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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Architecture


What makes a city attractive? Here's how to know for sure

Six characteristics can make any city in the world beautiful, says pop philosophy group The School of Life. This video tells us what they are.

Alain de Botton, the author of The Architecture of Happiness, founded The School of Life as a kind of think tank for everyday life.

According to the video, whether a city is pretty or ugly hinges on its balance of variety and order, how much life is on its streets, whether it brings people close together while keeping them comfortable, how much mystery exists within it, the scale of its buildings, and whether or not it's unique.

The video says these factors come from fundamental human preferences. They make it obvious that a city that's close-knit and vibrant is better than one that's full of parking lots and "soulless" skyscrapers.

DC stacks up great in some ways, and could be better in others

DC is very compact, and it's built to a human scale. For example, the video talks about squares making people feel contained but not claustrophobic, and we have our own version of squares in circles and pocket parks.

On the other hand, while many of us love the L'Enfant City, it lends itself to planned districts where there isn't any mystique. And as the video's narrator tells us, "Excessive order can be... a problem. Too much regularity can be soul destroying. Too much order feels rigid and alien. It can be bleak, relentless and harsh."

How would you apply some of these attributes of attractive cities to improving the Washington region?

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Architecture


Residential on top of the MLK library just doesn't work

The DC Public Library considered adding three floors of housing on top of the Martin Luther King, Jr. library, but recently backed off. Preservation concerns and opposition from activists were part of the reason, but the real issue was that the finances didn't work.


One mixed-use option for development of the MLK library. All rendering photos from Mecanoo/Martinez + Johnson via NCPC.

When the library trustees picked Mecanoo and Martinez + Johnson as the architects to rehabilitate the downtown library a year ago, they stressed that naming the firm as their design competition winner was only the start of the process. That has proven very true, as evidenced by the multiple options (pictured throughout this post) the team has had to produce since then.

At the end of January, after a year of negotiating, engagement, and redesign, the trustees voted to abandon the more ambitious designs. DCPL still wants to build on top of the library, but it's asked Mecanoo and Martinez + Johnson to go with something smaller and not mixed-use.


The DCPL-preferred standalone design.

Instead, library officials are now considering two new designs, each with only a single new floor atop the existing building.


An alternative design that more closely models the the library's original 1972 design by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Up top, more floors didn't add up

Financially, not pursuing a mixed-use addition was a relatively simple decision. CBRE, a real estate conglomerate, valued the remaining developable space at at $27.8 million, which is only 10-15% of what the proposed renovations would cost. A cost-benefit analysis by local developer Jair Lynch Partners saw this value as not worth the challenges.

CBRE concluded that office tenants would give the city the most value for the three extra floors. But from the beginning, the library has wanted to disrupt downtown's office monoculture, and building more offices doesn't do that. Rental apartments would bring in less annual revenue, particularly if they incorporated affordable housing. A hotel wasn't an option because the area is already saturated with high-end hotels.

Another challenge is that the building would likely need more parking beyond the current single floor. The appraisal included the cost of a valet or automated parking system; both might still be unappealing to a developer, and adding a new floor of parking below would be unimaginably expensive.

Difficulties in arranging public-private partnerships also pushed the library toward a simpler design. For the city, recouping investment is a multi-decade process; most developers, on the other hand, look for a five-year return. According to Lynch, other concerns like developing a unique ownership structure, or even changing the zoning, made the proposition too risky for the financiers.

Going forward, the library may choose to reinforce the building to support a design like the one Mecanoo and Martinez+Johnson proposed last year. That's similar to what happened with the Tenley-Friendship library, where developers have the option to add a tower in the future. That also means that the city can't sell the air rights to the site, worth $27.8 million.

The final way to use private money to fund the renovation would be to sell the library's historic preservation tax credits. National landmarks are eligible for credits meant to defray the cost of restoration, and public entities can sell the benefits to third parties. The market analysis suggested a tax sale at MLK could net $20-30 million.

