Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Buildings Speak to us and Each Other

At the CDC Meeting of ANC 2F last week, the phrase "vocabulary" was used several times to express how a building "spoke" to the world. Buildings can draw us towards them or they can repel us. They evoke emotions. They stimulate. Very few are neutral. In fact buildings can also "speak to each other" by how they interact visually and even functionally. Sometimes what they "say" is subtle and sometimes, not so much. One thoughtfully constructed line draws your eye to another place and so on. Before you know it, a silent conversation is going on as you look around. The richness of the conversation depends on the depth of the vocabulary. It depends on the building character. Contrast for a moment the emotional impact of walking along "K Street" or Judiciary Square in D.C. with the emotions experienced while walking through Greenwich Village in New York. Where would you rather be? Which one appeals to our human nature? Which is warm and draws you closer with curiosity? Which is cold and repels? Why?

The late Michael Carr (see tribute) captured some of the local architectural vocabulary. The image on the left is one of Carr's original drawings, courtesy of Hal Davitt through his web site. The model for this sketch is on the right and still exists. Sometimes buildings and their walls are used to express indignation and rage - to make a personal statement. Sometimes their walls were used simply as a cheap way to advertise services and wares. The D.C. alleys are filled with these ghost signs, lingering as remnants of old conversations.

For us to be able to speak the language of buildings we need to know and understand the words to describe what we are seeing. It's a worthwhile learning process for those who are not familiar with this vocabulary. (architectural glossary)

At the CDC meeting there was also much discussion about contextualism and the flaws that face the raw Reatig rectangles being proposed for 926 N Street NW. A large complex is being shown in renderings by this firm yet the context is framed from only one side of the street with much smaller properties. Why not take at least a little inspiration from the opposite side of the street - dismissed at the meeting as "motley" by the presenters? Several beautifully constructed apartment buildings have lived across the street for over 100 years and are very willing to provide context and influence from their time tested character.

Context implies relationships. The press and politicians love to take words out of context which when standing alone have a very different meaning from their contextual origin. It's a form of reality distortion. The same thing happens when the vocabulary of architecture is similarly abused. There are also other large buildings in the immediate neighborhood from which to draw inspiration and some sense of history. One is the original "Tally Ho" livery stable at 1300 Naylor Court - currently the DC Archives - with its unique horse head height windows on the upper floor. Very few stables originally faced the street, for most were hidden from view in the alleys but there are some notable exceptions in the city. 

Tally Ho Livery (built in 1893) at 1300 Naylor Court N

1897 advertisement 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Evolution of Stables to Garages

This delightful albumin silver print by Eugรจne Atget currently in the NY Museum of Modern Art, dated June 1922, came to my attention while perusing Teri Tynes’ blog Walking Off the Big Apple, a strolling guide to New York. For me, the beauty of this photograph lies in how effortlessly it captures the natural evolution of alley adaptive reuse 90 years ago in France. The building behind the car and motorcycles is clearly a former stable that has been commandeered as a repair shop. The diversity of machinery suggests that this is a commercial venture rather than many conveyances belonging to one individual. A wealthy person would not live here and would never work on their own vehicles. That was left to mechanics and chauffeurs – often the same person in the 1920’s. The lack of signage suggests that this operation may not be entirely sanctioned. The various repair projects are being done outside because there is no electricity and no light inside. There is an unpretentious casualness about the scene where there does not appear to be a fear of theft with tools and machines seemingly left unattended. The garage door is clearly makeshift and a poor barrier to trespassers.

1917 Accident in DC (from Shorpy's Collection)

Early in the last century, roads were rough and gas powered machinery was fragile. This was  “a perfect storm” for mechanics. For example, tires were lucky to last 5,000 miles with normal wear.  Wheel spokes were wooden and designed for carriages rather than cars. The alloy of engines and frames was often of poor and inconsistent quality. With the explosion of car manufacturers in Europe and the US, parts were not readily interchangeable and mechanics had to customize and improvise. It’s easy to see why blacksmiths who were accustomed to repairing springs, frames and wheel rims in carriages were logical tradesmen to fit into a transition to a new transportation era. It’s also easy to see why stables became converted to auto repair garages. D.C. had scores of them! They were already in a perfect location in the center of blocks, they already had a customer base (former horse and carriage trade), they already had most of the tools, the alley was accustomed to noise and smells, and they already had the building, so – why not? And they did. Most are gone but many signs still linger as reminders of a fragment of alley life in the last mid-century of DC.

