Seeing DC Like You Never Have Before

Most visitors to (and even residents of) Washington, D.C. have no idea what they’re looking at when they see the Capitol, Lincoln Memorial, or the White House. Certainly, they may know that these rather grand buildings are places where famous people have lived and worked, or where the memory of a person or event is commemorated, but oftentimes they don’t know why these structures look the way that they do. They may also not understand why it is that the Nation’s Capital is laid out the way that it is, in a design that differs so radically from many American cities.

If you happen to find yourself in DC over the next few weekends, I encourage you to consider taking one or all of this year’s Classical Architecture, Classical Values Tours, hosted by the National Civic Arts Society (NCAS). The NCAS is probably well-known to many of my readers as an organization dedicated to the promotion of good art and architecture, which has helped spearhead the effort against the hideous Frank Gehry design for the national monument to President Eisenhower, in favor of something more in keeping both with the grandeur of the Nation’s Capital and the legacy of Ike himself. Yet the NCAS does much more, such as engaging in efforts to ensure that the new National World War I Memorial will be fitting tribute to the men and women who died preserving our freedom, encouraging the work of talented architects and artists who respect and embrace the past while bringing their own creativity to bear on their projects, or poking at the sacred cow of contemporary architecture and the cult of personality that often accompanies the ugly buildings that scar our cities and towns.

From their tours page:

The National Civic Art Society’s 2016 “Classical Architecture, Classical Values” walking tours provide an understanding of the enduring connection between core American values and the classical architecture of the nation’s capital.

Our expert tour guides will explain the timeless vision of the Founding Fathers and their tradition-honoring successors, which has resulted in the iconic public buildings and monuments that superbly embody the principles of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. The guides will also examine the role of our memorials in crystallizing national identity and historic memory.

Each tour lasts approximately 3 hours, and costs $15.00 – but note, students, interns, and Hill staffers can register for free. Beginning this coming Saturday, and continuing every other Saturday into early July, the tours will give participants the “why” behind DC’s many important buildings and monuments.  Topics include how the Ancient Greeks and Romans influenced not only our form of government, but also the very buildings that house our government; comparing the different ways that architects have approached designing the memorials that we are all familiar with; or looking at how a rapidly growing Capital embraced classical architecture during the modern architecture boom of the 1930’s and ‘40’s. The biographies of the group leaders listed on the tour page include architects, historians, and writers, all of whom who have an in-depth knowledge of design and history, which will make these tours more than a simple walkabout with a tour guide who has memorized a script.

Whether you live in DC, or happen to be in town on one or all of the Saturdays, these tours constitute a tremendous opportunity to learn more about your country’s history and values, and about why lasting architecture is so important as an expression of both.

image

Deco Nouveau: A New Life For An Old London Movie Theatre

I wanted to draw the reader’s attention to a wonderful restoration-conversion project in London, where an old Art Deco-era cinema has found new life as an hotel. This article gives an overview of the project, as well as a link to a video featuring Jason Flanagan, the lead architect from the firm of Flanagan Lawrence who worked on it.What is particularly interesting about this design however, although this fact is not mentioned in the video, is that it has nothing to do with what the original building looked like.

Today we look at the lines of the exterior facades on the former Shepherd’s Bush Pavilion and say to ourselves, “Art Deco,” but at the time it was built the cinema was supposed to be in the Italian Renaissance style. One takes this description with a grain of salt, of course, since as anyone who has been to an old movie palace built in the early part of the 20th century knows, stylistic mish-mashes were quite common in these places. Here there would be some Chinese Chippendale, there some Hispano-Moorish, over there some Italo-French Rococo.

Nevertheless when it opened in 1923, this cinema made quite an impression, for both the exterior and the interior of the building won design awards from RIBA (The Royal Institute of British Architects). It was named as Best London Street Façade of the year, described as an “imposing structure of brick and stone in which the former material especially is used with great imagination.” It also won a Bronze Medal for Best Interior Design, due in part to having over two miles of carpet, and solid silver light fixtures. This was occurring at a transitional time in the entertainment industry, when films were becoming longer and more elaborate, and the stars of the silver screen were becoming the trend-setters in society, so that movies were no longer something raunchy or silly shown only in gaming arcades or at the seaside.

What is particularly interesting here is that the interior of the new hotel is not a retrofit of the original. In fact the original interior was bombed out by the Luftwaffe during World War II, and the place was essentially abandoned until 1955. The ruined interior was ripped out, and a more utilitarian interior put in its place, rather than attempting to restore the original. Thus when Flanagan Lawrence began work on the building a few years ago, they did not have an historic interior to try to preserve, only an historic exterior.

