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Eisenhower Memorial will be a nice park. Is that enough?

If you like the FDR and MLK Memorials then you’ll probably like the Eisenhower Memorial. The latest designs follow the now-familiar model for new federal memorials, with an informal stone centerpiece amid a pleasant park.


Eisenhower Memorial site plan. All images from NCPC.

Earlier this month, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) released the latest Eisenhower plans, in preparation for a September 12 review meeting.

The proposed design will re-conceive the mess of turn lanes and parking lots where Maryland Avenue SW meets Independence Avenue as a lovely city square. From that perspective, the design is a great victory for DC.

Since the buildings around the memorial are generally uninteresting and devoid of activity, architect Frank Gehry has included several elements that will make the square function as a better and more interesting urban room.

 
Tapestries form the border of an urban room (left), while an amenity-filled promenade helps draw people to the site (right).

Tall tapestries, covered with graphics, will surround and help frame the square, and will hide the eyesore buildings behind. Along the back edge, an activity-filled promenade will add an element of mixed-use, helping to draw more people. The promenade will include a sidewalk cafe, an art exhibition area, and a visitor center.

The memorial itself, at the center of the new square, will consist of stone blocks and metal statues arranged in a casual, informal plan. Like the FDR Memorial, it will be more introspective than monumental.


Central memorial.

The informal stone concept used at FDR and MLK has become popular because it works. Just about everyone likes it, and it doesn’t offend anybody. The same will likely be true for Eisenhower.

But I do wonder how many more similar memorials we can build before the idea becomes a cliche. Ironically, a classical alternative would be more daring.

 Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.
 
 
 

August 29th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: architecture, parks, urbandesign



Moscow’s palatial subway, with a DC connection

Moscow’s subway is among the most heavily used in the world, and surely one of the most beautiful. Many of the stations are decked out in palatial splendor, befitting the communist ideal of grand public spaces. But then there’s 1 station that’s looks almost like it could be from DC. Take a look:

All images from flickr. Top photo by Mikhail Vokabre Shcherbakov.
Bottom photos (from left to right) by Adam Nowek, George Armstrong, and macchi.

August 20th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: architecture, metrorail, transportation



Moscow’s crazy perpendicular archway bridge

I’ve never seen anything like Moscow’s Zhivopisny Bridge before. It’s technically a cable-stayed bridge, like many around the world, but the giant perpendicular archway pier is totally unique.


Photo from Wikipedia user Daryona.

June 12th, 2013 | Permalink | {num}Comments
Tags: architecture, roads/cars, transportation



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



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