People in the neighborhood could not afford the high prices of dealership repair shops along 14th Street and elsewhere in the city. They drove cheap worn out cars that required much work for which they could barely manage to pay. Sometimes a barter deal was worked out. In some instances the cars were “hot” with a questionable provenance, so being able to have them repaired (and repainted!) quickly with no questions asked was a service much in demand in some alleys.

In this photograph from the Shorpy collection, Ms. Grace Wagner is pictured here on February 9th 1927, under a car, learning auto repair at Central High School in Washington D.C. Other classmates pictured with her are Grace Hurd, Evelyn Harrison and Corinna DiJiulian.

Ms. Wagner graduated in from high school in 1930 and went on to Wilson Teachers College and ultimately earned a master's degree in education from George Washington University. She taught for many years in the DC Public School system and eventually died of pneumonia in 2002.
Perhaps one day, DC alleys may find themselves turning back to servicing electric cars. This business would meet local needs, be relatively quiet and carry a low carbon footprint. The stables and other buildings in alleys have lived many past lives and with intelligent alley planning and preservation there is no reason that they and other small alley buildings will not experience many future new lives. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

What is Contextualism Anyway?

“Contextual design emphasizes compatibility and works to respect the scale, height, setback, materials and detailing of surrounding older buildings. This does not mean that new designs need to look old – in most cases, this would be inappropriate. Rather, it means that contemporary design should blend with the old so that new and old are distinguishable but compatible. The sense of continuity and basic sensitivity to the old has been referred to as an “architectural genetic code”(1), a code of craftsmanship worked out over generations of trial and error.”(2)
A reader’s comment on a (January 12th, 2011) blog article in the Preservation Institute Blog about contextualism was spot on. David Sucher is quoted as saying said... “Contextualism is only of value when the context is valuable.” The blog dissected an article in the New York Times by Nicolai Ouroussoff discussing the philosophy of what is actually worth preserving.

Charles Siegel author of the Preservation Institute Blog writes: -

“When we were on the defensive because traditional urbanism was constantly being threatened by modernist projects, it made some sense to talk about design that respects its context. But now that we are beginning to transform inhuman modernist developments into good places for people to be, it is time to start talking about design that respects human nature. It is time to move from architectural contextualism to architectural humanism.”

Kurt Anderson’s writings from 1987, republished recently are well worth reading, for they bring a balanced perspective to the discussion about preservation and new construction. Times are demanding a little more common sense as well as common sensitivity. I have quoted liberally from Anderson’s work below.

 “What has come to be known as gentrification -- the migration of (mainly white) middle-class homesteaders into poor (mainly black and Hispanic) urban neighborhoods -- is neither the cause nor an effect, exactly, of the historic renovation boom. But the two trends have abetted each other. The original '60s militants of the preservation movement were the shock troops of the upper middle class, and it was a broader swath of the same class who in the '70s made living amid urban antiquity seem both virtuous and stylish. Restored carriage houses and pressed-tin ceilings have seduced more children of the suburbs back to the city than mean, shiny apartment towers.”

Preservation can set up a self-destructive cycle. When a historic neighborhood is restored, it becomes desirable and prices go up, and when prices go up sufficiently, developers think dollars per square foot, high- rise, wrecking ball. They wind up selling the view of a historic district from a condominium tower that has supplanted a piece of that history.

Not every old building can be saved. Not every old building should be saved. Except for set pieces like fussy little Colonial Williamsburg or the elegant Upper East Side of Manhattan, cities should not remain stuck in time. As Charlestonians have learned, vitality depends on at least modest infusions of new building. Even preservationists, most of them, agree in principle. Says Gene Norman, chairman of New York City's Landmarks Preservation Commission: "We are not trying to create a museum city."

Yet the reflexive impulse to preserve everything, even the relatively new and banal, occasionally shows signs of getting out of hand. "People are just beginning to talk about ' '50s classics' now, which is a term that embraces some really appalling ticky-tack," says the British-born architectural historian Reyner Banham, who lives in California. "There is a tendency to overlook the aesthetic quality of a building and just keep it because it is old," says Robert Winter, a cultural historian at Occidental College in Los Angeles. "Too often the reason for declaring something ((a historic landmark)) is sentimental." Sentiment is inadmissible? Isn't the new feeling for preservation and for cities inherently romantic, clear-headedness clouded by a large dose of nostalgia?”

