Saturday, February 18, 2012

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.


OdCStudio said...

Thanks David, for posting these sketches. After the meeting, I decided that it was best to quickly draft an alternative massing for that project, since the only change I could notice in the design of the future building at 926 N Street NW -besides some little volumetric alterations- was the use of brick. The fenestration was kept, and the inappropriate use of the ground floors as "retail" (without a proposal on what kind of retail would it be) also stayed.
Also, the flat facades of the original proposal were kept. During the meeting, I tried to make my point about contemporary architecture taking cues (and clues) for the traditional massing, materials, proportions, and sense of being of the place (genius loci, for the versed in architectural theory) without the need of copying anything in particular or in general. It's about a feeling, just like in music, a blues player or a jazz player improvise over a traditional theme, making them contemporary and their own, without replicating it. Going around this neighborhood with a camera and a sketch pad would make wonders for any designer tasked with a similar project, I said, but it was not warmly received to say the least.
My comments felt flat with the architects, and I decided that it was best for me to draw a quick massing study for the same location. I didn't have the time to study floor plans, but that can be done at any time.
First of all, one can be very creative while keeping in check with proportions, materials, themes, and style. As the great Billy F. Gibbons says about the blues, it's all about the three T's; tone (or tune), taste, and technique. It is the same with architecture and design. Well, one can add tenacity, but that's another story.
In this design I referred to the towers that are very usual in townhouse design, and kept the fenestration in the form of vertical openings, the intended material is brick, with some limestone details or metal details as well. One can marry old and new, and it doesn't have to be like a December-May relationship.
I proposed gardens in the front of the building -that the original design doesn't seem to have- and dwellings at the first floor. Maybe the first floor could be raised a couple of steps, but the proposed solution provides us with an opportunity to house senior residents or a wheelchair bound person with relative facility.
I also kept their seven parking spaces and gave a nod to the history of Blagden alley. They should be conceived as open stable stalls (after all, cars withstand the elements without the same care that a horse requires) with access from within the building under arched doorways, like it was traditionally done in he alleys of Washington DC. The doors of each parking spot could swing up, but they should be designed in a modern variation of the stable gates of yore.
Respecting our built environment doesn't mean to copy existing examples (they can also be very bad) it means to responsibly keep the architectural and urban fabric that makes neighborhoods as this one unique in character. As I said in the meeting, we all agree that this is a great neighborhood. I don't see a need to architecturally changing it -at least, not in the way the original proposal went about.
Also, the architects are used to work on the Eastern side of Nine Street NW, in an area that is not designated as historic. The results are there for all too see, and understandably so, many of us do not want to see the same examples in the Western side of Nine Street NW.

Anonymous said...

This blog piece reflects the thoughts of many in the community! Worth a read.

Anonymous said...

... my thoughts went to the ROM addition in Toronto, which we saw being built, and in a subsequent visit walked through. I liked ROM in it's new daring guise, and feel that the space works quite well. However the scale involved in the ROM is grand; I think the strange little structure planned around that little bank may not yield a pleasing result. If the interior space is cramped the building will not be a success. Clearly DC could use some edgy interesting architecture that can add interest to the streetscape, but this little bank building may not be ripe for such a daring addition. On the other hand the rendering you included in your message looked intrinsically BORING. Surely the neighborhood is ready for something more than the same old infills. I wish you all good luck in working toward something new that does not offend the existing structures, but is also not shackled by these old buildings.

Anonymous said...

Posted comments by Urban Turf

UPDATE: While we didn’t receive renderings, Megan Mitchell from Suzane Reitig Architecture gave us a comment.

From Mitchell:
The exterior of the building will be a contemporary interpretation compatible with the scale and massing of the rest of the street.The meetings with the community so far have been rigorous and we’ve gotten some very good feedback.

MaximImages said...

Royal Ontario Museum Michael Lee-Chin Crystal stock photo © MaximImages - stock photos in style