February 26, 2009

CFA Denies Inharmonious Addition to Library, Post Writer Denounces CFA

Proposed addition to Mt. Pleasant Public Library in DC by CORE Design

Last week the US Commission of Fine Arts denied a plan by DC Public Libraries to add the above addition to its historic 1920's Mt. Pleasant branch. Marc Fisher of the Washington Post called the move "stomping on innovation and the faint whispers of home rule." Fisher couldn't be further from the mark, both in terms of architecture, but moreover why the CFA is justified as a Federal Commission to do such a thing.

First of all let me say before I get accused of politics, I don't intend to use this article as a springboard for ANY discussion about Home Rule, Statehood, or DC Voting rights. I only intend to respond to Fisher's and others' attacks on the CFA's authority as arbiter of architecture within the Capital independent of whatever political definition it has. I believe my arguments would stand (or fall) equally well for any Capital, be it DC or Berlin or Tokyo.

Fisher tries to net the CFA with the claim that it "serves mainly to prevent the city from evolving over time as any living place must." He says because the Library had three community meetings and "responded to neighbors' complaints" the CFA overstepped its bounds by denying the approval of this addition. Now these may be a fine and justified reasons in any normal city would respond merely to its own citizens. However, Washington DC has a special standard of aesthetics to uphold, by virtue of it being not just any ordinary city but our nation's Capital.

To see DC as "Our Nation's Capital," is to see it as not just for those who live there, but indeed everyone's home. Indeed the "neighbors" who need to be consulted are not just those who live nearby, but also those who live from Maryland, Virginia and indeed from sea to shining sea.

To understand DC as a home for the whole nation is to know it as a work of art, and as such has a symbolic end first and foremost. DC as a Capital ought to tell something to us about us, and it can do this by being more than just a collection of parts, but as one great piece of art in the form of its architecture and its urbanism. That architecture can tell a story, and like any story told anywhere in all of human history, needs to be whole, unified and cohesive to tell its story to us.
This is how L'Enfant saw the city, built apart from any of the already existing cities, a new work of art, symbolizing the new Nation formed by the Constitution. Indeed the city is itself the bond between the states, a seal of confirmation pressed in stone, stating that we were then and are now One Nation.

DC symbolizes this best where the McMillan Commission - the predecessor to the current CFA - did its finest work creating the Mall as we know it today. The Mall as the scene of all of our greatest aspirations and dreams as Americans is the great stage that politicians use to arouse our passions, that leaders of all kinds call to our patriotism to think of the common good of our whole nation.

But it could not do this without a unity of form that the McMillan Commission created. A unity of form that resonates in a particular way with the idea that here no one man or woman's interests are to be placed over the interests of the nation. Monuments are erected only to those who, rather than placing themselves above the people, gavethemselves for the greater good of all. The McMillan Commissions genius shows clearly where, despite monumental buildings and memorials being built, the dome of the Capitol - the Hall of the People - still dominates over all other monuments and buildings of the city, reinforcing that it is to the people all deference is to be given.

The symbolism of our Constitutional City is what the CFA is charged with defending. In DC the symbolism of the city ought to apply to every neighborhood, not just the core of the Federal area. The architecture of our nation's Capital ought be harmonious and beautiful, mixing with its immediate neighbors but also with the city as a whole. From the monumental core to the smallest street, DC ought to be a symbol of harmony and a well ordered city like it ought to be, even if it falls well short of those aspirations.

The CFA is right in rejecting this and other buildings like it because rather than being harmonious with a work of art that the city, they point to themselves and say "look at me!" Folks like Marc Fisher know that when they say designs like this are "striking and inviting mix of old and new" and want architects to "push the decrepit system into a new era," they are pushing their own agenda, not the ordered harmony of L'Enfant and the McMillan Commission but disharmony and discord.

This addition proposed is not something that defers to the city and its order, but it rather pushes itself as "innovation" and "evolution." It is, frankly neither innovative or an evolution, but rather another bland glass box calling attention to itself like so many others. The architects of this building are like a mischevious trumpeter in the midst of a symphony who begins to play his own tune, trying to focus the the attention of on himself, rather than on creating together a work of true beauty.

February 18, 2009

Apple Store Tries to Wedge Modernism into Georgetown

A fair amount of debate has been raging lately about the proposed new Apple store in Georgetown and the Old Georgetown Board's refusal to approve any design that the company submits. Apple has submitted four separate proposals for the store, which sits on a site on Wisconsin Avenue directly at the end of Prospect Street.

Apple initially submitted a design back in 2007, only to be rejected by the Old Georgetown Board. Having been rejected, Apple came up with a few other designs, each a little more outlandish and inappropriate, seemingly to make their first design appear to be reasonable in comparison.