According to the D.C. Historic Preservation Office: - 

Planning and neighborhood protection. Historic designation is an important planning tool for the city, a way to improve the quality of life and a means to protect neighborhoods from unmanaged change.

Public participation. Because the review process involves public comment, citizens are given a voice in development affecting their neighborhoods.

Designing a new building that contributes to, rather than detracts from, the character of a historic district begins with an analysis of the character-defining features of the existing historic buildings, streets and landscapes. Typically, character-defining features include: setback. Orientation, scale, proportion, rhythm, massing, height, materials, color, roof shape and details and ornamentation.

A new building should be compatible with the existing environment without exactly duplicating existing buildings. A new building in a historic district must also conform to the District of Columbia’s zoning and building codes.

A new building should be seen as a product of its own time. To reproduce a historic building or to copy exactly a style from the past, creates a false sense of history. By relating to the existing buildings and the environment, but being of its own time, a new building shows a district’s evolution just as the existing buildings show its past. Perhaps the best way to think about a compatible new building is that it should be a good neighbor, enhancing the character of the district and respecting the context, rather than an exact clone.” 

(1) Kurt Anderson, “Spiffing Up the Urban Heritage,” Time, 23 November 1987, page 76

(2) Norman Tyler, “Historic Preservation” – an introduction to its history, principles and practice, W.W. Norton and Company, 2000  page 139

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Small Spaces for Living Large

The concept of Live/Work is explored through this video recently published in FastCompany under The Future of Living Where you Work and Working Where you Live.  (about 10 minutes)

Most of us are living inside a box of one type or another. Within that box we design other smaller boxes (and call them bedrooms) or make decisions to take down walls to create larger inside boxes (and call them "open concept"). Then most of us go to work each day inside another very large box filled with hundreds of smaller boxes inside which many of us working inside tiny boxes - cubes/cubicles.

Why not strive to live outside of functionally and formally defined boxes and create a space that is like our bodies and designed for both work and play, depending on the time of day, the circumstances or inclinations. Not everyone has this luxury, but for the increasing number who do, this recent Fast Company article taps into that vein directly.

Smaller work/live spaces have the potential to play a large role in providing infill options for cities willing to recognize their opportunities to develop these voids. The ideal buildings already exist within many alleys, as stables and warehouses. Adaptive reuse can be very cost effective and create an attractive architectural pastiche at the rear of buildings that is eventually much more interesting than their fronts.

Blagden Alley Community Responds to New Development Proposals

Representatives of Suzane Reatig Architecture, presented a new version of their plans for the lot at 926 N Street at the Blagden Alley-Naylor Court Association Meeting this week. At the last ANC 2F meeting this group received painful fusillades of public criticism from all sides, not only for the design itself but also for not engaging in a constructive participatory process with the community. They were also accused by several audience members of trying to “slide something objectionable under the community radar without discussion – or knowledge.” To the firm's credit they suggested at the ANC 2F meeting that they had no interest in creating a building that nobody liked. So the dialog begins. 

Other D.C. companies “get it” and work hard to engage the hearts and minds of any community within which they work. CASRiegler is one such company. Their Company mission as articulated on their web site is: 
“to create unique real estate products in urban-infill locations that meet the needs of today’s city dwellers, workers and retail customers. Today’s urban environment calls for sustainable practices and responsible living. CAS Riegler Companies is determined to provide homes and work spaces that match today’s urban-centric values while never sacrificing exceptional style or character.”
This is a “young company” with young/youthful people, yet they have already managed to establish for themselves within Washington, a reputation for working hard with the community on each project to get a sense of the surrounding environment and people to create something new that has a modern edge that fits within the spectrum of tasteful development. CAS Riegler presented a very preliminary proposal rendering for a project of their own on the same block as Reatig’s project at the corner of 9th and N at the same BANCA meeting. The community applauded them this week for both their early engagement and their design. They have also recently been recognized for their work in DC  "Urban Pace Recognizes CAS Riegler Companies for Their Contribution to the Arts"

What is tasteful and edgy new construction that has managed to become happily married with the old? It’s rather hard to define – like pornography – but to paraphrase an old quote one usually knows it when one sees it. For example most would say that the carbuncular addition to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto lacks taste. It may be “edgy” and “raw” and “different” but it’s jarring. It rocks you and not in a good way. Some say it will grow on you. Most say not. But like a scar I guess people come to accept it over time, as a sort of tolerance by resignation because it’s not going anywhere and the battle has been lost. 