Below, a long process for what is approved

Even without the mixed-use addition, the renovation still faces DC's legendary design review process.


The agencies that will have a hand in the design. Chart from NCPC.

So far, all of the changes to the competition-winning entry have responded to historic preservation concerns. But the designers have to get approval from a number of agencies that deal with more than preservation.

  • Though the District owns the library building, any projects in this part of DC also require input from the federally-run National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC). NCPC will have to conduct an Environmental Assessment and a Cultural Resources Study.
  • If the library decides to sell its historic preservation tax credits, it has to bring in the National Park Service (NPS) which runs the tax credit program. Even if the other agencies approve of the design, NPS could deem the changes to be too invasive.
  • The design team has received positive feedback from the the US Commission of Fine Arts (CFA). In January, CFA members asked for a more decisive approach, favoring more open space inside and additions that contrast stylistically from the Miesian architecture.

  • Finally, the Historic Preservation Review Board has to approve changes to the building, which Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed in 1972 and which is both a national and local landmark.
All of these boards' reviews include public input, but they usually only hear from a limited audience. The more the public engages with this project, the greater the chances it meets the entire community's needs.

Correction: This article has been changed from the original version to make it clear that all three pictured renderings came from Mecanoo/Martinez + Johnson after they won the design competition. You can see the designs submitted for the competition here.

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Architecture


The five best Brutalist buildings in DC

Perhaps Brutalist architecture never got a fair chance because of a false cognate. The public has long misunderstood this least lovable of architectural styles, but several local buildings show that even Brutalism can be beautiful.

CFPB wide
The CFPB building. Photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

In English, "brutal" architecture sounds harsh and cruel. Yet the term originated in French, where "brut" means wild, rough, or unfinished: "brut" Champagnes haven't been sweetened with added sugar.

Le Corbusier, the controversial Modernist architect, marveled at how reinforced concrete combined steel's flexibility with concrete's rigidity. Reinforced concrete could leap in organic curves and span vast distances without support; it could be cast into novel shapes and its surface raked with three-dimensional textures. Corbusier left his concrete structures "brut," thus inspiring "Brutalism."

"It does no good to pretend that Brutalist buildings are easy to like, or that everyone can be convinced to like them," writes New Yorker critic Paul Goldberger. "But ease and user-friendliness are not the only architectural virtues.... The earnestness of the best Brutalism—the belief in the power of architecture that it represents—continues to be inspiring."

Brutalism's brash idealism—its emphasis on big and bold shapes, honest use of mass-produced materials, and rejection of elitist finery—combined with its (yes) low costs to make an irresistible choice for its era's expanding government bureaucracies. Brutalism was "authoritatively civic in the time of Kennedy-era optimism and the Great Society, before US attitudes toward the public realm changed so dramatically that it has become hard to evaluate the aesthetics on their original terms," write Michael Kubo, Mark Pasnik, and Chris Grimley.

The results surround us here in Washington, where Brutalist buildings house Great Society legacies like HHS and HUD, plus the university libraries of Georgetown and George Washington. Few will mourn other infamous local examples of Brutalism, like the FBI headquarters or the now-demolished Third Church, particularly since they suffer from the clumsy and pedestrian-unfriendly streetscapes common during their era.

But Washington also boasts several buildings that showcase Brutalism's sculptural and textural possibilities, while also supporting the urban fabric around them.

1. Washington Metro stations, completed in 1976 and onwards by Harry Weese & Associates.


Photo by camera_obscura [busy] on Flickr.

Last year, the American Institute of Architects bestowed its 25 Year Award, which goes to an architectural design that has stood the test of time, onto the Metro system.

The "Great Society Subway," as Zach Schrag's landmark book called it, shapes simple concrete into heroic vaults that impart a bit of the capital's majesty to commutes. The coffered vaults also serve practical purposes, distributing structural loads and keeping sightlines open.

The book District Comics includes a comic-strip retelling of Metro's design process by Jim Ottaviani and Nick Sousanis.

