Greater Greater Washington

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Public Spaces


Lipstick can help the Tysons pig, a little

Fairfax County is considering dressing up the Silver Line's mammoth concrete pylons with murals. The idea could help animate the otherwise bleak, gray structures.


Mock up of a possible Silver Line mural. Image from the Tysons Partnership.

Ideally the Silver Line would've been underground through Tysons Corner. But federal rules that have since changed prevented that, forcing the Metro line above ground, onto a huge elevated structure.

That wasn't the end of the world, but it did condemn Tysons to some unnecessary ugly.

So why not dress it up? Murals can unquestionably make big gray structures more colorful and interesting. They're easy to implement, don't cost very much, and help a little. There's not much down side.

Murals are, however, still just lipstick on a pig. They don't solve the underlying deadening effect of bare walls. For example the Discovery building mural on Colesville Road in Silver Spring is surely better than bare concrete, but shops & cafes would've been better still.

And Tysons' murals won't be as effective as the one in Silver Spring. Colesville Road is basically urban, basically walkable. The block with the mural is the weakest link on an otherwise lively urban street.

But in Tysons, the Silver Line runs down the middle of Leesburg Pike, one of the most pedestrian-hostile highways in the region. If murals are added to the Silver Line, they may become the best and most interesting part of the streetscape, as opposed to the worst.

So by all means, Fairfax County should absolutely do this. Murals are a great tool to cover any large blank structure. But what Tysons really needs is walkable streets with lively sidewalks.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Public Spaces


Design competition aims to give DC beautiful and functional play spaces

There is a growing need for children's play spaces in DC, but some think that playgrounds are unsightly and detract from public space. To address this, the Office of Planning (OP) is holding an international competition to design art-based play spaces for underserved neighbor­hoods.


The winner of the Playable10 International Design Competition, a playground in Woodruff Park in downtown Atlanta. The shape incorporates the letters "ATL." Photo by Cynthia Gentry.

This is the first time DC has held such a competition. "We are responding to the increasing number of families living in the District and their desire for more playgrounds," said OP urban designer Thor Nelson. "OP seeks a design that approaches play spaces in an innovative wayplayable art both kids and adults can enjoy."

KaBOOM, a DC-based organization that focuses on increasing kids' access to play, created a map that documents the District's "play deserts," where no play area exists within a half-mile walk of a given neighborhood. Mt. Vernon Triangle, NoMA, and Southwest particularly need play spaces, as more families with kids move there.


Map by KaBOOM.

Play deserts have profound adverse physical, intellectual, social and emotional impacts on children. KaBOOM finds that neighborhoods without a park or playground see 29% more child obesity. Children without a park or playground are five times less likely to be a healthy weight that children with a play space within a half mile.

Furthermore, studies reveal that minority and low-income communities are less likely to have safe places to play and be active, impacting child well-being. Children in poverty are 159% more likely to be deprived of recess; 70% African American and 81% of Hispanic neighborhoods lack recreational facilities; and sidewalks in African-American communities are 38 times more likely to be low quality. As a result, more kids in these communities grow up with obesity and diabetes, in addition to other related health risks.

Ideas about play and playground design have changed dramatically over the years, as litigation in the 1970's and the release of safety guidelines for playgrounds in 1981 pressured designers and engineers to integrate these recommendations into new play sites. Cities and designers were concerned that parents would launch lawsuits as a result of injury their kids' experienced. As a result, rubber mats and wood chips began replacing monkey bars and dirt.

Now playgrounds are safer, but at what cost to kids? Research shows that these risk-averse playgrounds detract from kids' learning. Six kinds of risky play benefit child development: exploring heights, handling dangerous tools, being near dangerous elements, rough and tumble play, speed, and exploring on one's own. When all playgrounds meet the same standards, kids aren't challenged and don't have space to be creative.

However, some playgrounds are going against the conventional wisdom. The Land, in North Wales, UK, is an adventure playground where kids can play with fire and wander on their own. They are supervised by "playworkers," professionals trained to create and manage a play environment for children. Adventure grounds are already being built across the US, such as the Berkeley Adventure Playground in California and The Anarchy Zone/a> in Ithaca, New York. Additionally, the Beauvoir playground, a favorite playground by the National Cathedral in Northwest DC, has lots of interactive and exciting structures for kids of all ages to enjoy.

