December 17, 2009

Alternative way to get the Blue Line to Georgetown

Since the earliest days of Metro, planners and engineers have struggled with the idea of running the Blue Line between Rosslyn and Georgetown, but I believe that a solution to this problem could be found with looking at the problem in a roundabout way.

The problem of how to get the Blue line to have a stop in the heart of Georgetown has been the topic of discussion for a while now, and biggest obstacle has been how to navigate the extreme grades between Rosslyn and Georgetown.

Each area is perched atop significant bluffs above the Potomac below, making direct a tunnel between the two sides a nightmare, one that Metro abandoned in the earliest stages of planning as impracticable. The direct tunnel would have to descend and ascend such a steep grade over such a short distance so that a station at a practical depth would be impossible.

However, I propose a simple solution, simply make the distance between the stations longer and give the tunnel a little more room to make the descent. How can you do that when obviously you can't move the whole of Georgetown? Simply putting a big bend in the tunnel.

Railroad builders have used the technique of bending the tracks around bends, horseshoes and even loops to make the ascent of steep grades possible, such as at the famous Tehachipi Loop. The idea would be to give the train enough track to descend below the Potomac by bending the tracks to the west, making a turn under the Potomac and the C&O canal and making a gentle ascent under M Street NW. Certainly it would be more tunneling, but it would make the sorely needed station a possibility.

Could this work? Has anyone proposed something like this before?

December 15, 2009

New Design Site Launched

I'm pleased to announce the launch of my new design business website.

I offer architectural renderings, architectural design consulting, liturgical and urban design as well as graphic design. Please take a look and feel free to comment.

December 11, 2009

East Building of National Gallery Crumbling After Only 30 Years

NOTE: After writing this article I received the following message from the author of the WSJ article:

"I have read your blog about my WSJ article on Pei's E Bldg wall system but it contains what I believe is a major error--the notion that Pope used expansion joints on his W Bldg marble veneer. This is untrue. The W Bldg marble veneer is mortared as well as anchored to its concrete back-up on the lower level and bonded to a brick substrate on the upper/piano nobile level. The resulting mass obviates the need for expansion joints. The only movement joints on the building are for structural movement and they fall between the wings and the center/rotunda block. I checked this out with the Gallery in reporting the story."

In this week's Wall Street Journal, Catesby Leigh writes about the ongoing problems popping up at the I.M. Pei-designed National Gallery East Building. The WSJ article explains that the facade of the building, constructed using an experimental curtain wall system that the architect described as "a technological breakthrough for the construction of masonry walls," has become unstable. While the article delves into the technological reasons for the failures, it begs the question of why. Why would the architect make a conscious decision to ignore established precedents for the construction in favor of a new, unsustainable system. The answer has more to do with ideological constraints as much as a technological ones.

East Wing of the National Gallery (photo by Iainr, via Flickr)

The facade of the East Wing is constructed of a series of 2'-by-5', 438-pound marble panels that are held in place on a structure of steel hangers attached to a concrete frame. With the use of new rubberized gaskets to seal the joints between the stones and allow for movement to occur, the walls were supposed to last for a half-century or more before needing even minor maintenance. Pei described them as "a technological breakthrough for the construction of masonry walls." It is this system that the WSJ piece describes as the very reason why the facade failed.

But the bigger question is why the building employed such technology in the first place. The following line explains the why:

The [use of the new experimental] gaskets also would spare the East Building the need for wide, visually disruptive expansion joints—a standard feature of curtain wall veneer, running horizontally and vertically at regular intervals to accommodate thermal movement.

The clean lines and solid geometrical forms of the building's design simply could not be interrupted with unsightly expansion joints. I.M. Pei quite simply was shackled to his own modern design, constrained to have large uninterrupted geometries of stone, a technological solution was an absolute necessity. The earlier Main Building, designed by John Russell Pope, had no such constraints.