2. Federal Home Loan Bank Board and Liberty Plaza (now Consumer Financial Protection Bureau), completed in 1977 by Max O. Urbahn Associates (architect), and Sasaki Associates (landscape architect).

This structure shows that Brutalism can respectfully frame not only a variety of historic buildings but also human-scaled open spaces and the mixed-use street grid. The building shelters a small plaza that is one of the most popular paved plazas downtown.

The Commission of Fine Arts recently panned proposed renovations, saying they "would have the overall effect of transforming noteworthy modernist architecture into a more conventional, contemporary office building."

3. The American Institute of Architects, completed in 1973 by The Architects Collaborative.

AIA

The AIA's headquarters stand as an elegant, tiered rear scrim for the curious Octagon House, built in 1801 as one of Washington's grandest private houses. Although it's hardly visible from the street, the building's dynamic boomerang curve stands apart in a city filled with acute angles. The yard interposed between the two buildings, split between a hardscaped plaza on the headquarters side and a soft lawn on the house side, creates a quiet, shaded respite from the busy roads in front.

4. Sunderland Building, completed in 1969 by Keyes, Lethbridge & Condon.

Sunderland Building

Just south of Dupont Circle and behind the Heurich House, this office building is just a bit taller than it is wide, but the pattern of window and door openings lighten what could otherwise have been a plain concrete cube. The windows sit deep behind angled frames that score the facade with a grid of of shadows that subtly change depth from different perspectives, while the top floor's wide porches keep the fašades off-center. The ground floor arcade lifts most of the ponderous concrete mass well above the sidewalk.

5. Brewood Office Building, completed 1974, Wilkes & Faulkner

Board formed concrete

This tiny townhouse-sized building, a leftover from before the Golden Triangle flowered with hulking office blocks in the 1980s, might inspire a double take. At first glance, the facade's irregular, flowing texture and drilled "nail holes" read as a wooden structure, but like its high-rise neighbors it's entirely concrete.

"Board-formed concrete" takes its texture from wood that disappeared years ago—the wooden "formwork" that encased the concrete when it was being poured left its mark, and here, in a hallmark of Brutalism's attention to process, the architects have celebrated this artifact.

Honorable mentions

In addition to these five buildings, two other buildings garner honorable mentions for being fine examples of Brutalism, although one's located outside the District and the other had to hide its concrete under limestone panels.

1. Dulles Airport, completed in 1962 by Eero Saarinen.


Photo by pinelife on Flickr.

Surely the most striking concrete form in this area is the suspended roofline of Dulles' soaring terminal. Its roof upends all conventions, dipping inwards with what looks like an unstable curve and inexplicably resting its massive weight upon airy glass walls. Yet this instability subtly reminds us that flight itself is no mean feat of physics. The recessed curtain wall appears like a solid Washingtonian wall of stone columns on the exterior, and on the interior it dissolves into a faceted lens that scatters light throughout the day.

2. Embassy of Canada, completed in 1989 by Arthur Erickson.


Photo by krossbow on Flickr.

Although this building is mostly clad in the federal precinct's requisite limestone and was completed decades after the others on this list, Erickson has a reputation in his native Canada for sculpting concrete into daring, angular geometries. Here, Erickson allowed unfinished concrete to peek out from underneath the limestone skin in key locations, like this rotunda of columns at the building's prow.

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Architecture


The Air and Space Museum needs a new skin

In the four decades after it opened, the National Air and Space Museum has become one of Washington's most well-loved attractions. Its building hasn't aged so well.

The window walls are outdated, skylights leak, the mechanical systems are dying, and the terraces are leaking into the basement car storage. But much worse than that, the stones that clad the building are bowing and cracking, which threaten to make it uninhabitable.


Photo by Terry (╬▒) on Flickr.