The end result is neither a recreation of the 1920’s original, nor a restoration of the 1950’s replacement, but something contemporary that references both eras. During the day the interior atrium is somewhat reminiscent of a building in which the advertising men of “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” and “Mad Men” would feel at home, all wood paneling and simple, curved geometry. At night however, when those panels are illuminated from within, the effect is to create dazzling, rippling bands of gold stacked up to the ceiling, like a stage set waiting for a Busby Berkeley production featuring The Rockettes, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers tap dancing down the middle of the room. I must confess, I never went to Shepherd’s Bush when I lived in London, but to see this interior in the evening, and have a cocktail at the bar, I just might, if I lived there now.

Such conversions of lumbering structures that have lost their way are never easy. However in this instance the architects did a tremendous job of bringing new life to a sad shell of a building. Kudos to Flanagan Lawrence for doing such a great job.

image

Gargoyles Over Manhattan: A Skyscraper Like You’ve Never Seen Before

Skyscrapers are pretty boring.

Once you get past the Art Deco period, urban towers tend to get rather ho-hum. Even though they cost a fortune to build, most skyscrapers always strike me as looking rather cheap, banal, and infinitely interchangeable. If you could build the same thing in Detroit as in Dubai, who really cares what starchitect’s name you attach to it?

It wasn’t always this way of course, nor does it have to continue to be so, as architect Mark Foster Gage recognizes in his proposed tower for 41 West 57th Street, just south of Central Park in Manhattan. In his plans Gage, who is an Assistant Dean at the Yale School of Architecture, presents what would become a major New York City architectural landmark, both referencing the past and looking to the future. Illustration and video renderings of the project, which some are calling the “Gargoyle Tower”, can be seen on his firm’s website.

It is exciting to look at a contemporary building design which has so much richness to it, particularly as compared to most of its surrounding neighbors. The incorporation of significant, numerous sculptural elements into the structure has not been seen on this scale in Manhattan since the 1930’s. The fact that there is so much differentiation between the floors of the building provides far greater interest externally; the individualized layouts of the apartments along more sculptural lines will provide both challenges and rewards for those living in them; the rather Balinese temple-like rooftop observation deck will no doubt have a stupendous view of the city.

Gage’s proposal immediately calls to mind the work of Antoni Gaudí, which of course is why I wanted to share this with my readers. Certain elements of the design and forms are reminiscent of those employed by Gaudí in the Sagrada Familia, La Pedrera, and elsewhere, although without directly copying them. As an aside, this brings to mind the sad story of the skyscraper hotel that Gaudí designed for what is now the site of Freedom Tower in lower Manhattan, but which (sadly) was never built. You can read more about that here.

One must acknowledge that there is a kitchy aspect to Gage’s assemblage of design elements, as admittedly one finds in Gaudí’s work as well. Giant angel wings and cruise ship propellers seem as bizarre on Gage’s design as giant snails and bowls of fruit do on Gaudí’s. Yet the difference between the two lies in the approach to the decoration itself.

Whereas in his work, Gaudí was generally making nationalistic or religious references, Gage admitted in an interview with architecture and design magazine Dezeen that there was no deeper meaning behind the design for this project. While deploring the ubiquitous “glass box” tower, Gage does not attach any significance to the exterior of this project, save for its aesthetics:

“Our primary interest wasn’t symbolism as might have been the case with such sculptural forms a century ago,” said the architect. “Instead we were interested in having high and low resolution areas on the facade, so the building revealed different qualities from different viewing distances – including from the interior,” he added.

Is it fair to compare these two architects? Gaudí was, of course, a deeply Catholic, proud Catalan patriot; his idiosyncratic designs, particularly as he grew older, came more and more to reflect his desire to honor God and his homeland. By contrast Gage is a fashionable, young, and innovative architect, who wants to explore interesting and beautiful designs by using the technology at our disposal.

Perhaps it would make more sense to take Gage as he is. His effort to do something different, yet still familiar, is a tonic to the samey-ness of most contemporary skyscrapers – which haven’t really changed that much since we started building plain, glass Kleenex boxes stood on end in this country over 80 years ago. A skyscraper is, in the end, something which functions independently of its decoration: even the beloved Chrysler Building, covered in sculptural decoration referencing the automobile which paid for its construction, does not depend on its decoration for its function.

Certainly this particular building, if it is ever built, would be a magnificent and unique addition to the Manhattan skyline, not only because it is so different, but precisely because its decoration serves part of its function. One need only consider the way it uses sculpture to provide elements such as outdoor space, for example. And it is, admittedly, very cool: one can imagine Batman and the Joker leaping about it on it, in a yet-to-be-made superhero movie. Yet therein lies the rub: without imbedding some deeper meaning into its programmatic decoration, one does wonder whether, over time, it will come to be viewed as little more than a very expensive bit of set design.

Whether this skyscraper is ever built, it certainly gives us a lot to think about. And like his work or not – I’m still making up my mind – Gage is certainly someone to watch. What do you think of this project? Feel free to leave comments and engage in some discussion below.

image