Tag Archives: urban planning

Popping Cork Street’s Bubble

For those of you who are not particularly interested in the art world, the news that London’s Cork Street is about to undergo a major redevelopment may be of little interest.  Following on the heels of the eviction of the Gemäldegalerie collection of Old Master paintings in Berlin, which I wrote about last week, it now appears to be the turn of the modern and contemporary art world to feel the boot.  That being said, in the case of London, perhaps this will be a good wake-up call to the present art establishment in Britain that they do not have permanent control over the cultural narrative which they believe they hold by right.

Historically Cork Street in London’s Mayfair district has been the home of many of the city’s major sellers of modern and contemporary art since the previous century, probably due in part to the fact that the Royal Academy is very close by. Painters like Francis Bacon and Joan Miró first found their major British patrons here, as each gallery tried to compete to identify the next big thing in modern art, a process which continues to this day. Other streets around Cork Street itself have taken up some of the slack as well, since the amount of available space is limited, though for a certain well-heeled segment of the population, having a Cork Street address has remained the most prestigious thing you can hold as a modern/contemporary art dealer, rather like having your suits made on nearby Saville Row.

Personally, although I did go to Cork Street quite a bit when I lived in London, I spent most of my time on that particular stretch of pavement visiting friends who worked there, or patronizing fine drinking establishments bearing that address.  My “beat” was Old Master painting, which has its own stomping grounds on Bond Street and Albemarle Street in particular, not far away.  As it happens, from the point of charm or architecture there is little or nothing particularly attractive or even gracious about Cork Street itself to commend it to the visitor: it is simply another street in the West End, with lots of store fronts and a mixture of brick, Portland stone, and concrete buildings.

However even if you have little or no knowledge of modern and contemporary art, the name “Cork Street” itself has become practically synonymous with new ideas in art over the past century, and is often referenced or visited in literature or screenplays.  In John Galsworthy’s monumental “Forsyte Saga” for example, the respectably Edwardian Forsytes end up being dragged into the avant-garde world of the 20th century in part through the association of members of their family with Cork Street. In one sequence, Soames Forsyte unwittingly visits an art gallery owned by his Cousin June, whom he has not seen since a falling-out some time ago, and is perplexed by a contemporary painting on display entitled “The Future Town”:

“Soames!”

Soames turned his head a very little.

“How are you?” he said. “Haven’t seen you for twenty years.”

“No. Whatever made you come here?”

“My sins,” said Soames. “What stuff!”

“Stuff? Oh, yes–of course; it hasn’t arrived yet.

“It never will,” said Soames; “it must be making a dead loss.”

“Of course it is.”

“How d’you know?”

“It’s my Gallery.”

Soames sniffed from sheer surprise.

“Yours? What on earth makes you run a show like this?”

“I don’t treat Art as if it were grocery.”

Soames pointed to the Future Town. “Look at that! Who’s going to live in a town like that, or with it on his walls?”

June contemplated the picture for a moment.

“It’s a vision,” she said.

“The deuce!”

- John Galsworthy from “The Forsyte Saga Vol. III: To Let” (1921)

Now, as real estate prices in London continue to escalate, international property developers have decided to demolish two large buildings on the street, replacing them with luxury residences and mixed-use space. This will involve the eviction of eleven existing art galleries, seven of which have already been told to vacate their premises by June of this coming year, including the oldest continuously operating on Cork Street. Naturally the art community in London is rather upset, and protests have been lodged with appropriate authorities.

To now, the reaction from government has been that property owners are free to do what they wish with their own properties, and canceling a lease with advance notice is without question the right of the landlord over the tenant.  Moreover, it is not the role of the state to proscribe that commercial art galleries must be preserved on a particular site or street. Given how far into socialism Britain has fallen in recent decades, this rather common-sense approach is rather surprising, I must say.

While from a historical perspective no doubt many will be sad to see the end of this enclave and its affiliation with the art world, in truth such things are almost inevitable.  Cities change with the passage of centuries, and the center for the production and vending of a particular commodity shifts as well.  After all, it has been quite some time since lime was processed and sold on Lime Street in The City, the term for London’s financial district and historic center, and there hasn’t been a “May Fair” in Mayfair, from which the neighborhood’s name originally sprung, since 1764.  Cork Street in the 18th and 19th centuries had nothing to do with the art world, and over time the galleries presently located there will likely pop up somewhere else.