Usually, there's nothing wrong with getting wrinkly at 40, but here, the 12,000 stone panels are pretty much the only thing keeping water out of the building. When they deform, they expose the building to more and bigger leaks. They could also break and fall onto someone.

We think of stone as unfailingly solid. But, like in most buildings built after 1900, the stones at the Air and Space Museum form a veneer that carries no weight. This approach has worked quite well in most cases, but if the stones are too thin, or installed the wrong way, they can deteriorate.

When thin stones fail

The museum's stones are 5 feet long, 2½ feet high, but only 1¼ inches thick. Beginning in the 1950s, engineers and architects tried to apply stone as thinly as possible to make buildings more cost-efficient.

Things went well for denser stones like granite and on buildings in warmer climates. But beginning in the 1970s, spectacular failures started to occur when soft marble covered a building in a cold climate, like Finlandia Hall in Helsinki or the Standard Oil Building in Chicago.

The stones started bowing due to a phenomenon called "thermal hysteresis."

Imagine a slab of stone sitting in the sun. One side gets warm from the sunshine, while the other does not. The sunny side expands and contracts differently from the other. If the stone is too thin, the flexing can damage the crystalline structure.


The warping is visible when the sun hits the panels at a low angle. Image from Google Maps.

Stone comes to the National Mall

The Air and Space Museum is clad in a stone called "Tennessee pink marble," although it's technically not marble, but a particularly crystallized form of limestone.

John Russell Pope introduced the stone to the National Mall with his 1941 National Gallery of Art. The warm color and faintly glittering texture was a welcome alternative to icy marble, dull limestone, and harsh granite. Because the National Air and Space Museum was across from the National Gallery, the Commission of Fine Arts pushed its architect, Gyo Obata, to match it.


The south side elevation shows more damage where the tiles are more exposed to sun.

But Pope used stones four to eight inches thick and installed them in a heavy and redundant way. IM Pei's stonework on the 1978 East Wing also had serious problems, but those stones were 3 inches thick and the problems primarily came from the way the stones hung on the building, which the Gallery was able to fix.

That will not be possible at the Air and Space Museum.


Section drawing of how the stones sit on the steel frame.

Too thin is just the beginning

The panels are pinned together end to end through holes drilled through the stone. As the panels warp at different rates, stainless steel rods apply enormous pressure to an extremely thin layer of stone. The brittle stone is liable to crack and even shed pieces.

The stones also sit on metal rails connected directly to the steel frame, so unlike with the National Gallery buildings, they're subject to the frame's motion. Already by the 1980s the Smithsonian had to widen the joints between the stones to reduce damage.

As the stone cracks, an inner cavity opens to the elements. Normal buildings have a membrane or second wall to prevent moisture from moving through the outer walls. Here, the only protection is foam insulation sprayed onto the inner face of the stone.

Finally, between the stones and walls of the exhibition halls is a large open space that carries used air back to the ventilation system. This means that the thin stones are the only thing between inside and outside. Ironically, reconstruction architect Larry Barr remarked that the constant airflow was probably the only reason there wasn't severe water damage or a mold problem. Moisture could simply never accumulate with the continuous flow of dryer air.

Some solutions are obvious, others require tough choices

The building needs a new facade, new windows, new equipment, and repairs to the terraces. You shouldn't have to renovate a building, let alone a monumental one so soon, but the renovation offers the opportunity to correct 40-year-old mistakes and build for at least another hundred.

In the 1970s, inflation encouraged cost-cutting and buildings were adding elaborate mechanical systems long before their performance was understood. Sustainability was not yet a concern for architects. The museum, which had stalled for two decades, was then rushed to be ready for the 1976 United States Bicentennial and opened days before the 4th of July.


Earlier design for the museum. Image from the Commission of Fine Arts / HOK.

But building technology has improved a lot, so there is a silver lining. Fixing a relatively typical problem like the terrace waterproofing affords the opportunity to replace it with more proven systems, brush up the planting, and improve circulation around the site.

