Recipe for DC’s Architectural Ails

I’ve argued aesthetics before. Washington, DC is lacking in that department. We’ve gone through the odd fashion sense of the town—somewhere between early 1990s and “I just don’t care.” The same is true of the city’s architecture, and I have a way out!

DC needs a fashion revolution in general. (Forget your tired, misshapen jeans. Find things that actually fit you and your body. Whatever your body type, baggy, ill-fitting clothes are fooling no one, so cherish what you’re working with).

Now, I’ll argue the same with a less important, but more difficult to change sector—architecture. I can only hope you agree. We need to alter the Buildings Height Act, inject tenacity and re-embrace the innovative thinking this city was founded on. The face of the city needs an over-hall as bad as its fashion sense. All these stopgaps are slowing down the dynamics of the town—and even out politics.

I wrote a recent blog which could be viewed as a relatively scathing review of the city’s current architecture. While past performance in the city is undoubtedly outstanding, there have been few notable additions in recent years aside from monuments. Not to downplay the heroes who these monuments memorialize, but if this city ever wants to regain its vivacious past—a town resultant from true revolution—we need to start with the façade.

There are certain times when fake it ‘til you make it actually works. Assertive posing actually makes us feel more powerful, as evidenced by Amy Cuddy’s TEDTalk. And it’s well documented that just smiling makes us happier. So why can’t the same thing work for a city? If we force a physical renovation, an architectural renaissance in town—can we also affect a more progressive, balanced government, willing to take proactive decisions?

I know, it sounds like a dream… but the plan I’ve put together to get that to happen will at the VERY least make you smile!

The first and foremost is to lighten up on the Building Heights Act that restricts buildings to 130 feet. Seriously? It’s been over a hundred years since steel frame construction really got going. Get over it—they don’t fall down! This law is so absurd that the limit is really the lesser of (a) the arbitrary height or (b) the distance to the other side of the street, as if they really REALLY thought the things would tumble down!!

I’m not saying do away with the law altogether. If nothing else, perhaps the law has some historical significance—and it does add a bit more daylight than New York. But please accept some new building applications over 15 floors. Make it a higher standard for aesthetics (yay!), so that they have to be something special. But lay off a bit, or this city is perpetually going to look like the short, fat little sister of every other big beautiful cities—yes, even Detroit.

Now that we’ve loosened the reigns on height, we have at least a slightly less tethered canvass on which to work. Now we need style. There’s one piece of architecture in DC that I’ve used as one of the two types we should be moving forward. While it’s arguably the worst stocked and curated museum on the Mall, the Native American History Museum is gorgeous. Its organic sensation features wildly spinning sandstone that reminds me of my Midwestern Childhood—where sandstone ledges and cliffs seemed to pop up around us at every turn. This building is truly revolutionary.

Thanks to the Global Museums Online Database

Thanks to the Global Museums Online Database

Obviously, I don’t want the following buildings transported all the way from their homes (or future homes). Rather, use these as inspiration for what this town could also have. Each one is different, tactile, and they feels like someone, not something—and for God’s sake, they’re not big f*#$^%# boxes!!

This first one is in the hills surrounding the mountain city of Monterrey, Mexico. Designed by Rojkind Arquitectos, it’s multiple layers are all disjointed, a technique which provides more than a plain façade. Arguably, this simple format may be one of the more cost-effective ways of making a more creative space.

Thanks to Designboom

Thanks to Designboom

Now this building, designed for Vancouver, is the second direction DC needs to go towards. It is the opposite of the organic feel of the Native American Museum, but just as important. Designed by Bruo Ole Scheeren, it breaks up cubic spaces with different cubes. In fact, it is the anti-cube.

Thanks to Dezeen

Thanks to Dezeen

Along the same veins is the new proposal for Two World Trade Center. Again, the cube in the anti-cube. Yes, yes, I know I’m dreaming to think that this would ever get built in DC—but use it as inspiration, people.

Thanks to Dezeen

Thanks to Dezeen

Thomas Heatherwick‘s new education building in Singapore will be right in line with DC’s Native American History Museum. It’s organic, yet solid. It’s smooth, yet formidable. It’s a paradox, but it’s gorgeous.

Thanks to Designboom

Thanks to Designboom

The next one is called the “Silk Building,” presumably after China’s famous Silk Road? I don’t know—but it’s certainly along the former trade route in China. This one IS a box—but it breaks open to show something spectacular. Imagine if every boring box building in DC had a surprise inside?!

Thanks to Designboom

Thanks to Designboom

This little Mediterranean beauty caught my attention for (a) also being a cube, and (b) for being adorable. Now, I’m a dude—I don’t usually use that word, much less to describe a space to hang your hat. But you look at something that’s called the Sunflower House, and tell me it ain’t just that. It’s cubic—but hardly made for a cube.

Thanks to Designboom

Thanks to Designboom

So, while these may seem like some extreme examples, you’ve got to fight fire with fire. Washington DC, while it’s stubby buildings may be romanticized, does need some spice. These are two recipes to break that mold. The organic, and the anti-cube. Now go make it happen!

[1]

[2] http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/smiling-happy1.htm

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