For an in-depth exploration of this addition you can review the details of what is now referred to as the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal.

What are alternative suggestions for development at the 926 N site? Brendan Behan the great Irish poet once said, “Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it's done, they've seen it done every day, but they're unable to do it themselves.” However, many in the Blagden Alley Naylor Court community are well qualified to do much more than simply criticize. Below is an example of an alternative concept created yesterday by OdCStudio, a local design practice.

The blog wires are buzzing about this project and indeed about the city’s newfound interest in alleys and infill construction. Suddenly 9th Street and alleys have become hot topics. Shilpi Paul who writes prolifically for Urban Turf has captured this in several of her recent articles including “9th Street:DC’s Next “It” Boulevard."  

The dialog will continue and eventually – as in the case of the Whitman Building (shown above) – something will be created that makes sense and also creates a feeling of warmth and perhaps wonderment.

The 926 N site is especially important strategically because it is one of the four portals to the interior of the Blagden Alley block. How it succeeds in its ability to beckon and draw people into the alley (or repel them) is a large part of what this discussion is all about.

Is it possible for Washington D.C. architects and developers to intelligently capitalize on the many current infill opportunities in the area of the 9th Street Corridor by crafting something that has a respectful and maybe even impish nod to the past and a tip of the hat to the future?

Stay tuned!

Better still, turn up your inner and outer voices and become part of this stirring conversation. Once a building has been constructed, barring an act of nature, it’s there for a very, very long time. Future generations will wonder why this generation kept so quiet. It’s more than a war of taste. There are many well-established guiding principles and emotions in play here.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Local Architect Disrespects the National Register Recognition of Blagden Alley.

The Convention Center Community Association recently published details of the proposal for 926 N Street that will sit on the North gateway to Blagden Alley and significantly extend into it. Seriously - is this really an appropriate portal to such a historic collection of places? 

This proposed development will abut against the massive stable in the middle of the block. Blagden Alley and its sister alley – Naylor Court – are listed in the National Register of Historic Places as an acknowledgement of their value as a collection of properties. These alleys reflect a remarkable time in the history of Washington D.C. These alleys provided buildings for stables, homes for workers, shops for small businesses and a place for a rich human engagement. The value of these two alleys is in the collective impact of the properties and the stories they tell rather than any one specific building.
The National Register when considering the significance of a place asks the following questions: - “Is the property associated with events, activities, or developments that were important in the past? With the lives of people who were important in the past? With significant architectural history, landscape history, or engineering achievements? Does it have the potential to yield information through archeological investigation about our past?”

Several years ago Sally Berk, who is a past president of the DC Preservation League, elegantly presented her lifetime career lessons in historic preservation within Washington D.C. Her talk which was given before the Latrobe Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians was called “A Tour of My Losses: A Quarter Century of Preservation in Washington” which was reported in this blog on September 28th 2008

These are 6 concepts that she shared.

1. Preservation is good business.
Preservation building work constitutes 50% of the building efforts in Washington D.C. and accounts for a financial contribution that is equal to that of new construction ($9.5 billion dollars for preservation and $9.5 billion dollars for new construction).

2. Preservation is about managing change and not about preventing it.
Change is inevitable. It is wiser to learn how to manage change and have an active and guiding hand in that process than to attempt to thwart it and lose the opportunity for melding preservation and change.

3. Preservation is about continuing the historic context.
The background of an area in terms of its legacy (such as music, the arts, and commercial buildings) lends a hand in contextual historic architectural preservation of that area.

4. Preservation is about respecting the historic context.
The juxtaposition of new construction that does not respect the historic context of the building or the area diminishes the historic legacy of the properties.

5. Preservation is not about copying history.
Some areas of the city that are generally thought of as “historic” have sanctioned new construction that mimics 19th Century architecture, thereby becoming a caricature of their past. Historic replication is not a substitute for historic preservation.