Although it is unfortunate when communities fall apart, perhaps this change can be viewed as a positive development.  By shaking things up and having to re-think their identities, the better galleries will survive in some new fashion, the weaker ones will fold, and new ones will take their place, in some other corner of the British capital.  Nothing we human beings make with our own hands lasts forever, which we must keep in mind in this life, but sometimes these experiences of shaking things up or loose is just what we need to change course and do something positive.  And no doubt many in the contemporary art world could use just such a good bursting of their balloon.

View of Cork Street, London

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Mr. Gehry’s Lumpy Mashed Potatoes, Skin-On

I feel very sorry indeed for our friends up north.

The Canadians are generally such sensible, mild-mannered people, that it must appall many of them to see what has been proposed for downtown Toronto this week by the world’s leading “starchitect”, Frank Gehry.  In a press conference on Monday, scale models and plans for building a mixed-use residential, entertainment, retail, and educational development in Canada’s largest city were revealed by Mr. Gehry and his primary backer in the project.  These plans include three new skyscrapers clad in metal “skins” of different types, a museum, and a university campus, among other features.  Reactions on social media over the past 48 hours have spanned from dismissive eye-rolling over the design to a general consensus that the project looks quite literally like a pile of garbage, and moreover that the proposed skyscrapers in particular appear unstable.

A little over a year ago, when I first started complaining about the hideous Eisenhower Memorial which Gehry had been commissioned to design for the Nation’s capital, I went back and did some research on Gehry’s views.  I found two quotes from Mr. Gehry particularly telling.  In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Gehry admitted, “I’m confused as to what’s ugly and what’s pretty.”  That fact is patently obvious of course, from many of his executed buildings and unexecuted plans.

However the other quote has relevance for the good people of Toronto, Mr. Gehry’s home town.  “City planning? Forget it,” Mr. Gehry said.  “It’s a kind of bureaucratic nonsense. It has nothing to do with ideas. It only has to do with real estate and politics.”

It is therefore ironic but perhaps not surprising that this massive complex will be undertaken with the leadership of one of downtown Toronto’s real estate developers, who owns part of the site as well as a number of the buildings around it.  The new museum will house said developer’s collection of modern and contemporary art.  And a theatre currently owned by said developer at the site will be demolished, with a new one to be built in its place.

Naturally any such massive project is going to require political involvement to complete, since you do not undertake a project of this size without government participation in areas such as zoning, licensing, and permitting.  On top of which, presumably Canadian taxpayers will be footing at least some part of the bill for things like road paving, traffic diversion, and utilities upgrades and repairs.  Thus, the very “nonsense” which Mr. Gehry claims to abhor, is the same nonsense he himself will employ, in order to create this city of crumpled buildings.

The real nonsense of course is why Mr. Gehry continues to draw such attention and adulation, 20 years after the Guggenheim Bilbao was plunked down like a lumpy bit of skin-on mashed potato in Spain’s Basque Country.  In looking at that structure, along with the Disney concert hall, the pending Eisenhower Memorial proposal, his failed Corcoran and Paris and New York projects, and now the blighting of downtown Toronto, one has to ask the question: haven’t we seen all of this before?  Making blobby shapes and then covering them in a “skin” seems to be all that Mr. Gehry is capable of doing.  When it comes down to it, is he really such a creative genius, or isn’t he really just a one-trick pony in the world of architecture?

For now anyway, none of Mr. Gehry’s structures actually blot the downtown Washington cityscape,  and presumably the size of this commission in his home town will keep him far too occupied to try to build anything else here in DC for the foreseeable future.  And that being the case, perhaps I ought not to pity the Canadians so much.  Instead, I ought to feel a deep sense of gratitude toward them, for keeping this individual away from my city.  Though that being said, I would not wish a Frank Gehry design on my worst enemy.

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Preserving Our Unique Capital City

Over the past week here in the Nation’s Capital there has been a fair amount of chatter about the possibility of raising the building height restrictions which have kept the  Washington skyline relatively low to the horizon over the past century.  Among a number of other commentators, Harry Jaffe had an opinion piece in the Washington Examiner explaining why this was all about greed, and Josh Barro gave his own views in The Atlantic as to why New York is a much better city than Washington, in part because D.C. has such restrictive building codes, including the height restriction.  As it happens  I have written previously about why height restrictions in D.C. should not be loosened in any way.  To paraphrase the Emperor Charles V, when he saw what had been done to the Grand Mosque in the city of Córdoba after Spain had been reconquered from the Moors, people are seeking to build something here which might be found anywhere in the world, and in the process will destroy something truly unique.

