboard Cafe in Melbourne, Australia has complex connection to the street. Brolly Design

Gallaudet's decision to open up its campus to a pedestrian-friendly, dense 6th Street is an extremely promising step. One step further would be taking the focus on buildings as amplifiers of social interaction and applying that design across the city.

Architecture


Learn important concepts in designing buildings from an HBO series

HBO's miniseries Show Me a Hero depicts a fight over affordable housing in Yonkers, New York in the 1980s. It raises many important issues about race relations and the reality of politics. It also teaches us something about architecture and how the design of buildings affects crime.


Public housing in New Orleans. Photo by Culture:Subculture Photography on Flickr.

Episodes 3 and 4 aired Sunday night. In one scene, Oscar Newman, the architect of the new housing, argues vehemently that it's important to build townhouses, each with its own entrance to the street, instead of two-unit buildings with common stairs. This is because, he says, people will defend and keep up their own private space, while a common space will more easily fall into disrepair and provide a haven for drug dealing.

He calls this "defensible space," a term the real Oscar Newman coined and used as the title of his most famous book.

Newman also argues that to avoid the same problems that plague the city's existing housing projects, it's also important to spread the housing out to several smaller sites rather than a few big ones. This will mean public housing near more voters' homes, but it avoids concentrating poverty in one place, which often leads to crime.

In the scene, Judge Sand and NAACP lawyer Michael Sussman are initially dismissive of Newman's concerns. They think that just getting the housing established is enough of a victory. They don't want to do anything to increase the cost, which could add new obstacles. But Newman prevails.


Peter Riegert as Oscar Newman. Image from HBO.

How "defensible space" works

A front porch that leads directly from the sidewalk to a home is "defensible" in that people know that it is "their" porch. A shared hallway or courtyard doesn't breed that same feeling of ownership and people are less likely to confront a problem in that space.

Writer David Simon illustrates defensible space is throughout the series. One of the earliest scenes in the first episode shows Carmen, a public housing resident, taking her kids to their apartment up the stairs instead of the elevator despite having an arm full of groceries because drug dealers had taken over the communal elevator.

Mary Dorman, a strident opponent of the housing integration plan, says that she works very hard to take care of her home and her street and that is why she opposes the new housing. She is then left awkwardly scrambling after a news reporter asks here why she doesn't think that any new residents won't do the same.

Meanwhile, Nick Wasicsko stands on the porch of a house he wants to buy. He revels in a view of Manhattan that is about to be "his" view that he feels he has worked hard for. The show is saying that even if the problems can seem obvious, the causes and their solutions often are not.


Co-op housing in Shaw, DC. Photo by Marie In Shaw on Flickr.

It matters if buildings face the street

Those of us who learned a lot about planning from Jane Jacobs are familiar with the concept of "eyes on the street," where people actually coming and going from the street itself make a place safer. This wasn't always a well-known concept, and Newman was instrumental here as well.

In the show, Newman argues that buildings which directly access the street, rather than facing parking lots or courtyards, will give people ownership of all of the space from the building to the street and eliminate any space for drug dealing.

This very issue affected low-income housing across the nation, including in Sursum Corda, a public housing cooperative where most units faced inward instead of out to the street. The shared space became a haven for crime and prompted efforts to redevelop the complex.

Other public housing has been built to blend in with the fabric of the neighborhood, with front doors that face the street and personal spaces for residents to care for. Capitol Crossing in Navy Yard and the mix of public housing near the Southwest Waterfront are good examples of better ways to provide inclusive housing.

Defensible Space isn't the solution to every crime, but is an important tool for many planners and architects looking to create valuable and cherished places.

The final two episodes air this Sunday on HBO.

Architecture


It's about to get easier to build mid-rises in DC

Soon, it might be a lot easier and less expensive to build mid-rise buildings along transit corridors in DC. This is thanks to a 2015 update to the International Building Code.


The View at Waterfront, new buildings

The View at Waterfront, a proposed 85' tall wood-framed building. Rendering by SK+I Architecture.

The code now permits light-framed buildings of wood or steel, which are often faster and less expensive to build than equivalent heavy-framed structures, to reach eight stories and up to 85' high—just shy of the 90' limit the Height Act imposes outside of downtown.


Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

How much less expensive? The blocks above illustrate three potential scenarios for a light frame apartment building built with wood or steel studs, and with sprinklers.

On the left, the building has five floors of light wood framing (yellow) over a one-floor "podium" of heavy concrete framing. On the right, the building has eight floors, all of heavy concrete framing. Switching from the left to the right increases the building area by 33%, but because concrete is more expensive, costs increase by 60%.