Throughout this whole process, from the initial design to the latest design shown here, Apple has shown an apparent disregard for the character of Georgetown and how its building should fit in with the street.

The first design, while not as insane as the second or third designs, still displayed an amateurish lack of understanding of classical detail and scaling. The building as a whole appears no better than the post-modern building it intends to replace. The facade stands half a story taller than its neighbors, disregarding a clear precedent of floor heights and scale, the windows are detailed incorrectly and the cornice is boxy, clunky and shows a lack of attention to detail.

If the first design was denied approval as being inappropriate, what in the world make Apple think that its second and third designs submitted would be approved? The second and third designs apparently came from the old huckster's trick of telling the biggest whopper possible to make your initial suggestion seem reasonable in comparison.

Some may like the glass box or the big Apple sign for a facade, but the Old Georgetown Board is right to dismiss such nonsense out of hand. Even the last design submitted is no more than a false facade that will only serve to be a store and nothing more. Sure it might make for a great billboard for Apple now, but what happens when the company goes out of business, or decides that having a storefront is no longer a viable business model? Could any of these designs be used for something else?

Georgetown as a community would then be stuck with a building that is either a curiosity, no longer of any use, or a new owner would have to spend significant money to build yet another building. In these days of environmental awareness, wouldn't the issue of convertibility in the future be considered?

The issue is one of permanence and a neighborhood as a larger work of art. The issue is not as one commenter called it "historic preservation gone mad" but that Georgetown as a neighborhood has a certain character that is defined by its buildings, that is larger than any of its parts, but also composed of them. Historic buildings are not valued in Georgetown simply because they are old, as some would falsely claim, but are valued because they are beautiful and display a humane scale. The combination of so many buildings with such characteristics is what gives Georgetown a harmony that few other places have, a harmony that is destroyed by buildings such as Apple's design.

Apple, not the Old Georgetown Board, are to blame for not getting a store built in Georgetown because of their lack of understanding this simple point. That buildings are not like a work of art to be displayed in a museum or in a vacuum, but that buildings are a part of a larger work of art, the art of a city.

February 4, 2009

Only Architectural Record Could Define Boring Modernism as "Defying Convention"

Krueck + Sexton's 1100 First Street NE

Architectural Record reports the office building shown here with the following headline:
"Krueck + Sexton Defies Conventions in Washington, D.C."
Am I the only one not in on the joke? Perhaps its due to the economy, perhaps its due to Architectural Record's endless fawning over starchitecture, but I fail to see how this building "defies convention." Quite the contrary I see a very boring and conventional building being given a label of "unconventional" (good) simply because of the resume of its architects. Krueck and Sexton are the architects of both the Millennium Park’s Crown Fountain and the Spertus Institute (both in Chicago). I wont get into the individual demerits of these projects, but its clear from the press that the DC building must be receiving praise because of Kruek and Sexton's reputation.

Clearly it can't be the building itself, a glass box, cantilevered over the sidewalk below, are are a dime a dozen in Modern architecture ala Mies. Cantilevering the walls out above the first floor has been a staple of modernist architecture for so long its practially become second nature, but somehow this passes as something wonderously new, as the article makes pains to point out.

The one design feature that is somewhat different is the shifting of the mass of the building outwards as it rises, but this alone is hardly a unconventional element. Now it does not appear in the rendering shown, but the article points out that the building features "a diagonal refracted crease in its north-facing glass curtain wall." This I suppose is unconventional, though not for Krueck and Sexton (apparently this is their "signature"), but these two bits of architectural slight of hand are hardly reason enough to heap praise on this building.

Why then the praise? Well the same old one trick ponies get trotted out. The opening act is an attack on classical and traditional architecture by "a new crop of glass-walled D.C. offices casting off perceived obligations to impersonate somber monuments and government landmarks." So to the casual reader, the enemy is imitation of the old, but anything new is to be preferred. So the hegemony of the modernist critics and academics would have you believe.

I myself work in downtown DC and can tell you most of the office buildings in the area are NOT imitations of monuments and landmarks, far from it. Practically all of the buildings there are of the most banal and lifeless modernist glass and steel Miesian imitations that one could find. Limestone or brick is rarely to be found and when it is (as in my building) it is an oasis in a desert of the bland.

Hiatus interuptus

Greetings all, sorry for the long hiatus from blogging here. Its been a rough few weeks for thinking about architecture. Honestly thinking about it just gets one a bit anxious with the way things have been going. The past few weeks were extremely busy though with work, finishing up a few proposals and with luck they'll come through and I'll continue to have a good excuse for not writing.

I leave you with an excellent article I found some weeks ago by James Matthew Wilson that I've been meaning to write on. Please read through it thoroughly as I'll be exploring some thoughts that were aroused in further posts, and tying it back to earlier ideas brought up by Driehaus Prize Winner Al-Wakil.
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