In these new play spaces, kids experience self-growth and build confidence. In 2010, the Alliance for Childhood published "The Playwork Primer," which explains playwork and outlines how groups are working to establish playwork as a profession in the United States.

While the Playable Art DC competition is not looking for an adventure playground, necessarily, OP encourages applicants to approach playground design with varied lenses, and generate ideas beyond common assumptions. "While concerns of safety and liability are important ones, they do not have to negate creative solutions and enjoyable play spaces," said Nelson.

Interested designers, engineers, and artists can attend an information session tonight, and applications are due on April 24. ArtPlace America awarded OP a grant to fund the winning projects.

Community members will be invited to attend workshops with the designers of the winning projects. The more involved the community in the design of a play space, the more appropriate it will be. "One of the keys to a successful design is communication between community and designer," said Cynthia Gentry, founding director of the Atlanta Taskforce on Play."

This is just the beginning of DC's effort to tackle the community's growing demand for play spaces. Let's get creative and encourage kids to do what they do bestplay and learn through play.

Public Spaces


Add a piano to make your city square sing

Here's a fun way to add vitality to a public space: Outdoor pianos.

In 2009, Denver started adding public pianos along its busy mile-long downtown pedestrian mall. The pianos have become a popular and noticeable part of that city's public realm. 5 years later, they're still there, and people are still playing them.


Photo by voteprime on flickr.

Even if weather or careless use ruins them after one season, upright pianos aren't particularly expensive. It would be completely practical for DC to buy one or two per year and put them in squares or circles around the central city. Roll them out in spring, and pack them back up around Thanksgiving.

The idea could work great in Farragut Square or along the Georgetown waterfront.

A potentially bigger holdup might be getting the National Park Service to allow it.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Arts


New murals sprout across DC

DC is awash in murals. Four new murals recently went up as part of an arts festival sponsored by Heineken. Ward 7 residents banded together to give a beloved restaurant a mural. And a filmmaker's making a documentary about what murals mean to DC's culture.


Design for a mural at Thai Orchid in Ward 7. Image from MuralsDC.

Located on Pennsylvania Avenue SE just east of the Anacostia River, Thai Orchid is the sole sit-down restaurant on a block with a beauty supply store, liquor store, and empty storefronts. Opened in 2010, the locally-owned spot quickly became a local gathering spot. On her blog Life in the Village, Veronica Davis raved about the food, while commenters expressed excitement that they could eat out without crossing the river.

To say "thank you," neighbors want to beautify Thai Orchid and its block with a mural.

It's a testament to a business that took a chance on Ward 7 and represents a continuing commitment to local businesses. Supporters applied for funding from MuralsDC, a partnership between the DC Department of Public Works, the DC Commission on the Arts and the Humanities, and nonprofit group Words Beats & Life that uses street art to enliven neighborhoods and combat graffiti.

They had commissioned an artist to create the mural, but a small group of residents put a halt to the project, arguing that District funds should be used for more worthy causes. Now, the community is raising money to move forward with the mural without public help.

But murals are still going up elsewhere in DC. Working with MuralsDC, Dutch brewing company Heineken sponsored four murals in Shaw and NoMa and installed them last month. It's part of a larger series of murals Heineken commissioned in Atlanta and Miami. The DC installation coincided with the G40 Art Summit, a street art festival sponsored by the Art Whino gallery in National Harbor.


One of the Heineken murals. Photo by Lewis Francis used with permission.

It makes sense that Heineken chose DC as a location, with its long history of murals celebrating its African American and Latino communities. Filmmaker Caitlin Carroll was so inspired by the city's mural culture that she started working on a documentary about it called Painted City.

The film features art historian Perry Frank, who documents murals both past and present, and includes stories about murals that have been lost, highlighting the art's fleeting nature. Community pride and beautification is a recurring theme in the documentary, and Carroll also highlights the work of local artists who work with residents and kids to beautify their neighborhoods.