When I wrote about this topic last year, seven- and eight-story buildings had to be built from heavy-duty concrete or steel, welded or poured on-site, for fire reasons. This "Type I" construction process is time-consuming, material-intensive, and expensive.

Eight-story buildings made economic sense on 14th Street NW, where land values are high. But the high cost of construction stymied development in less pricey neighborhoods.

What the 2015 building code permits is a compromise, with a taller "podium" of concrete framing. That's the middle example. This building has 23% more area than the building on the left, but costs only 26% more.

DC currently operates under the the 2012 version of the IBC, but will soon start reviewing the 2015 code for formal adoption. DC law requires that the Council consider adopting the updated IBC by July. Maryland is on a faster track, having adopted the new code in January, and Virginia is about one year behind.

The new code in practice

One site where this compromise is being applied is adjacent to the Waterfront metro station. In 2007, a developer first proposed building apartments on two parking lots between Arena Stage and the Metro.

Since Southwest DC is considered part of downtown, it has a 130-foot height limit, and the developer got zoning approval for a pair of 11-story, 112-foot tall reinforced-concrete high-rises.

Mill Creek Residential, which developed the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro station's parking lot into the Avenir mixed-use complex, recently bought what they're now calling The View at Waterfront. SK+I Architecture redesigned the proposed buildings with wooden frames.

Under the new building code, the concrete podium can have multiple stories.

To take advantage of the change, the new plans for the View include a two-story concrete podium with five and a half stories of wood frame above, according to drawings within the zoning filing. The podium will contain a retail space (probably a restaurant) facing Arena Stage, resident common areas, and apartments.

Builders have a new material at their disposal, too

Another building code change that took effect in 2015 officially allows cross-laminated timber, a "mega-plywood" that mimics the heavy timber beams of yesteryear. The code limits CLT buildings to the same heights as conventional, light frame buildings, even though some countries' codes allow its use for taller buildings: 10-story buildings have been built from it in London and Melbourne.

T3 in Minneapolis
T3 in Minneapolis. Rendering by Michael Green Architecture.

For now, CLT may find a niche in commercial buildings due to its unique appearance, and ability to span wide-open spaces. The first mid-rise CLT building in the United States, a seven-story office building, will break ground this summer in a Minneapolis neighborhood known for its brick lofts.

Bob Pfefferle from developer Hines (which also built CityCenterDC) told Kristen Leigh Painter of the Star-Tribune, "it provides an authentic building that is respectful of the neighborhood. This will have the ambience of the old warehouses with timber beams that everyone wants, but solves all the problems of energy efficiency and light."

CLT could be an intriguing new technology to watch for in new commercial buildings in areas with an industrial heritage, like Union Market or Ivy City.

Architecture


The guy who invented the mall hated cars

Many great minds have opined on cities, design, and urban planning. But few have made such a stark and apocryphal statement as this:


Photo by Chapendra on Flickr.
One technological event has swamped us. That is the advent of the rubber-wheeled vehicle. The private car, the truck, the trailer as means of mass transportation. And their threat to human life and health is just as great as that of the exposed sewer.
Strong words, indeed. But what is more surprising is who uttered them: none other than Victor Gruen, the man who invented the enclosed shopping mall that so came to be nearly synonymous with the American suburb.

A recent episode of the 99% Invisible podcast discussed Gruen's career as an architect and noted the seeming dissonance between his work (the shopping mall) and how much he hated cars.

Like many architects and planners of the post-war era, Gruen was attempting to deal with a society facing radical changes in the built form: cities were starting to be hollowed out by parking lots and urban renewal, and the automobile-centric suburbs were starting to sprawl across the landscape. He saw the American suburbs as lacking in the types of "third places" necessary for social engagement. He thought the fact that everyone drove everywhere severely limited social engagement and interaction.

His solution was to build a large enclosed public space centered on a climate controlled court. It would include retail arranged in a sort of main street style with small storefronts facing pedestrian walks. But cars, of course, would be banned. This is the form the typical shopping mall took.

Gruen's vision didn't stop there, though. He actually intended for the mall to be the centerpiece of a mixed-use neighborhood. The projects would include offices, apartments, public services, and other amenities. And within this space, the pedestrian would be king.

That's not how things turned out. The first of his projects, the Southdale Mall in Edina, Minnesota, near Minneapolis, was built with only its retail components. And it was surrounded by a sea of parking. People might walk within the mall, but they almost certainly drove to it.