The first issue we have to confront head-on is an architectural one.  The heart of the ongoing design problem of the vast majority of contemporary architecture is its bland disposability. People tend to focus on unique and interesting-looking modern buildings, such as The Gherkin in London, and forget that these are the exception, rather than the rule, in architecture today.  No matter how high you build a tall building, 99% of the time it is never going to be much more than a box of kleenex stood on end. Even worse, occasionally you get something like the laughably awful Sony Tower in New York, by the grossly-overrated architect Philip Johnson, who tried to differentiate his box of kleenex from the others by putting a giant broken pediment on top, and only ended up creating a rather expensive bit of kitsch.

This is not to say that all tall buildings are uniformly awful. Architects of the 1920′s and 1930′s for example, managed to produce some interesting and lovely ones, such as the Chrysler Building and the American Radiator Building in Manhattan. Yet again, these are the exceptions, rather than the rule, particularly because the idea of integrated ornamentation that enlivens the skyline and makes us want to soar like a bird is a rare commodity these days. Either we get the steel and glass box in the colors du jour, or we get some half-hearted attempt at stretching out semi-traditional-looking architecture past the point of ridiculousness, like a Victorian shopfront wrung through a pasta roller.

As Mr. Jaffe points out in The Examiner, there is nothing to be gained by increasing building heights in the Nation’s Capital, apart from making money. Those of us who are not in one of the circles where such money will be made, but rather simply live in, work in, or visit this city, will suffer the consequences of higher rents and taxes, to begin with. Never mind the fact, by the way, that there is plenty of undeveloped or underdeveloped land all around the city where at the present time there are only unimportant one and two-story buildings waiting to be knocked down, and where new communities well-within the existing height restrictions could be built.

And with a precedent of adding two more stories to buildings in Washington, why should we stop there? Why not add five, or ten, or twenty? In other words, why can’t we just try to be like New York, as indeed Mr. Barro advocates in his article?

The point of course is that Washington is not New York – and thank goodness for that.  The real estate market is not always easy here, but on the other hand one does not to hire a real estate broker to try to snag an apartment at a ridiculously inflated price plus commission.  Nor does one have to settle for a dark railroad car apartment with no outside space, which looks out onto some alley on 7th Avenue.  Those of my readers who live in Washington know that it is not at all unreasonable to want and to get outdoor living space when one is house-hunting here – whether a balcony, terrace, patio, or even an entire back yard – which in Manhattan would be positively unheard of, unless one counts sitting on a fire escape “outdoor living”.

What makes the Nation’s Capital special is that when you look out across it, you see dozens of parks large and small, noble monuments to those who loved this country, and low, restrained buildings in various architectural styles such as Federal, Victorian, Beaux-Arts, Art Deco, International Modern, and so on.  We have hundreds and hundreds of magnificent, beautiful trees all over this city, lining our streets in ways which cities like New York could not even dream of attempting, now.  And with the trees in blossom during the past two months, in green leaf now, and with the autumn to follow, there is a vibrant, natural canopy over the entire town that makes it a wonderful place to walk, pause, and enjoy nature in ways which other cities, who have built too high, must concentrate only in a few central locations.

Anyone who has visited Manhattan for example knows that, as exciting a city as it is, at least for a few days, it is very easy to feel a sense of darkness, claustrophobia, and malaise within a very short period of time. Most of the gigantic buildings that make New York so lovely from a distance are actually rather oppressive up close. For every beautiful Chrysler Building there are dozens of unremarkable concrete boxes that provide no shelter to the passerby, block the sun and air, and are distinguished only by their dirt and ugliness.

Those cities which have tried to copy New York City, assuming without foundation that it sets the standard for how all cities ought to look, usually end up ruining much of their unique character in the process.  Take a look at whatever vista you can manage from street level in cities like Philadelphia or Shanghai, and compare them to photographs of what these places once looked like before they Manhattan-ized themselves, and you realize that there is an appalling sameness to all of these places now, which were once beautiful in their own way.

Moreover, the reasons why you have to fit so many people onto the island of Manhattan or other urban centers do not exist here in Washington.  The only industry in this city is the Federal government: there is no shipping, manufacturing, finance, publishing, entertainment, etc. to really speak of, certainly as compared to New York City.  Why do we need to make ourselves look like a city with which we have virtually nothing in common?

Even with large, grand buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue, or glass office blocks along K Street, there is still a feeling of the small American town about this place.  You walk under the trees, rather than under giant buildings funneling dirt and debris through murky canyons and down into your eyes, your skin, and all over your clothes.  Anyone who has wiped their face with a white towel after stepping off the street in Manhattan knows exactly what I mean.

