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Is the National Mall an urban room or a sculpture garden?

click to enlarge
Photo by Shih-Pei Chang on flickr.

DC’s art community was chagrined to see the Hirshhorn cancel plans to build an inflatable “bubble”. This is a good time to ask, “what now?” The bubble would have been a striking sculptural statement, but is that what the National Mall should be?

Should the Mall be a singular urban space, defined by consistent neoclassical style, or an architectural sculpture garden for individual masterpiece buildings? Either vision could be great, but with no agreement on what the Mall should be, neither is happening.

The question is not really about artist preference for classical or modern styles. That’s a distraction. Rather, the question is whether the focus of the National Mall should be its open public spaces, or its buildings.

If the focus is the public space, then that space is better defined by framing buildings that have a consistent character.

Many of the best urban public spaces in the world are “outdoor rooms,” where a plaza or park is framed by surrounding buildings that act as “walls.” The activity mostly takes place in the central space, but the buildings define the central space’s character. The more consistent the surrounding buildings, the stronger that character.

On the other hand, if the focus is the individual buildings, then it’s more interesting to have a wider variety of styles. No one wants to see an art gallery where every painting is the same, after all.

Historic plans envisioned the Mall as a singular space among neoclassical buildings, with the Capitol as major landmark. But that idea has given way in recent history to much more individualized buildings. Besides the Hirshhorn, there’s the the National Museum of the American Indian and the under-construction National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

It would be nice to have a great public space and a variety of architecture, but unfortunately the two visions are mutually exclusive. Urban walls need consistency, and sculpture gardens need variety. The more we push in one direction, the worse the Mall will function as the other. So which is it?

Urbanistically, neither option is necessarily better than the other. The Mall is such a large space, with such large buildings, that the normal rules of Jane Jacobs urbanism don’t generally apply. There will be few corner stores or sidewalk cafes no matter what, and no mixed use.

I like the American Indian museum, and I think I would have liked the Hirshhorn bubble. But I’m not sure I’d sacrifice the Mall’s overall character for too many more standalone masterpieces. Either way, it would be nice to make a decision and then stick with it.

What do you think?

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

June 6th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: architecture, parks

Washington’s one proud claim to “world’s tallest building”

When the Washington Monument topped out at 555 feet tall in 1884, it became the world’s tallest structure. Our champion status lasted only 5 years, until the Eiffel Tower put it to shame in 1889.

This vintage 1884 diagram shows the tallest buildings at that time, with Washington occupying the top.

From Cram’s Unrivaled Family Atlas of the World, Chicago IL. Lithograph color print.

May 20th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: architecture, history

Purple Line stations will range from simple to iconic

As Maryland moves forward with planning for the Purple Line, station designs are being released. They range from simple sidewalk shelters at the smaller stations to landmark aerial cylinders at Silver Spring and Riverside Park. Here are 6 renderings, illustrating the range of designs. More graphics are available at PurpleLineMD.com.

Bethesda, in a subway.

Silver Spring, elevated.

Langley Park, at-grade.

Riverdale Park, elevated.

Typical at-grade side station.

Typical at-grade center station.

Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

April 5th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: architecture, lightrail, transportation

Pop-ups may look weird, but they’re OK

click to enlarge
11th and V poptop.

This 5 story pop-up rowhouse at 11th and V, NW has gotten a lot of negative press. DCist and Popville had nothing kind to say about it. And while it’s undeniably a silly-looking thing, it’s not actually bad. In fact, from an urbanist perspective, it’s good for the city.

First, a bigger building will allow more people to live in a core city neighborhood. That will help the neighborhood support more stores and services, and reduce car traffic everywhere. Density in the core of the city is a good thing, and a 5 story building is a very reasonable amount of density.

Second, this preserves the narrow lot pattern of its block, versus having one developer buy up multiple row houses and then put in a much wider building.

All other things being equal, a street with several narrow buildings is preferable to a street with a single long building of the same square footage. A streetscape with constantly changing narrow buildings is more interesting to look at than one with a single long building. Narrower buildings are also more likely to be owned by small local property owners, instead of big development chains.

Yes, this property looks silly now. But think about the future. Assuming we can’t (and don’t want to) freeze the city in time, densifying infill on small properties is exactly the kind of development we want. If it’s all eventually going to be 5 stories anyway, it’s better that this block redevelop property-by-property than all once.

Pop-ups are the first step towards this in Amsterdam, which really isn’t such a bad thing.

