Posts about Architecture
Last night, DDOT released renderings of its design for the proposed Spingarn streetcar barn. The proposal is a passable building, but the design is likely to disappoint residents who'd been expecting great architecture.
DDOT originally wanted to locate the maintenance facility for its H Street streetcar under the Hopscotch Bridge, near Union Station. That proved impossible, so DDOT switched its plans to the most practical alternate site: the Spingarn High School campus.
Though the design lacks the ornament and detail of DC's historic streetcar barns, it is typical of contemporary institutional architecture, which is a step up from the bare bones necessary for industrial buildings.
In fact, this design looks very much like a modern school. If DCPS were building a new education building on the same site, it would probably look pretty similar, at least as seen from Benning Road. Adjacent residents likely won't feel they are living right next to an industrial facility.
However, it's not the sort of civic architecture that leaves much of an impression. Many cities' new car barns aren't good civic architecture either, but DDOT has been suggesting that this building would be better than merely okay.
The design guidelines call for "the highest aesthetic quality," and there's a lot that could be done to improve this building. Some of DC's new libraries show how civic buildings can indeed be exemplary.
Some changes can improve the design
The primary purpose of the barn will be to park and maintain streetcars, but it will also include a training center, offices, and employee prep areas. One nice touch in the building design is that those non-industrial uses line Benning Road, so that from the sidewalk the upper floors of the building look like a school or office instead of a warehouse. Unfortunately, the ground floor is bare, so the illusion is incomplete.
Design guidelines call for public art to be included, and these renderings don't appear to have any. Perhaps that first floor wall would be a good location for a mural.
Another disappointing facet is the location of the public entry on the side rather than the front or corner, where most would expect it. The reason appears to be that the interior layout puts offices and a copy room at the street corner, pushing the entry back a few feet onto 26th Street. This seems needlessly confusing, and prioritizes the wrong function.
The Historic Preservation Review Board discussed the project on November 1. Their comments begin at the 2:00:00 mark on the archived video, and focus on whether or not a modern-looking building is appropriate, and whether the plan could be reduced to have less visual impact. They did not take any vote at that meeting, but will do so when they consider the landmark application for Spingarn later this month.
The streetcar project is important, and this car barn is good enough to not delay the project. But while this is pretty good for a building that's basically a garage, it could be much better. A car barn on the Spingarn campus makes sense, and this one isn't terrible, but residents asked for an exemplary building, and DDOT said it could deliver.
DDOT also needs to be more open to the public about its planning for the streetcar. These renderings came out at 4:30 pm the evening before a Presidential election. Given the concern neighbors have about the planning process for the car barn, DDOT must make every attempt to be as open as possible.
It's not necessary to completely start over, but some improvements do seem in order. Likewise, as DDOT starts to plan for future car barns in other neighborhoods, they shouldn't settle for "just okay."
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
Containing apartments, shops, offices and a public park, the proposed Studio Plaza development could be the next big thing in downtown Silver Spring's revival. Literally: it's one block-long building with minimal details that turns a pedestrian street into a tight underpass.
Joint developers Robert Hillerson and Fairfield Investment Company have made an ambitious proposal for a five-acre site taking up most of a city block between Georgia, Thayer and Silver Spring avenues and Fenton Street. A preliminary plan approved by the Montgomery County Planning Board in 2009 shows over 600,000 square of apartments, shops, offices, and a potential hotel.
Studio Plaza has been well-received by neighboring residents and business owners, partly due to the developers' commitment to providing several public amenities.
Their plan includes a substantial park, a garage to replace an existing public parking lot, a new street, and an extension of Mayor's Promenade, a short walkway off of Georgia Avenue home to the bust of former "Mayor" Norman Lane.
They've offered to set aside 15% of all apartments as Moderately Priced Dwelling Units for low-income families, while half of the apartments would be set aside as Workforce Housing for middle-income families. The project will also seek LEED certification, a measure of efficient energy and material use.
These sections show Mayor's Promenade passing beneath the proposed building.
Image from the Montgomery Planning Department.
Recently, Hillerson and Fairfield submitted more detailed plans to the Planning Board of the project's first phase, containing a 12-story building with 410 apartments and 10,000 square feet of retail, a parking garage, and the park. (They can be seen in this slideshow.) They've also swapped out their original architect, SK&I of Bethesda, for DC-based WDG Architects, who's designed other apartment buildings in downtown Silver Spring, like the Veridian and the Cameron. According to their website, the building was designed "with the animated and eclectic spirit of the Fenton Village area in mind."