Murals, along with public art in general, can let communities show neighborhood pride, inspire others, and provide hope. In an area struggling with unemployment, poverty, and crime, residents see art as a way to uplift and inspire.

As Carroll notes, "Every mural has a story." The stories often have an end as murals disappear due to new development or get damaged in building repairs. But even in their temporary nature, they still serve as a form of community expression.

Public Spaces


Murals in the Flickr pool

Here are our favorite new images from the Greater and Lesser Washington Flickr pool, showcasing the best and worst of the Washington region. Do you know where these murals are? If so, tell us in the comments.


P St, Georgetown. Photo by Erin.


Photo by nevermindtheend.


Photo by caroline.angelo.


Photo by caroline.angelo.


Photo by nevermindtheend.


Brookland. Photo by penguinef.

Got a picture that depicts the best or worst of the Washington region? Make sure to join our Flickr pool and submit your own photos!

Transit


Mosaics could make navigating Metro easier

The Metro can be disorienting for a newcomer. For a long time after I moved here, I got turned around every time I changed trains at L'Enfant Plaza, and always ended up having to go back and read the signs. Could mosaics of the world above make it easier to navigate?


Mockup of a mosaic depicting the convention center at the Mount Vernon Square Metro station. All images by the author.

Metro's uniformity makes it difficult to navigate. I was describing this for a friend who grew up here, and he knew what I meant. My mother doesn't take the metro at all, he told me, because she can't read. The signs aren't any help to her, so she has to stick with the bus where she can see landmarks through the windows and not miss her stop.

Here I was griping because I had to read the signs to navigate the metro, while my friend's mother, like millions of other American adults, isn't able to use the metro system at all because she can't read the signs. I am a mosaicist, which means I make mosaics. When my friend told me about his mother's situation, it gave me an idea: why not put mosaics in the metro depicting the view on the street above?


Mosaic of my dog, Buddy.

Here is a picture of a 4'x4' mosaic I made of my dog, Buddy. Notice how the background in the mosaic meshes with the fence behind it. Imagine mosaics similarly made mounted inside the coffers (those pockets you see on the sides and ceilings of the underground Metro stations) depicting the street view overhead. As a train pulled into a station, you could "look out the window" to see where you were.

The mosaics, especially if illuminated, would help dispel the Metro's gloominess by adding color and "sunlight" to the platforms. At the same time, because they would sit inside the coffers, they wouldn't interfere with the grand vistas of architect Harry Weese, who designed the stations.

This project could engage the community, bringing in neighbors of each Metro station to select the subject matter for their station's mosaics. WMATA could set up a website where residents could offer suggestions for neighborhood landmarks or vote on others' submissions. WMATA could even advertise the submission process as a way to give every DC area resident a stake in "our Metro."


Mockup of a mosaic for the Gallery Place Metro station.

Mosaics could be of recognizable landmarks specific to the area around each station, like the Friendship Arch at the Gallery Place-Chinatown station or the Capitol dome at Capitol South. Or they could be of an interesting view, like the tops of rowhouses, or the entrance of the Thurgood Marshall Academy for the Anacostia station.

Each mosaic would have to satisfy artistic and technical conditions. For example, a mosaic of the skyline wouldn't work because the subject matter is too big to be rendered mosaically with sufficient detail. After passing WMATA review, the local ANC could select a final design from a list of top vote-getters.

The cost could be very reasonable. Each metro coffer is 100 inches wide. If the mosaicist used standard 5/8" x 5/8" ceramic tiles, the rendered mosaic would look very much like the mock-ups depicted here. The cost to complete a station would be less than the $250,000 per station WMATA already has budgeted for public art along the new Silver Line.


Detail of a potential mosaic.

Mosaics would be resistant to vandalism, easy to maintain, and easier to clean than the concrete they would cover. They could be made in sections, then installed all at once overnight with no disruption to service. They would also be durable. In my view, one of the primary benefits of installing mosaics in the Metro is that they could be historical windows into our time for future generations of riders.

Visual cues in the Metro system could add interest to every rider's experience. They're especially helpful for visitors and newcomers as well. But for those who struggle with illiteracy or a learning disability, mosaics below ground depicting the street scene above ground could provide life-changing benefits.