Amsterdam. Photo by Jim Nix / Nomadic Pursuits on Flickr.

Will this particular building look as good as that picture? It’s hard to tell at this point. It might, but it could just as easily become the ugliest building in DC. Buildings that size aren’t inherently pretty or ugly. There are lots of good ones, and lots of bad ones. What it looks like is not ultimately the same issue as its mass and scale.

The point is, narrow 5 story buildings are a great physical form for city streets. That’s the form of some of the best parts of Paris, London, and New York. Although this will look weird with 2 story neighbors, it pushes the evolution of the block in a good direction.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.

April 2nd, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: architecture, development, urbandesign

Slick rendering, ugly building

Mayor Gray’s proposed DC budget includes $100 million to renovate the MLK library. It’s in awful shape and needs to be either renovated or replaced, so it’s nice to see that become a priority.

But I’m very amused by the rendering of the proposed renovation. Isn’t it nice? The building is literally glowing. It’s a beacon of lightness amidst dark and dreary surroundings. Such simplicity! Such grace! Not at all like the ugly reality.

Granted, the point of the renovation is to make that ugly reality better. And the renovation will almost certainly result in a much better library, at least once you’re inside. But most of the visible changes are to the new floors added at the top of the building; the bottom 4 floors won’t look much different from today.

It’s worth remembering that renderings are intended to present buildings as nicely as possible. It’s also worth remembering that the scale of details necessary to make a 200 foot long building interesting while you’re walking beside it are dramatically different from the scale of details necessary to make a 6 inch rendering look clean.

Rendering of proposed MLK renovation. Perfectly fine thing to do, but it’s not going to be this pretty.

March 29th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: architecture

Poll declares library’s reading room DC’s most beautiful

Library of Congress main reading room.

About 200 people have voted so far in the poll asking what is DC’s most beautiful room, and the traditional answer is the clear winner. The Library of Congress’ main reading room garnered a clear plurality, with 30% of all votes.

Three other rooms had large a percentage of the vote. The National Building Museum’s great hall was 2nd with 19%, the Library of Congress’ great hall was 3rd with 17%, and Union Station was 4th with 14%.

All other answers together added up to about 21%. In addition to the 4 other options available in the poll, multiple readers suggested the Freer Gallery’s Peacock Room. Others suggested the National Gallery West Wing rotunda, National Airport’s terminal, and the Botanic Gardens conservatory.

March 28th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: architecture

What is DC’s most beautiful room?

click to enlarge
Library of Congress great hall.

Washington is a city blessed with many beautiful rooms. What do you think is the best one?

This survey has a few common answers, but there could be dozens more, so don’t be shy about answering “other”.

Clicking each item in the poll will give you a picture.

What is DC’s most beautiful room?

pollcode.com free polls 

March 25th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: architecture

Growing Baltimore might get more TOD and a fancy train shed

Baltimore’s decades-long population decline has officially reversed. The city grew by about 1,100 people last year. Congrats to Baltimore!

In more specific but also exciting news, Amtrak has adopted a new master plan for Baltimore’s Penn Station. It includes significant new development around the station, and a new canopy over the tracks that would dramatically improve the rider experience.

The plans are conceptual, and will have to go into greater detail before development can begin.

Concept plan for Penn Station. Image by Beatty Development.

March 15th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: architecture, commuterrail, demographics, intercity, master planning, transportation

85 pictures from the Library of Congress

The Library of Congress is often said to have the 2 most most beautiful rooms in Washington. Unfortunately they’re notoriously hard to photograph, because the Library doesn’t allow photography during reading hours.

But a couple of weekends ago they hosted an open house, during which cameras were allowed. I took the opportunity and ended up with these pictures.

By the way, after the library my vote for next most beautiful room in DC goes to Saint Matthew’s Cathedral. I’m a sucker for red marble.

March 13th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: architecture, galleries

Renderings of two Corridor Cities Transitway stations

If Maryland’s legislature fails to raise new transportation funding this year, the Purple Line light rail, Baltimore Red Line subway, and Corridor Cities Transitway BRT could all be cut or seriously delayed.

While reading a report about the Corridor Cities Transitway, I stumbled on these renderings of two of its more important stations. The first shows King Farm, near Shady Grove Metro, and the second shows Metropolitan Grove, a TOD in Gaithersburg where the CCT will meet an existing MARC station.

Note the relatively simple brick stop shelters, especially.

King Farm station.

Metropolitan Grove station, showing MARC on the left.

February 26th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: architecture, BRT, funding, government, transportation



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