Much better glass technology including durable films to block unwanted radiation, newer seals, and better insulation would make for a better experience on cold days and muggy afternoons. The design team is even considering installing solar panels onto the roof, reducing carbon footprint and partially shading some of the skylights.

Other projects, such as redesigning the entrance for security purposes, offers the opportunity to make the building's entrance more engaging. A similar level of attention could be paid to the Independence Avenue side of the museum, which stands out as particularly pedestrian-unfriendly.

The big decision is how to replace the stone and its supporting system. The museum asked Quinn Evans Architects to prepare for a reconstruction of the exterior, in four options: thicker Tennessee stone, sturdier pink granite, a ceramic system, or titanium. The latter two would bring new materials to the Mall and disrupt the match between this and the National Gallery, but would be more resilient and arguably interpret the building's content better than stone.


Four possible options for replacing the stone.

The four options are deceptive, because of the wide range of textures possible with each material. Titanium can come in flat, smooth panels, or it can be scalier, like the titanium used on the Guggenheim Bilbao. Ceramic systems, too, can take a wide range of textures and forms. The options go beyond just copying the 2.5' by 5' stones as the rendering above suggests.

In any event, it makes little sense to fret over preserving the architecture. It is not a universally loved building. In a chat about America's landmarks, Stanley Tigerman characterized it as "not even architecturally interesting," pointing out that the building's content occupies a more prominent role in the memory of Americans than the architecture itself

Perhaps a little bit more ambition and thought can mean we needn't repeat this renovation in 2055.

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Roads


The Kennedy Center is isolated from the rest of DC, but it can't fix the problem by itself

The Kennedy Center is getting a great addition, but the design throws a spotlight on the institution's physical isolation from the rest of the city.

Proposal seen from the Roosevelt Bridge. Image by the Kennedy Center/Steven Holl Architects.

The new 60,000-square foot building will include a large base tucked under an intensive green roof and three house-sized pavilions made of glass and ultra-white concrete. Two pavilions would sit on land, while the third would literally float in the Potomac.

The new design cuts the Kennedy Center off from the rest of the city

If I were to pick a word to describe the project, it'd be "islands." To me, the project creates a string of beautiful islands near the Kennedy Center.

Unfortunately, my word choice is also an appropriate metaphor for the Center's relationship with DC's fabric.

In J. G. Ballard's novel Concrete Island, an architect crashes on a London highway, stranding himself alone on a median. Penned in by speeding traffic, he can't leave. Unable to get anyone's attention, he watches as the city hum along without him. He ends up realizing he can't get out and makes do with his tiny domain.

Ballard's story is satire, but it's not that far from what has happened at the Kennedy Center.

On one side of the building, the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway's flow keeps the Potomac in sight but out of reach. On the other, a vast highway trench stands between the Center, downtown, and the national memorials. A visitor could spend an evening at the Kennedy Center and come away feeling more tied to Rosslyn than the District.

A beautiful plan proves too expensive

When Congress created the Kennedy Center, federal leaders had a bold vision to disperse the city and rebuild it around a series of highways. The I-66 trench is one of the few parts of that project that ever got built, a small piece of the inner beltway.

Even before the Kennedy Center opened in 1971, writers were fighting for a less dislocated site. The New York Times architecture critic, Ada Louise Huxtable, went after the Center's car-dependent design in a 1965 column. After its construction, proposals to make a connection other than an off-ramp came from every direction for years.

The closest DC has come to bridging the gap between the arts center and downtown came in a 2003 plan designed by Rafael Vi˝oly. It proposed extending E Street out to a monumental plaza on a deck, with I-66 below. Buildings on each side of the connection would have served two of the Center's most cramped activities: arts education and rehearsal.

But decks over transportation infrastructure are hugely expensive, even for the modest buildings proposed. The plan required $400M in federal funding to reconstruct the intersection, and it would cover only a fraction of the I-66 spaghetti. After the Iraq War, the money dried up and the Kennedy Center decided to make do.