Whether they've actually accomplished that is questionable. While the original design placed a building on either side of Mayor's Promenade, the current design has one big building with the promenade going through it. Instead of a pedestrian street celebrating the neighborhood's "quirky and unique character," there will be an underpass, part of which will be just one story high.
Complaints that new development in Silver Spring is "out of scale" are common, whether it's for townhouses or a much smaller apartment building. But a rendering of the building behind the two-story shopfronts on Georgia Avenue, shows that it really is oversized. Its height isn't the problem, as there are plenty of taller buildings nearby. It's that this building is 400 feet long.
The 2009 proposal shows buildings with different materials and greater setbacks.
Image from the Montgomery Planning Department.
The current proposal shows one large building with repetitive details and fewer setbacks. Image from WDG.
Stretching the building out across the entire block defeats the purpose of breaking it up in the first place. The exterior is also very repetitive, with a few simple elements used over and over again. Good urban streets give pedestrians something new to look at every 5 seconds, or every 25 feet. That's why a block of identical 18-foot-wide rowhouses can still look and feel great, but on a building this size, excessive repetition just emphasizes how massive it is.
However, the public park, designed by Alexandria-based landscape architects ParkerRodriguez, is more promising. Approximately 16,000 square feet in size, it's bigger than most developer-provided public spaces in downtown Silver Spring. The same paving materials used in the park will be extended into the new street, making it feel even larger.
A raised terrace will run along the edges of the park, where several ground-floor apartments will have entrances and private patios, similar to those at the Silverton condominiums on East-West Highway. This will help make a very large building feel much more personal: instead of walking past anonymous windows, you'll pass front doors. That will make the park feel more like a neighborhood gathering place, as opposed to a space like Veterans Plaza, which is more of a regional destination.
That said, the bulbous shape and location of the green areas in the new site plan seem arbitrary, and it's unclear what they're meant to be used for.
Site plan of the proposed building and the public park.
Image from the Montgomery Planning Department.
How could Studio Plaza be better? For starters, the building could be broken up into two, which would bring it closer in scale with other high-rises in Silver Spring while providing more visual interest. Each half could use different materials or even have a different style, giving each its own distinct character. And while the building already steps down one story closer to low-rise Fenton Street, there may be more opportunities for other setbacks to make it look less bulky.
If a connection between the two buildings is necessary, it shouldn't be as deep as the rest of the building, and it should be higher off the ground, so Mayor's Promenade can still get light and air.
The Flats at Union Row shows how to bridge over a street without being imposing. Photo by the author.
You can see a really good example of this in the Flats at Union Row, a condominium off of U Street in the District designed by SK&I. Like Studio Plaza, it bridges over a pedestrian street, but the opening is large enough that the building doesn't feel so massive and the street still feels like an outdoor space. (Not surprisingly, a bridge in the SK&I-designed 2009 proposal looks quite similar.)
Meanwhile, the park should have as big a lawn as possible. We've seen from the past success of "the Turf" and the current push for a park in South Silver Spring that downtown residents want green space, and this one is big enough to accommodate it. This is a great opportunity to provide a large grassy area, as proposed in the 2009 plan, that could be used for everything from picnics to recreation to even live performances.
Studio Plaza has the potential to make a big impact on downtown Silver Spring, but only if its designers and developers focus on the small stuff. By opening up Mayor's Promenade, making the park more usable, and putting more detail into the building's exterior, they can truly make this project a reflection of its neighborhood.
The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) has created a great new website about the many public spaces in and around Washington, DC.
Individual landscape architects took photos and wrote descriptions of each site's key features. You can learn about public spaces you might not have even known about, or see familiar places through a landscape architect's eyes.
How many of these sites can you identify? Click on any of them to jump to the page.
There are some real gems of public spaces in here, some very old and some very new. Most descriptions remain positive even about those sites, like Freedom Plaza, which don't really activate the street at all and sit barren most of the time. The descriptions do allude to some controversies, like the location of the World War II memorial, or the way the Mall suffers from insufficient maintenance and heavy use.
The spaces in the guide range from the monumental core to Brookland, Deanwood, and the Pentagon area in Arlington. The guide concludes with one element that's slightly out of the box, but still definitely an example of public space design: DC's bicycle network.
