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 

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