The two land pavilions frame the Lincoln Memorial, but how do you get there? Image by the Kennedy Center/Steven Holl Architects.

A more pragmatic design

In 2012, the Center asked New York architect Steven Holl to design a scheme that would at least fulfill its needs for practice facilities, multipurpose rooms, bus parking, and offices. Atop the building, a new park would pull do double-duty as an amphitheater for free simulcasts of performances inside. In general, the spaces support the more diverse cultural offerings that have become the norm for arts institutions since the 1960s.


Plan of the proposed design, oriented so the top part of the map is east. Image from the Kennedy Center.

To connect the Center to the river, a bridge would cross the parkway to the floating pavilion, which would house a cafe and an informal event space. Pedestrians could walk from the Kennedy Center to the trail below, while people walking by could stop in for a show. It's not the grand steps Vi˝oly's plan imagined, but adding activity to a relatively isolated stretch of the trail might actually be better than building a big bridge that suffocates the trail below.

I think the new building's design would quickly earn it a place among DC's great landmarks. Holl's architecture focuses visitors' attention onto experiences of aspects of the physical world, particularly the ground, sky, water and light. For years, his designs have toyed with how they sit on the ground and how spending time in a particular place changes the one's perception of it. The floating pavilion, with views subject to the tide as much as sunlight, will be a world-class extension of Holl's history.


Model of the main "Glissando" pavilion interior. Image from the Kennedy Center.

It's a good project, and it's great that it doesn't get in the way of bigger plans.

An institution can only be as urban as its site.

At the National Capital Planning Commission's December meeting, members criticized the addition for only making a visual connection and nothing more. "It does nothing to tell you that there's an entire city on the other side of that gap," DC's acting director of planning, Ellen McCarthy, said bluntly.

Mina Wright of the US General Services Administration went further, calling the proposal an "opportunity lost to fix some ill-conceived traffic patterns, which will be fixed one day." She brought up her agency's ongoing redesign of the Potomac Hill complex which sits directly across I-66 from the Kennedy Center. To her, the design means giving up on a grander vision and limiting what the GSA can do with its site.


I-66 interchange dwarfs DC's biggest buildings and cultural centers. Image from Bing with edits by the author.

But maybe it's wrong to expect the Kennedy Center to put forth a grand vision for the site. The Vi˝oly plan offered yet another grand plaza, with swooping roads enabled by even more grade separation. It only solved connectivity issues that were within the Kennedy Center complex; it didn't provide ways for the Kennedy Center to be one point in a richer fabric.

Relying on a prestige project to patch up basic infrastructure, whether it's an arts institution or the Olympics, places a lot of trust in an organization that has narrow goals. The design process would never be as inclusive as it could be if it focused on restoring a lost neighborhood.


Image of the 2009 Framework Plan by CFA/NCPC.

Repairing the fabric is already the long-term goal, set by NCPC and the Commission of Fine Arts in 2010. The problem is that their plan still assumed a massive deck over a sprawling highway even though the exorbitant costs of a smaller deck sank the last project.

The highway was the problem in 1958, it was the problem in 1971, and it's still the problem. The solution is to replace it with surface streets.

Freeway removal is not the radical idea it was in 2003. There are multiple examples of traffic dissipating into the grid at speeds safer for everyone. That's particularly true if transit substitutes capacity is replaced in a plan like Metro Forward, which would ease Virginia's capacity crunch.

A city-led infill project is the most promising way to put the Kennedy Center back into Washington. There's more potential in the site than just a grand entry. It would give DC a much richer public realm in a neighborhood trying to break out of its beige boxes. The proposed design fits well into a future that corrects the mistakes that got the Kennedy Center stuck on a freeway island.


Holl's watercolor suggests a future bridge across the highway. Can't we do better? Image by the Kennedy Center.

Did you enjoy this article? Greater Greater Washington is running a reader drive to raise funds so we can keep editing and publishing great articles every day. Please help us be sustainable by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution today!

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