Jennifer Toole, founder of Toole Design, the firm that has designed many bicycle facilities and traffic calming treatments for DC streets, writes a short tour on Capital Bikeshare covering 14th Street, the 15th Street cycle track, the Pennsylvania Avenue lanes, Union Station's Bikestation, and the Metropolitan Branch Trail.
A building proposed for Tenleytown deserves praise for putting density in the right spot, but its design is too fractured to contribute to the character of Tenleytown. Although the building fills the majority of the lot and is lined with retail, it is neither an interesting work of architecture nor a quiet background building.
The Bond at Tenley suffers from overcomposition. In order to break up the bulk, the architects at Shalom Baranes and Associates used large-scale overlapping conceptual volumes to break down the sense that the building is a single, solid object. These shapes mostly refer to differences in the building's urban context, like the angles between streets. Baranes then intersected and manipulated them into each other in order to diminish the presence of the building's mass.
However, at smaller scales and different locations, the same figures repeat. Blocks and grids overlap and glance by each other, repeating the same general patterns. Rather than using the shifts of scale to contradict figures or develop simplicity, the architects jostled oversized parts together.
PUD filings and renderings on the project's website show the façades principally forming a thick bar along Wisconsin Avenue. From this block, a pane of gray metal splits out to match the north-south orientation of the city's grid and the Brandywine Street façade.
By itself, the scissor neatly registers the odd angle formed between the old Georgetown Pike and the city's grid, while opening up to the street. But then there's the brick elevator tower and a separate set of bay windows and the parapet, and a dozen different windows.
But that's not it. The retail strip is articulated as entirely separate from the top of the building, weakening the relationship of the upper stories to the street. A second color of terracotta runs up the middle of the Wisconsin side, implying another, imaginary volume. Then, there are several tiny balconies protruding from the front, some of which are created by the formal moves, and others seem arbitrary. A look at the floorplans reveals a tortured façade that generally adds up to nothing in particular.
Typical residential plan at right, ground floor at left.
With all of these inflections, what do any of them mean? What part of the context or urban form does the building highlight? A more limited number of operations, with a greater depth of detail, would produce a better environment for passers-by. A building with more depth would stand on its own, even as other buildings fill up the neighboring lots and residents become inured to its presence.
Consider the difference between the sounds of two popular summer pastimes: crashing waves and fireworks. One is a repetitive, muffled noise with numerous subtleties, such that the slightest change in timing can make you hold your breath. The other is loud, arranged for variety and effect, and very, very loud. Worse, Baranes' design is like a fireworks show where every explosion is meant to drown out the noise of every other explosion, so you can't pin a boom to a flash or react to one before the other. Which one would you rather live in?
It's not entirely fair to pick on this building, but it is representative of the city's reputation. When national publications criticize Washington for its conservatism, they are not talking about the traditionalist works. They are talking about the endless formalized reference to context, uncommitted postmodernism, and the high-end banal glass. The plaid grid of featureless panels is so common in DC buildings, one could call it DC's "official" façade treatment, the architectural equivalent of the Rickey.
However, the trend towards something more lively is already embedded in the design. The architects have called for a terracotta rainscreen for the Wisconsin Avenue façade. The systems used allow for more variety and greater sustainability. Baranes have already successfully used this kind of cladding at Waterfront Station, in Southwest DC. On a smaller project like this one, they could be more experimental with how these small, ceramic panels add to the experience of passers-by.
The design of this particular building is important, because it will set the tone for the coming development in this neighborhood, as it diversifies and intensifies. More generally, the building represents a particular fixation of Washington architects: design not to meet context, but originating in the various shapes of buildings around it. SBA is one of the A-list architecture firms of the DC area, and already has a presence in Tenleytown, the excellent Cityline. A clean design that develops complexity without ostentatiousness is entirely possible.
If Tenleytown is to look different from downtown, this project can start to make the distinction. This is the first building of a coming regeneration. The importance of setting the tone is important. Tenleytown needs transit-oriented development with enough cohesion and activity to maintain and grow its identity. Simply deferring to the mediocre context will not develop the neighborhood, but merely perpetuate the present state in nicer materials.
Rather than use its influence to oppose all design, ANC 3E and the Tenleytown community should work with the developer to produce a better design, one with rhythms and scale that relate to the street and surroundings while bringing something new and vital to the area.
Cross-posted at цarьchitect.
Want to tour the White House, but can't score an entry pass? Google's Street View tool now includes the building's interior.