Expansion joints are hidden behind the pilasters. (photo by Boots)

What most people, even architects don't realize is that the Pope building, like the East Wing, is similarly constructed using a marble veneer over a structural core. What is different, however, is the extensive use of a well established conventions construction and the use of expansion joints. These expansion joints on the facade of the Main Building are cleverly hidden behind clusters of classical pilasters on corners of the facade. Pope, not being constrained by the ideology of modern architecture, was able to find a solution that was at once attractive and still working marvelously almost 60 years after completion.

The essential difference between these buildings is clearly the technology used, but that technology is a direct reflection of the architectural philosophies of each architect. In the former case the architect believed that new materials would provide a "technological breakthrough" to allow him to create the clean lines of modern architecture. Ignoring traditional solutions and the nature of the materials he was working with, it ultimately resulted in structural failure. The latter architect however worked using established precedents of construction that took into consideration natural forces such as expansion and contraction and gravity, and combined this with a sleight of hand possible through classical architecture, created a building that has stood over twice as long with no major failures.

The question of modern versus traditional when it comes to building technology has become more than just a question of style, but that of sustainability. The cladding of the entire East Wing will now have to be removed and restored at the cost of $85 million to the taxpayer. This works out to about 17% of the inflation adjusted cost of the original building ($500 million). Add to the financial cost the immense amount of fuel, energy, and building material waste produced by such a project, the justification for such buildings is becoming more and more difficult. Structural and facade failure in an iconic Modernist building is not without a number of precedents, begging the question of why architects insist upon continuing to build such unsustainable architecture in our enlightened times, again the answer is ideology.

On one hand, architects wisely are beginning to embrace sustainability, but with the other hand cast aside traditional detailing and traditional architecture because of a ideological bias against such architecture. We need to use architecture, all of its lessons to create a better and more sustainable future, here at GGW it seems most everyone looks to tradition when it comes to urbanism, so too we should embrace it in architecture. For architecture to truly be sustainable it must not only welcome back into its repertoire the lessons that traditional and classical architecture have to offer when it comes to construction, but also must be willing to embrace them.

December 1, 2009

Bicycling in the Eternal City

When people here in the US think of cities with a strong bike culture in Europe, the places that come to mind are Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Paris, but Rome is rarely on that list. The picture that most Americans have when they think of the Eternal City is riding a motorino around the Colosseum, or as Eddie Izzard puts it most Italians riding around saying 'ciao' like in Roman Holiday. But thanks to a new bike sharing program started last year, that culture is beginning to change.

Bicycling in Paris

This past week I visited Paris, Venice and Rome, and while in Paris I had planned to check out the Velib system for this post. Paris is as many folks have reported becoming an increasingly bike friendly city, and despite the rash of vandalism lately, the Velib system still remains convienient and widely used by commuters and tourists alike. I was pleasantly shocked however to see that Rome has begun its transformation into a bike city much like Paris or Copenhagen or Amsterdam.

Launched in July of last year, the system is being run by ATAC, the transit agency that runs the buses and metro in Rome, and its its fare system works much like the Velib system, being free to subscribers for the first half hour then charging 1 Euro for 30 mins after. Stations are mostly clustered in the Centro Storico (Historic Center) of Rome, though there are a few around La Sapienza University and in Ostia Antica along the coast. On the Google map for the stations, you can even click on each station to see how many bikes are available at any given time.

The new bike sharing system in Rome

The bikes are of a more sturdy and conventional design like most Dutch bikes as opposed to the aerodynamic Velib. Each has a rack in back and a basket in front, making them pretty convenient to take a few items. However this stolid design isn't dissuading the ever fashionable Italians from riding them or riding bikes of their own. The bikes I saw Rome, most of them very new, were ridden by ordinary looking Romans, dressed in street clothes or women in their necessary high heels. It seems the culture of bicycling is being seen to be just a normal part of life, even for the Romans.

System map of the bike share in the Centro Storico

Two years ago when I lived in Rome, I would not have dared ridden a bike in this city, so the transformation, albeit still very small, is remarkable. Judging by the experience of so many cities such as in Paris, New York and Copenhagen, where bicycling had for so long been seen as ridiculous or dangerous concept, but is now embraced proudly as part of the city's life, I think it's an encouraging sign to see such growth in such a short time.
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