Public Spaces


"Geocaching" uncovers murals about DC culture and history

Hidden treasures lie all over Greater Washington. For those in the know, these finds can create a new map of local culture and history, street art, and changing neighborhoods in a game called "geocaching."


Many Beats, One City. Photo by art around on Flickr.

Geocached murals reveal "the real DC"

Similar to orienteering, geocaching is a massive, worldwide GPS-based treasure hunt. Using a GPS device or a smartphone app, the "cacher" tries to find hidden objects, called "geocaches" or "caches" for short, hidden by other cachers. They can be big or tiny, a large tupperware or just a tiny magnet with a paper log inside. Once found, the cacher logs their finds online.

Geocaches must be hidden from view but may not be buried. They must be placed with permission of the landowner or on public land, but are not allowed on National Park Service land.


Exmachina, aka Lewis Francis, in front of the Wonderland Ballroom mural. Photo by the author.

Within the geocaching community, certain cachers develop a reputation for creating exactly these types of experiences, intimate glimpses into a small corner of the city not found in a guidebook or on a Segway tour. Among cachers in the DC area, few can boast a stronger resume than Lewis Francis of Falls Church, also known as Exmachina. He's a curator of hidden mural caches located within eyeshot of the city's lesser-known works of street art.

Francis finds inspiration from discovering interesting places, and he decided to begin a mural series while walking around Columbia Heights, where he works. "When it's warm I like to explore and wander around the neighborhood," he says. "I noticed a mural right behind Wonderland Ballroom. I thought, this is kind of cool, you wouldn't know about it unless you stumble across it."


Seasons in the City. Photo by art around on Flickr.

He found an app called "Art Around," which shows where all of the murals are located on a map. The more Francis learned about the murals, he realized he wanted to share them with other cachers.

Located all over the city, most of the murals in Francis' series are part of the Murals DC Project, a program sponsored by the Department of Public Works intended to target graffiti-prone areas, sponsor programming for at-risk youth, and enhance communities through beautification.

Many of these murals are located in areas that are in transition or off the beaten path. Some are in alleys in bustling urban corridors, others in quiet residential neighborhoods. Some are hidden in plain sight and others take a bit of sleuthing to find. The geocache series has brought hundreds of visitors, residents, tourists and business travelers alike, to a unique slice of "the real DC."

A mural's life is fleeting

Francis chooses the murals in his series carefully. "When I look at a mural, it has to speak to me," he says. "It has to have some unique history and has to be in a place that people will come across but not in the open."


"Un Pueblo Sin Murales..." Photo by art around on Flickr.

One such mural is ""Un pueblo sin murales..." in Adams Morgan. Painted in 1977, the mural was created by a group of Latino immigrant artists and restored in 2005 by activist group Sol & Soul and artist Juan Pineda.

The Picasso-esque mural depicts life in the Latino immigrant community in DC in the 1970s, but it also reminds the viewer that the neighborhood has changed since it went up. Last year's earthquake and subsequent building repairs have damaged some parts of the mural, but hopefully it will be restored soon.

Francis believes that murals are intended to be temporary, as the neighborhood changes, improves and new buildings rise, the murals become another piece of the past. One of his early mural caches, "World of Columbia Heights," is already gone.

When he archived the listing, he wrote, "Sadly, it appears this mural and its cache have gone the way of all good things. If a new mural ever again graces these walls I will re-enable. Goodbye old friend, I and my office neighborhood will miss you."


"73 Cents." Photo by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

Francis is always on the lookout for candidates for new mural caches. "Sometimes geocachers tell me about places," he says. That's how he discovered "73 Cents," a mural that depicts the artist's husband's struggle with cancer and is meant to advocate for patients' rights. "It was such an interesting and sad story," he adds.

He's also looking for other urban adventures. "I was thinking about a series showcasing the rock clubs. Maybe a cache at Walter Reed," he says. "The caches I like are not just about the hide, but also about the location."