Users can now navigate their way through the rooms of the White House on the web. To take the tour, go to the White House in Google Maps and drag the orange stick figure onto the building. Or just click this picture.
Do federal office buildings make their surrounding communities better or worse? Last night, 3 local planning directors discussed how federal buildings can make local areas more lively places to work and live, but how some have had the opposite effect.
The Washington region is unique in the number of federal jobs concentrated in large agencies. These large offices have the power to bring new life into neighborhoods and generate new urban growth around existing transit options. But security concerns can derail their positive effects on neighborhoods.
The key to success for these projects is adaptability. "There's no formula. Each project is unique," said Faroll Hamer, Director of Planning and Zoning for the City of Alexandria, at the panel, sponsored by the National Capital Planning Commission.
"The first iteration is almost always horrible," said Harriet Tregoning, DC's planning director. Tregoning argued that communities need to be constantly vigilant and to push back through review and input.
An example of a federal building with negative impact is the FBI Building in downtown Washington. When asked if they thought it was "the worst building in DC," a significant portion of the audience raised their hands. Foreboding and removed from the street, this building serves as an example of what not to do.
On the other hand, the sheer number of workers a new federal office brings into an area can activate the neighborhood. This activity can spur more growth and create new urban fabric where there previously was none. They can give birth to entirely new neighborhoods, or revive ones long since written off.
Qualities of many federal facilities pose problems
Federal office buildings are inherently single-use. Office workers do little for neighborhoods after business hours. This can be especially damaging when agencies cluster, creating large single-use neighborhoods. By spreading offices throughout the region, federal projects can invigorate many different neighborhoods instead of negatively affecting just a handful.
Federal buildings farther from transit often use shuttle buses. These could also provide a desirable transit option for neighborhood residents, but security rules often bar them from riding. This has been part of the conversation around the Department of Homeland Security's new offices at the former St. Elizabeth's hospital site between Anacostia and Congress Heights.
Individual buildings can do a lot to help or hurt their neighborhood. The parking garage for the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) in Alexandria is lined with townhouses on two sides, but other sides are just screened and set back from the street with landscaping, creating a dead streetscape. Many projects fall into this same pattern, with a mix of successful and unsuccessful components.
The GSA plans street-level retail in its building thanks to an innovative approach to security. Image from NCPC.
Security drives many design decisions and harms communities
The General Services Administration (GSA) is working to reverse damage to the streetscape from its massive headquarters in Foggy Bottom. The building is currently entirely disconnected from the street, but GSA plans to bring retail back to the building's street frontage.
To do this, they had to get creative with a factor that hampers the design of many federal projects, security. Security drives a lot of design decisions for federal projects.
In urban conditions, security hurts the streetscape by restricting building access from the street and forbidding retail from lining the outside of buildings. In more suburban conditions it creates large campuses, cut off from what little grid there is and keeping workers from being able to activate the area around them. These large campuses also restrict the ability for planners to attempt to reconnect neighborhoods.
By adapting, many agencies are tackling these issues. The GSA's headquarters was formerly a Level 5 security building. In its renovation, they created a graduated security system, where not all areas of the buildings require the maximum security. As a result, almost all the security bollards around the building could be removed, a marked improvement to pedestrian conditions.
The lower level of security makes street level retail a possibility, and the GSA is looking into opening the building's cafeteria to the public, allowing the agency to share this amenity with their neighborhood.
Sustainability goes beyond LEED
Federal buildings built today have more environmentally-friendly design features. This demonstrates leadership and forward thinking from GSA and the agencies, but Rollin Stanley, Director of Planning for Montgomery County, was careful to remind the audience that the greenest building is the one that already exists, and urged federal designers not get too caught up in LEED.
A LEED Platinum building with no transit options but hundreds of free parking spaces will do more harm to the environment that a building built to lower environmental standards. There are many different factors to take into account to judge a building's true impact on the environment.
Many federal buildings, like many private buildings, are building more parking spots than they need to. Federal agencies are often surprised by how many workers will choose to commute in ways besides driving. At the Mark Center in Alexandria, offices for the Department of Defense were expected to produce massive gridlock. Instead, 50% of workers utilize transit to get to the site.
Little touches can do a lot
Small-scale gestures have very positive effects on the areas around government offices. The PTO provides Wi-Fi in a small park adjacent to the offices and installed glass columns that light at night. Despite larger urban design failings, small gestures like these can make a big difference in neighborhoods.