As I see it, Washington’s strength as a city is its relative smallness, and its human scale.  The tallest and most prominent buildings inside this oddly-shaped former parcel of Maryland are those which speak to the nobility of what man can achieve when he acts selflessly, rather than when he celebrates his own powers of acquisition.  I hope that Congress continues to see sense, and leave the Nation’s Capital the way it is.  Flawed it may be, but it remains uniquely beautiful.

View of tree-covered Washington from the National Cathedral

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Two Washington Landmarks Provide Civic Opportunities

Those who are regular readers of these pages know that for some time now I have been following with keen interest projects involving two historic buildings here in the nation’s capital: the West Heating Plant in Georgetown, and the Old Post Office Pavilion downtown. There have been some new developments with respect to each of these projects, which Mr. Matthews of The Georgetown Metropolitan alerted his readers to, this morning, for he has been following these projects as well. And while the details of these developments themselves mainly interest those of us who live and work in Washington, they do allow all of us to consider some important questions with respect to civic involvement in the development of our communities.

The West Heating Plant, as I have written about previously, is an Art Moderne behemoth, sitting in the lower SE corner of Georgetown just about where the C&O Canal empties into Rock Creek and the Potomac River. If you are coming into the village from the east, it is impossible to miss, for it is not only much larger in scale than most of the surrounding buildings, but its buff brick facade contrasts strongly with many of the red-colored brick facades that predominate in the area. And as I described in an earlier post, the Old Post Office Pavilion, built in the Neo-Romanesque style, has suffered from a variety of problems in recent years, but is one of the most prominent buildings in the city. It can be seen from many parts of the capital, as it is one of the tallest buildings in the Washington landscape, due to our fairly strict building height restrictions.

According to The Washington Post, the West Heating Plant is definitely up for sale now, and bids are being entertained for the Old Post Office Pavilion. While the latter seems to be on track for the best use of the building, the former does not. Unfortunately, it looks as though the developers – or at least, the ones interviewed for the story – want to turn it into condominiums. Although I will of course cover my mouth while doing so, allow me to express my reaction in the following way: [YAWN]

Georgetown does not have any large, enclosed, truly public spaces. At present we do not have anything like a town hall, courthouse, public assembly rooms, or the like, to provide indoor meeting spaces that are unaffiliated with any commercial, educational, or religious institutions. There is no community theatre or concert hall; such arts events take place either in churches or in schools, where oftentimes space and timing makes things difficult, since they cannot be dedicated solely to the use of the general public.  If the West Heating Plant space were to be turned into an art museum or public arts center of some sort, a purpose for which it is ideally suited as examples from London to Barcelona show, it would be radical departure from the boring, lost opportunities that the southern, industrial half of Georgetown has presented to residents of the village over the years. As the only part of the Georgetown neighborhood with larger-scale buildings, it is a pity that once again, an old industrial site will be turned into almost exclusively private property, particularly given that it was originally built with taxpayer dollars.

Similarly, with respect to the Old Post Office Pavilion, while it is interesting to read that some groups want to use it for museum space, this is not the best use of the building. We need more hotel rooms in Washington, to start with, in order to keep people from staying in Maryland or Virginia when they visit the capital, and taking their hotel tax dollars with them. The location, right next to the Smithsonian museums and the National Mall, is superb, and the scale of the building fits a grand hotel far better than it would a museum collection, unless it were a particularly colossal museum collection. The fact that Donald Trump and his organization are looking seriously at bidding for it is, quite frankly, exactly the right way to go, as I hoped would happen in my previous blog post on the future of the Pavilion.

These two projects, and the various proposals which will come out of the sale or lease of these buildings, are just a couple of examples of how important it is for you to think about your local community, what it needs, and what it lacks, when opportunities such as these come around – for they do not come around on a regular basis. I am very much aware that the majority of my readers are young adults in their 20′s and 30′s, who perhaps do not have a great deal of power and influence in their communities just yet. However I also expect that if you are reading these pages, you are possessed not only of some degree of intelligence, but also of some degree of concern for re-building a positive, successful, civic society in the West, after many decades of mismanagement.

Someday, dear readers, you and I will be running things. And while I suspect that right now, many of you do not think about bricks-and-mortar matters such as historic preservation and putting old buildings to new uses, nevertheless you should start now to consider and discuss such things. Someday, you will be the one in the position to have some say and influence over what gets built, restored, or repurposed in your community. If you do not learn to care now, whether about urban planning, architecture, or even basic civics, you will forfeit your right to legitimately complain about the fabric of your neighborhood.  And then, tragically, we will end up with more lost opportunities for improving our society.


