Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Blagden Alley Project runs into a Design Detour

The project proposed for the site at 926 N Street has been presented to the ANC 2F CDC and other community groups over the winter. On March 22nd it was presented at the HPRB hearing where the architects and the United House of Prayer were seeking a project concept review and permission for demolition and new construction on the site. After much intelligent and constructive critical discussion with many suggestions about the project as it currently stands, the board voted to accept the staff report that had been written by Brendan Meyer. The official decision summary is below. 

The style of Reatig can be seen throughout Shaw where she has partnered with the United House of Prayer to provide affordable housing for the community. The Blagden Alley block however is in an historic district which is held to different and more rigorous standards of architectural acceptability than other parts of the city. All of the buildings in Blagden Alley are also on the National Register of Historic Places which is a designation that overlays a further restrictive covenant. The proposals for the 926 N Street site as presented to date by Reatig and others have drawn much community fire including comments such as the following: 

1. Incompatible symmetrical large scale structure in a street of narrow lots and asymmetrical facades

2. More 50's institutional residential than "period" historic or "new" or "retroindustrial"

3. Facade's scale of windows and solid walls not compatible with adjoining structures

4. Recessed "entry" rising up facade inconsistent with the rest of the street

5. First level scale and relation to sidewalk not consistent with "commercial" use proposed.

6. ... contemporary architecture (should be) 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

7. ... 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. One can marry old and new, and it doesn't have to be like a December-May relationship
8. 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.

 Urban Turf has been following this project closely and on Feb 12th 2012 reported the following.

"Last Thursday at the Blagden Alley-Naylor Court Association meeting, representatives from Suzane Reatig’s architecture firm presented a revised design for a new residential project at 926 N Street NW, Preserving DC Stables reported over the weekend.
Earlier this month, Reatig’s firm presented initial designs for a three-level, 14-unit residential project to the ANC 2F committee, which were greeted with intense opposition. The design was unpopular, and residents felt offended that the firm hadn’t met with them prior to the meeting to discuss the design. Alley residents were particularly incensed, since the building sits at one of four openings to the historic Blagden Alley.
UrbanTurf will post the latest designs as soon as we get our hands on them, but we hear that residents are pleased that the conversation is now flowing and at least one told us that the new design is much improved on what was initially presented.
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."
At the March 22nd HPRB meeting there was little discussion about the commercial uses of this property - a zoning issue.
 In addition to specific detail suggestions, the board made the following general comments.
  1. The drawings presented were “sparse” and many were in conflict with each other and the group's power point presentation.
  2. There was not enough information for them to make a decision about the proposal.
  3. No “site plan” was presented.
  4. The details about the material being used were very vague and again scanty.
  5. It was made clear that they would have to come back for more review with better drawings.
  6. The board had a good sense of the value and “beauty” of the alley. 
  7. The project lacked anything that tied it into the “fabric of the neighborhood.”
  8. In fact it was stated that there was no texture of neighborhood at all in the proposal.
  9. Discussion about the fenestrations with mullions and suggested perhaps spandrels. 
  10. There was felt to be “too much of the same thing” in the proposal. There was a sense that the board considered the proposal to be “boring” without saying so overly.
  11. The size as it stands without texture of the neighborhood was not acceptable.
  12. There were questions about the roof and whether there was going to be a deck or roof utilities.

The overall size and the general plan were accepted.

The community is genuinely enthusiastic about something engaging being built that skillfully reflects the historic nature of the block and yet is fresh in style and thought. The community is searching for something intelligently robust that will endure and contribute to the rich design conversation of the block and alley. The word texture was used repeatedly at the HPRB meeting and that captures the essence of the next phases in this project. Elegant design is timeless. As Suzane Reatig herself said to the author after the HPRB meeting when discussing the expectations of the community - "It's a process." She's right. It needs to be a healthy and robust conversation. Creativity can be a difficult and messy process but the results are worth the struggle.

Let's hope that Ms. Reatig and her firm will take the requisite time to absorb the complex fabric, texture and design conversation of the block and the alley as they revise their proposals to reflect these critical elements and work to rise to the high expectations to which they are now being held accountable. This is a case where trademark cannot blindly trump tradition and the process of contextual creation. 


Anonymous said...

DC Mud has suggested in an article today that the Reatig 926 N St. NW project is close to final approval with only a few fine details left in the design. This is hardly the case. Below are direct quotes from the article.

"Megan Mitchell, project designer for Suzane Reatig Architecture, presented the early-stage design to the HPRB at the March 22 meeting. She said she thought the meeting went well, and now they can move on to the next stage."

"I think the next step for us is to develop the materials and work on the little details of how the bays meet the ground and meet the sky," Mitchell said. "(We're) really getting into the design of the building now."

"Mitchell said the design has been shared in various forums with the community, and it is clear that the neighbors care about the project. She said residents have different opinions about how modern the building should appear in the historic alley. Preliminary rendering showing the sidewalk view with ground-level retail spaces.

Another presentation with greater detail of the project will take place in the near future. Mitchell said she hopes to break ground on the project within a year, but no specific timeline has been set."

The three comments left (to this point) in response to the article give a glimpse of the animosity that this project has stimulated and the struggle that lies ahead for Reatig's firm.

Anonymous said...

Does this sound like an approval?
Think not.....,+March+22,+2012/Blagden+Alley+Naylor+Court+HD+-+926+N+Street+NW+-+HPA+12-160

They should stop tricking people into believing they have "official" approval to insert their "designs" in that neighborhood.

Unstable Lives said...

Architecture DC (Spring 2012, page 19) recognizes the raw interface between the work of Reatig and the community by stating that - "The result is a Bauhaus-meets-Miami look that's a bit of a wake-up call on the block." This firm's project at 926 N Street is currently undergoing new changes which will be presented at the Blagden Alley Naylor Court Association meeting tomorrow evening. As Reatig herself says - "it's a process." Stay tuned!