Ultimately, the mural caches are the best kind of reminders that DC is a complex and vibrant community, one which conventional wisdom and reductionist judgments cannot begin to capture. Whether teaching us about a past DC now gone, or the potential for DC's future, the city's murals are an intimate part of the often-overlooked cultural richness of the District of Columbia.

Below are a few of my favorite murals, although I will not divulge the exact locations of the geocaches so you can go out and find them yourself!


This Is How We Live Photo by art around on Flickr.


Scout Photo by art around on Flickr.


The Alchemy of Ben Ali Photo by Rich Renomeron on Flickr.

Development


In Silver Spring, "mixed-use" means housing, shops & church

Across the region, cash-strapped churches are taking advantage of their property's development potential. The latest congregation is the First Baptist Church of Silver Spring, whose plans to replace their aging sanctuary with apartments, shops and a new church will go before the Montgomery County Planning Board on Thursday.


Photo from the Silver Spring Historical Society.

First Baptist Church is at the corner of Fenton Street and Wayne Avenue in downtown Silver Spring, four blocks from the Silver Spring Metro and across the street from a future Purple Line stop. Built between 1927 and 1956, the church's buildings are showing their age and no longer fit the congregation's needs. It could cost $5 million to bring them up to code.

That's why the church has partnered with developers Grosvenor Americas and LaKritz Adler, who propose replacing the church (PDF) with a 6-story, 259-unit apartment building with 18,650 square feet of ground-floor retail space and an underground parking garage.

A new, 29,000-square-foot church, containing a sanctuary, classrooms and a day care center, would be built next door. Between them would be a mid-block pedestrian passage with landscaping and public art.

Redevelopment causes debate between congregations, preservationists


The Church at Clarendon with apartments above. Photo by Ron Cogswell on Flickr.

Whether due to declining attendance or growing ambitions, other area churches are doing the same thing, notably the Third Church of Christ, Scientist in downtown DC, which partnered with a developer to raze their architecturally significant sanctuary and replace it with a new church and office building.

In Arlington, the Church at Clarendon sold the air rights above their church so an apartment building could be built on top. Meanwhile, the First Baptist Church of Wheaton sold their property to an apartment developer to relocate to Olney.

These projects often pit congregations against preservationists, who argue that the churches are historically or architecturally significant and should be saved. The Silver Spring Historical Society fought to have the First Baptist Church designated as a historic landmark; in response, the church hired a historian to argue that the building was nothing special.

It's a "dime-a-dozen church," Pastor Duncan McIntosh told the Gazette in 2011.

The Montgomery County Planning Board chose not to designate the building, opening it up for redevelopment. However, stained glass windows from the old church may be used in the new one, according to Jerry McCoy, president of the historical society.

Proposed design provides transition between downtown and neighborhoods


Site plan of the proposed First Baptist Church redevelopment. All images from the Montgomery County Planning Board.

Whether or not the First Baptist Church of Silver Spring is historically significant, it plays an important role in the community. Ironically, tearing it down will allow the church to remain in the community by giving it much-needed income and a new sanctuary that better fits their needs. Not only that, but the proposed design will encourage the further revitalization of downtown Silver Spring while creating a nice transition to surrounding neighborhoods.

The apartment building, designed by SK+I Architects of Bethesda, will have ground-floor retail along Fenton Street between Wayne and Bonifant Street, filling a large gap between the core of downtown Silver Spring and Fenton Village. Along Wayne and Fenton, the building will be 6 stories tall and have a modern façade with metal and concrete panels and large expanses of glass.


Rendering of proposed First Baptist Church redevelopment from Wayne and Fenton.


View of the building from Bonifant and Fenton.

In 2011, neighbors agreed to allow the building additional height along Fenton; in exchange, the developers have reduced its height to 4 stories along Bonifant, where it's adjacent to single-family houses. The exterior on that street is more traditional, with divided-light windows and brick cladding; instead of shops, there are ground-floor apartments with "real doors."

In response to concerns about through traffic, a chicane will be placed on Bonifant Street. It'll slow drivers down, but still allow them to pass through, making it a much better alternative than the "fake cul-de-sacs" placed in many areas around downtown Silver Spring that just dump more traffic on the main streets.

Public space mixes church and community


Rendering of "Wingspire" sculpture and passage.