6. One should be able to read the layers of the city.
As one walks through any city, one should be able to read the layers of the past, as each new era’s unique style of architecture is graciously interdigitated with that of the past. Each layer should be recognizable and appreciated for its era’s contribution to the overall gestalt of the building or collection of structures.

New architecture that detracts from the “continuing the historic context” – Sally Berk’s point #3 – disrespects the value of the block. Similarly structures like the one proposed for 926 N Street NW disrespect the “continuing historic context” – point #4.

It takes intelligence, reflection, and a sense of sociology, history and substantial thoughtfulness to be a great architect – someone who can artfully blend the new with the old. Simplistically dropping a 3-D Piet Mondrian imitation box into a nationally recognized historic block is an anti-intellectual affront. Perhaps in another context this building might “fly” but this was an ill-advised site to choose. 

As Ada Louise Huxtable, the wonderfully tart tongued architecture critic for the Wall Street Journal, once said: - “An excellent job with a dubious undertaking, which is like saying it would be great if it wasn’t so awful.” 

Community responses to this and other area projects by this architect have not been kind. The following are comments that have been posted in the Renew Shaw blog and elsewhere.

Comment #1 Awful. This non-contextual building is supposedly going to be three levels high. In these drawings one can clearly see how it towers over the neighboring historic houses, which are three stories high themselves. Counting the floors, an observer can tell that the building clearly has four to five levels, if the top units are double height. 
One can tell that the historic context of the neighborhood has not been taken into account –not even by accident- during the design process of these buildings. It looks very similar to the new “essay in primary colors” building in the 600 block of M Street NW, which could be potentially known as the second ugliest building in the neighborhood if this design is ever approved. 
Fortunately, this side of the neighborhood is considered a historic site, so this monstrosity has very little chances of being built on that spot, but one never knows!”

Comment #2. “Susan Reatig is a disgusting person who has done nothing but trash our neighborhood with the junk she puts up. Her last "trash of the neighborhood" is at 7th and M NW. In the Mt. Vernon Square Historical District she has torn down an old house that had sat on the north side of the street for over a hundred years with the dreadful trash that's almost finished. Of course with United House of Prayer (McCullough Constructon's help). Those wonderful, neighborhood conscience Christians. She trashed the end of Ridge Street at the 4th Street end on the north side of the street. She trashed N Street towards the 5th Street side in Mt. Square also. She trashed the corner of 5th and O with the junk as well. Now she's heading north to 625 Rhode Island. All of this trashing has been done with the help of United House of Prayer for All People, (7th and M NW and 7th and R NW). This is the same church that ruins the neighborhood every Memorial Day and has NEVER done one thing for the kids in the neighborhood in the 30 years I've lived here. Someone needs to stop this woman from trashing our neighborhood yet again.”

Comment #3. “I detest her designs. The one at 5th and O St. looks like a bad medical office building from the 80's.”
Comment #4 “It is simply horrendous and monstrous.”

Comment #5. “Sorry to be vulgar but this proposal is uglier than ugly, it is F_ _LY. It needs to be opposed if it hasn’t been already.”

In public recognition of the rich legacy of the alleys in Washington, the Historic Preservation Office recently launched a survey of the city’s historic alleys.

“Initial survey efforts have been focused on historic rowhouse neighborhoods, which feature the largest number of alley dwellings, carriage houses, stables, warehouses, and garages. Survey work is already underway in the alleys in Dupont Circle, Capitol Hill, Shaw, LeDroit Park, Mount Vernon Square, Mount Vernon Triangle, Greater Fourteenth Street, and U Street. HPO has collected data on over 500 alley buildings so far, with plans to continue the survey work already in progress and to expand its survey to other historic districts during 2012.” (from the HPO website) 

The proposal at 926 N Street NW is wrong minded and entirely inappropriate for this location. While the HPO is working on the one hand to protect the historic nature of the city’s alleys, on the other hand it is simultaneously working to green light this specific project to mutilate this historic alley entranceway. The architect has been sent back to the drawing board by HPO for modifications. Interestingly this is not the first project like this that has been rejected in the neighborhood because it did not respect the historic context. In many minds the 926 N monstrosity proposed should be scrapped entirely without modifications if HPO has the integrity to uphold its responsibility to wisely integrate preservation and progress. 

Seriously - what doesn't fit here: - A,B or C?