Interior of the Old Post Office Pavilion, Washington, D.C.

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Give Us Back Our Fountain

Via a tip from Mr. Matthews at the Georgetown Metropolitan, I learned this morning about a beautiful piece of public sculpture which used to grace the streets of Georgetown but which is now in a somewhat sorry state.  I am therefore going to start whistling in the wind and suggest that the powers that be not only restore this object to its original appearance, but also that it be placed back in Georgetown where it originally stood.  Perhaps this will be an unpopular opinion among my fellow residents of the village, but as the expression of an unpopular opinion has never stopped me before, I see no reason to begin embracing reticence now.

Much as I love Georgetown, the 18th century former village where I have lived on and off for over 16 years, from an urban planning perspective it does have a few drawbacks.  Having been laid out in the Age of Reason, it bears a reasonably logical grid pattern, but because Georgetown was not a particularly important place at its founding, it has something of a utilitarian layout.  There are quirky little access alleys and side streets to interest the urban explorer, some beautiful estates with gardens, and even a brand new public park where once we had an industrial wasteland.

However unlike most European urban districts – and bear in mind that technically, at the time of its founding, Georgetown was a European colony – we do not really  have any public squares in the neighborhood.  In a typical 18th century European market town like Georgetown once was, the central market square would probably have some sort of a monument, and there would be other small squares around the rest of the town with similar monuments or fountains, depending on the wealth of the locale.  While the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street in Georgetown is referred to as a “square”, named for a police officer who was killed there a few years ago, it is merely that – an intersection.  Francis Scott Key Park, close to the Key Bridge, is only a park because some fool tore down Francis Scott Key’s house, and while it is a pleasant park it was not part of the original design of the town for this parcel to be a public park.

With the imposition of Pierre L’Enfant’s grid pattern, the eastern edge of Georgetown gained a few of those oddly-shaped, triangular parcels of land that dot the landscape throughout Washington, where diagonal avenues intersect with the strict grid pattern of the main streets.  And on one of these triangular parcels stood a large fountain dating back to at least the 1880′s, as reported in the article linked to above, at the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue, M Street, and 28th Streets, NW.  The fountain was subsequently moved to a now-demolished traffic circle in another part of the city, before it was removed and abandoned.

It is interesting to note in an article published in 1901 that this large fountain, currently rusting away in the woods, was replaced by the Georgetowners of that day with a smaller one.  I would be curious to learn where this smaller fountain ended up – perhaps some of my fellow villagers would know.  There is certainly no trace of it, now.

In any case, it seems hard to believe that the small, triangular-shaped parcel in the middle of the intersection of 28th, M and Pennsylvania, which is currently a collection of plantings, was the original location for a sculpture that was described as having once been among the largest public fountains in Washington.  Directly opposite this parcel is a triangular point of land that serves today as a small public park, next to a gas station.  I imagine – though freely admit I may be wrong – that this would have been a more likely spot, given that it is at the sort of unofficial gateway bridges over Rock Creek, which separates Georgetown from the rest of the city.

Said park is where Georgetown sets up one of the two village Christmas trees every winter, but it is a space which otherwise goes largely unused.  Apart from a ring of plantings along a low, brick wall, it is basically a weedy, cobblestoned, windswept spot, with a couple of benches and little else.  If it is occupied at all, which it is rarely, it is usually by some vagrant who does not mind the incessant noise from all of the traffic converging at the spot.

Wouldn’t this be a lovely place to put the old fountain, one wonders? Since no one really uses this space, anyway, and it was a part of the village landscape for so many years, it would be nice to see it brought back close to its original site.   And because it would be set back from the road, there would be no danger of vehicles hitting it, as there would be if the fountain was placed on the traffic island. Moreover, I would think the sound of the falling water would do at least something to mitigate the noise from the passing vehicles, and provide a pleasant place to rest, at least for the pedestrians and shoppers/tourists who often enter Georgetown on foot from this direction, walking from the Foggy Bottom Metro station several blocks further east.

Again, this may be a completely impossible thing to advocate, but a conservative semi-reactionary like yours truly likes nothing more than pursuing such things – for sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and because of such efforts such ideas really do come to pass, from time to time.  At the very least, those of us who care about the village, and about architecture, history, and city planning, can at least talk about this, in meetings, in print, and so on, and see whether something can be done.  For a neighborhood which cares so much about its history, particularly with the growth of interest in historic renovation and preservation over the past 40 years, I am very surprised that Georgetown has not done anything about putting one or the other of its historic fountains back into this space up until now.


View of the triangular parcel in Georgetown where the fountain once stood

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