However, the most interesting part of the project might be its public open spaces, which take up two-fifths of an acre. It's here that apartment residents, shoppers and diners, and church parishioners will cross paths and mingle, creating an interesting mix.

The church's entrance on Wayne Avenue will face a small plaza, which also has tables and chairs for outdoor dining. On Bonifant Street is a playground for the church's day care center, which will be open to the public at set times. Connecting them is a mid-block passage between the apartments and the church, with benches and bioretention planters that hold and filter rainwater.

There will also be a 30-foot-tall public art piece dubbed "Wingspire." Frederick-based artist William Cochran designed a sculpture made of dichroic glass, which is embedded with thin layers of metal and can display a variety of colors. The glass will also be embedded in the passage's stone pavers, creating what Cochran calls a "river of light."

After years of debate, a design has emerged for the new First Baptist Church of Silver Spring that might make everyone happy. Not only does it allow a nearly century-old congregation to remain in place, but it allows downtown Silver Spring to continue growing while respecting adjacent neighborhoods. A church is often the heart of a community, but in a project like this, it's literal.

Check out this slideshow with additional images of the First Baptist Church proposal.

Public Spaces


Art installation temporarily brightens T Street

Stroll down 14th Street this week, and you'll casually encounter some world-class art. Renowned French street artist JR has transformed 1401 T Street NW into a beautifulbut temporary3-story mural of a 1968 photo of the Memphis sanitation workers' strike.

Photos by Ron Eichner.

The 29-year-old Parisian is known around the world for his unique style, a mixture of photography and graffiti that involves blowing up photographs and pasting them on street corners and buildings.

The mural uses Ernest Wither's photo of the 1968 Memphis strike. The black-and-white image depicts dozens of striking workers and civil rights activists holding up signs that read "I Am a Man."

"This says it all: 'I am a man,'" JR told the Washington Post on Wednesday. "They created such a strong and powerful image that still resonates today, but in another context. Still, people say, 'I am a man,' but they care less about the color [of their skin]. It's 'we are humans, we are here, we want to exist.' And I like that, I think that's pretty powerful."


JR installing the mural.

JR and 3 assistants began work on the mural early Tuesday morning using globs of white paste and rolling out strips of the massive photo. In the past, the semi-anonymous artist has worked both legally and illegally.

This time, he stayed within legal boundaries, with the help of Lauren Gentile, who founded the 14th Street art gallery Contemporary Wing. Gentile facilitated JR's work, with the permission of the unoccupied building's owner, Lori Graham.

"In the right context, street art can start a dialogue about important issues; this one to me is dignity," Gentile said. "The image is installed on a building just two doors down from the historic Post Office for African-Americans and on a street corner just below the center of the 1968 Washington, D.C. riots."

The context has more than historical meaning, as Gentile noted: "You could even go beyond the history and see the image in its new life, now currently in the center of many major developments on 14th street with all of the hundreds of real-time labors working hard nearby. The image, in its new context, has the power to reshape public experience, but how it is reshaped can only be personally decided by its audience."

The mural has already drawn rave reviews from local residents. Its black-and-white faces have turned heads and brought life to a normally dingy and run-down façade. Regular passersby may appreciate having a beautiful piece of art to look at, but a handful of dedicated JR followers have made pilgrimages to U Street just to see the piece.

When one fan arrived at the building on Wednesday and introduced herself to JR, the artist told her to pick up a brush and start painting, according to the Post.

"When you're in New York, people don't say, 'we're happy you came to New York.' In DC, people thank you for coming here and bringing art here," JR told a reporter.

JR's art has graced streets from China and Kenya to Europe and New York City. He has even worked on the wall that separates Israel and Palestine.

JR has long called city streets "the largest art gallery in the world." Notably, the new installation is one of only a handful JR has ever done in the United States.

Because his murals are held together with paste and subject to the wear and tear of weather, there's no telling how long JR's mural at 14th and T will last. It could begin peeling tomorrow or stay in pristine condition for months.

No matter how long the mural survives, it has already done its job: making passersby stop and think, and reminding them how lucky we all are to live in such a vibrant city.

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