Federal projects have their own strengths and weaknesses, but each gains from the collective knowledge of the projects that have come before. Agencies are generally moving towards better designed buildings, closer to transit, that give workers more flexibility. We will surely witness missteps along the way, but the trajectory for these buildings and the positive change they can bring to the areas is promising.
Former Washington Post architecture critic Benjamin Forgey once said, "there are so many bad buildings in Silver Spring, it's a hard place to do good." Yet some architects and developers are trying to do better here.
Last month, ground was broken on Eleven55 Ripley, a new residential complex in the Ripley District, located west of Georgia Avenue in downtown Silver Spring. With a mix of housing and shops, buildings that engage the street, and thoughtfully-designed public space, it makes an effort to enhance the surrounding neighborhood.
Eleven55 was designed by Georgetown-based architects Shalom Baranes and is being built by national apartment developer Home Properties, who have also teamed up to redevelop the Falkland Chase apartments at East-West Highway and 16th Street. It will have 385 apartments and townhomes, including 49 subsidized units for low-income families as required by law, and 5,500 square feet of ground-floor retail space, about the size of a Red Lobster.
The residential component comes in three parts:
A 20-story apartment tower with studio, one-bedroom, and two-bedroom units. Home Properties claims it will be the tallest building in Silver Spring, but at 200 feet tall, it's actually just the tallest apartment tower, because there are four taller office buildings in downtown Silver Spring. The tallest building in Montgomery County, meanwhile, will be this 300 foot tall apartment tower in White Flint.
Not everyone will love the sleek, modern design, though one of the commenters on the Just Up the Pike Facebook page called it a "watered-down" version of The Standard Hotel in New York, which is encouraging.
The long strip windows are an interesting break from the typical window-balcony-window rhythm of many residential buildings. It's not totally clear from these images what materials will be used on the building's exterior, but it looks comparable to the metal cladding used on Cityline, a building Shalom Baranes designed in Tenleytown.
At the tower's base will be 7 row houses with rooftop decks. This is a variation of the "Vancouver point tower," which is basically an apartment tower with townhouses on the bottom. It kills two birds with one stone, providing the density of a high-rise building above while creating a low-rise, human-scaled experience at the street level.
Not only does this put people on the sidewalks, but it gives them something interesting to look at, not just driveways like some other downtown Silver Spring buildings.
A 5-story "loft-style" building with apartments and retail space. The Planning Department says this building will be about 80 feet high, suggesting that there will be some nice, tall ceilings inside. I'm not sure if storefront retail would be successful here, as it's currently a little off the beaten path. Improving the site's connections to the surrounding area will be important.
That's why the project also includes an extension of Dixon Avenue, which currently ends a block north at Bonifant Street. Home Properties will build the portion of the new street that passes through their site. Eventually, Dixon Avenue will continue south to Silver Spring Avenue.
Along with another new street connecting Ripley and Bonifant, Dixon Avenue will connect Eleven55 to the Metro and the rest of downtown Silver Spring. This will require tearing out part of the massive public parking garage on Bonifant or removing it completely, which may not happen for a long time.
Finally, the developer will build a quarter-acre pocket park at the with public art commemorating the life and works of environmentalist Rachel Carson, who wrote the book Silent Spring from her house in nearby White Oak.
Many of downtown Silver Spring's pocket parks are poorly designed and seldom used, but this one looks pretty good. For starters, placing it at the end of the block allows the new buildings to cozy up to the sidewalk, exactly as buildings in urban neighborhoods are supposed to do.
It's hard to imagine it today, but one day this park will be surrounded by a new Silver Spring Transit Center, several new buildings, and a partially elevated Purple Line. It'll be a valuable green oasis in the midst of the city, ensuring that people will want to use it.
Eleven55 isn't the only cool new building going up in the Ripley District. The Solaire apartments, being built across the street, will have live-work apartments that allow residents to run small businesses from home. At Ripley and Georgia Avenue is the new headquarters of translation company ALC, which placed a striking modern addition above a 1920's-era shop building.
The Ripley District may be a "made-up" neighborhood, but it's shaping up to be a pretty nice place. It's encouraging to see that architects and developers alike are beginning to embrace good urbanism, rather than settling for suburban-style buildings with huge driveways, as was once proposed for this site. Hopefully, Eleven55 will set the standard for new construction in downtown Silver Spring.
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