For a fuller discussion of Gruen's vision and his disappointment with how it turned out, make sure to listen to this episode of 99% invisible. The design-focused podcast offers an excellent overview of the built environment and the other ways that design (invisibly) influences our lives.

History


Gas stations were much better looking in 1924

Most gas stations these days are pretty garish, but gas stations weren't always so. Check out this vintage 1924 station, from Connecticut Avenue in Woodley Park.


Lord Baltimore Filling Station. Photo by the National Photo Company, via the Library of Congress.

This is the Lord Baltimore Filling Station, at the corner of Connecticut Avenue and Ordway Street NW. It may not be truly typical of the era, but it's hard to imagine seeing as sharp-looking a gas station today.

It's not only the nice architecture that make this notable. It's also the urban design. This isn't as great for sidewalk life as a row of main street-style shops, but it's a building that fronts on the sidewalk. It could be a lot worse.

Do you know of any unusually good-looking gas stations? What makes them interesting?

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Architecture


Imagine a Kennedy Center that's part of downtown

The Kennedy Center is a marble island cut off from downtown by highways. What if instead, it was the heart of a new urban neighborhood linking Georgetown and the National Mall?


Watercolor perspective. All images from Aragon, Hensley, and Sponseller.

In 1997, Andrea Aragon, Jon Hensley, and Robert Sponseller created the above rendering for Capital Visions: Architects Revisit L'Enfant: New Plans for the Millennium, an exhibit at the National Building Museum whose projects considered how different values could reshape the historic Federal City in the 21st century.

Their plan contemplates a Foggy Bottom where urban fabric replaces a mish-mash of midcentury projects like I-66, the Watergate, and the State Department. The stub of I-66 and the Whitehurst Freeway are totally gone. A new Roosevelt Bridge runs directly onto Constitution Avenue, and the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway runs underground from the Pennsylvania Avenue Bridge to Constitution Avenue.


Public space diagram. The dashed line is an underground parkway. The dots are commemorative sites, like the Arts of War and Peace on the Memorial Bridge.

A restored version of the L'Enfant grid, with some additions, takes the place of what's there now. E Street, which is currently a trench, becomes a boulevard that runs to the Kennedy Center and down to the water. New buildings with new uses break up what are currently blocks and blocks of Federal offices. Beyond new activity on the street, the reclaimed blocks offer acres for new residential and commercial development.


In this vision, buildings define the outflow of Rock Creek. Washington Harbor is on the left.

In addition to the practical street grid, the designers connect three neighborhoods with major corridors, punctuated by landmarks and parks, not unlike Pierre L'Enfant did in 1791.

E Street extends to the Kennedy Center, and Georgetown is just a skip away. The plan also extends Virginia Avenue and K Street across Rock Creek, which itself pools at an artificial basin since the Whitehurst Freeway is gone. The basin joints the burbling creek, the still canal, and the powerful river.


The continuous waterfront extends Georgetown, DC's hottest neighborhood in 1997.

Along the Potomac, a boardwalk runs from Washington Harbor to the realigned Roosevelt Bridge. Buildings run right up to the edge of the waterfront. Kayakers and rowers move downstream from Thompson's Boathouse to a new wharf at the Kennedy Center.


The proposed new Kennedy Center. A glass atrium connects E Street with the river.

The designers make some rather extreme changes to the Kennedy Center itself. The venue's three main halls have to be structurally independent for acoustic reasons, so they strip off Edward Durrell Stone's critically reviled exterior and work their exteriors into the street design. They also demolish and move the Opera House so pedestrians can walk from the White House, along E Street and down steps to the Potomac.


Navy Hill fits neatly into the city. The telescope is not exactly where it's depicted.

The plan also integrates Navy Hill, which the General Services Administration is currently transforming it into State Department buildings. This was the original Naval Observatory and later housed the CIA. The designers could have left it as a semi-rural hill, but instead, the they integrated the historic buildings back into the grid and made one of the remaining telescopes into a local landmark.

It's worth mentioning that a few buildings need demolishing for the plan to work. To reconnect 22nd Street, the designers cut the State Department back to its prewar section, the "War Department Building." They also do away with better-liked 20th century projects, like the Pan American Health Organization and the Watergate complex.


A grid of normal urban blocks replaces highways and mega-developments.

What's great about speculative designs like this is that when politics and economics aren't an issue, designers are free to examine radical ideas that put our collective values up for debate. How that makes us think about pragmatic issues is important.

Should we preserve unloved buildings? How do we balance monuments and background buildings? Does recreation outweigh ecology? The project raises more questions than answers, and that's great.


Nolli map of the entire project.
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