Boxing Mismatch: This Building Is No Knockout

Over on The Georgetown Metropolitan, Topher Matthews reports on a forthcoming building project by DC developers EastBanc which, frankly, ought to be titled “A Nightmare on M Street”:

http://georgetownmetropolitan.com/2015/06/23/heres-what-eastbanc-wants-to-build-at-penn-and-m/

Although making use of this tiny parcel of land for a “statement” building may seem strange to outsiders, for many Georgetowners this is *the* key route in and out of the city of Washington, which Georgetown itself predates. As such, it sets the tone for those arriving in the neighborhood. A run-down gas station, even a mock Colonial one such as the one currently occupying this gateway site, does no one any favors, visually speaking.

Of course, while the choice of a Brutalist 2.0 building to fill this prominent spot in the village is truly a terrible one, it isn’t as if the intersection plays host to any significant or even particularly attractive works of architecture. For all its stars and accolades from the rich and famous, the Four Seasons Hotel on 28th and Pennsylvania is a bland building, which would look more at home on the campus of a small technical college.

The other structures surrounding the parcel where this new condo will rise are mostly average-to-bad. The building currently housing the Tari Salon is a dated, immature thing, an attempt to Robert Venturi-size the concept of the mansard roof and the turret. The Mongolian Embassy on the corner of M and 29th is an architectural  disaster, mixing ersatz American Colonial with references to the vaguely Neoclassical Revival former movie theatre next door (now a CVS), in a decidedly unfriendly way.  Those gated and unused mini-courtyards alone make one shudder.

On the plus side, the commercial building on the corner of 28th and M is rather handsome, with its dormered windows, solid stance, and wide veranda.  Stylistically, it belongs somewhere else – say New Orleans or Natchez – and as a practical feature the veranda fails, since it faces due South, baking all day long in the scorching heat, and you will never spot anyone sitting out on it. The rowhouses containing Das restaurant on the north side of the confluence of streets, and those housing a selection of small specialty shops and cafes on the other, are perfectly fine, even if there is nothing particularly special about them, architecturally speaking.

The problem with this newest addition to the village fabric is not just its ugliness, but that it has nothing to do with the mostly modest scale of the surrounding buildings. Part of the charm of Georgetown is that, with a few exceptions, most of the neighborhood’s architecture really isn’t of any particular architectural significance or grandeur. For every Tudor Place or Healy Hall, there are 50 standard brick row houses that could be found in just about any East Coast city.

Rather what is significant about the neighborhood is the whole: the “conjunto” as one would say in Spanish. It is greater than the sum of its parts. Georgetown’s architecture is a mixture of styles, materials, and methods, all (generally) peacefully coexisting alongside each other.  Strolling through the village is like taking a walking tour of the course of American design over four centuries.

In choosing to position a structure better-suited to Ballston on such a prominent parcel, what is EastBanc saying about the perception visitors and residents are meant to have about the neighborhood? An unremarkable and unattractive apartment building which looks like it could just as easily stand in suburban Lima or Lahore does not say much to me as a local. What does it say to those tourists, shoppers, and diners on whose spending the entire neighborhood depends?

Perhaps it’s unfair to put such a burden on the shoulders of a condo building.  However after the success of its High Street condo along the C&O Canal, a highly successful design completed just a few months ago, it does seem that EastBanc has dropped the ball on this one. This will prove to be a major lost opportunity for the neighborhood. Tearing down a crumbling, if inoffensive, commercial building and replacing it with a building of no charm or distinction whatsoever, in the most beautiful neighborhood in the city, seems a significant blow to the village in particular, and to DC as a whole.

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Bulldozing Mies van der Rohe

One of the most important architects of the 20th century, love him or hate him, was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969).  Mies built hugely influential structures in cities like Barcelona, Chicago, and New York which came to define modern architecture around the world.  Yet during his very long career, he only designed one project here in Washington: the Martin Luther King Public Library, located in downtown DC.  Now as the city calls for architects to help expand and re-design the building, it might be a good time to reflect on whether something that is unremarkable needs to be preserved, simply because of who might have been associated with it.

As much as DC likes to claim that the MLK Library is significant because it was designed by Mies, said factor is the only distinguishing feature of the building itself.  There is simply nothing special about this blocky structure, other than its association with this particular architect.  It is the same sort of mechanical, rusty, uninspiring space that was copied over and over again, and could just as easily be a hospital, or a field office of the Social Security Administration, as a public library.

While the exterior of the building is the usual mix of painted steel, smoky glass, and aggregate concrete, all leaking and crumbling away, the interior is just as boring and unremarkable.  Strips of fluorescent lighting run across the ceiling from one side to the other, leading the eye to feast upon either a blank wall, or the street outside, which you suddenly find yourself wishing to go back out to.  Throw in a few copies of Mies’ 1929 Barcelona chairs in the waiting area, and presto – instant architecture!

One of the problems with the school of thought which Mies helped develop, and which put such an indelible stamp on the landscape of cities around the world, is that it allows for little or nothing in the way of regionalism.  The goal of international uniformity at the expense of local cultural expression means that one could simply pick up this rather blah building in DC, plop it down in the middle of a city thousands of miles away, say Hamburg or Dehli, and it would not matter.  This mechanistic quality is a natural follow-on from the ideas of Mies’ contemporaries Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, particularly as exemplified in the latter’s famous characterization of the home as “a machine for living”.  In fact, such thought processes have now become an ingrained way of looking at the world, not only in architecture but in government’s view of its citizens, to the extent that no one dares to question it, or indeed why we should allow ourselves, our homes, or the public buildings which we pay for to be treated as such in the first place.

By contrast, a short distance away from today’s MLK library is the smaller, former central public library.  It was built at the turn of the previous century in the then-fashionable Beaux-Arts style, thanks to an enormous gift from industrialist Andrew Carnegie, and opened to the public in 1903.  It served as the city’s largest reading room until 1970, when the MLK Library was opened, and today houses the city’s historical society.

The old library is an elegant structure, with sweeping marble staircases and symmetrical wings.  It could have been expanded upon almost infinitely as the collection grew, through the use of sensitive additions.  It also fits within the general classical architecture that defines not only most of the major buildings and monuments of Washington, but also the very rational, 18th century layout of the city itself, situated in a large square where a number of important streets and avenues all meet.

Now of course, instead of being prominently placed, the city library is housed inside a boring building on a random street corner, which one could easily walk right past and be forgiven for ignoring, thinking it was just another ho-hum office block.  There are no plans to tear it down, and thus, whatever changes may be made, this public library will look pretty much just as soul-suckingly dull as the old one.  It will not become any the handsomer for all the alterations it is about to physically undergo, thanks to the desire to preserve and celebrate something which ought to have been bulldozed years ago.

To appreciate the work of an artist, one does not need to like everything that they made.  Raphael may be my favorite painter of the Italian High Renaissance, and his was a towering talent indeed.  Yet in all frankness, some of his later pictures in particular are decidedly messy, fussy, and unattractive.  Over time he may have become more accomplished as a dramatist and decorator, but in some cases he had begun to lose the sense of quiet emotion that made his earlier work so powerful, in the rush to get out commissioned pieces to clients.

Similarly, I love Mies’ Barcelona Pavilion of 1929, with its combination of light, openness, and calm,  It is a clean, but inviting space, which invites the visitor to sit and relax.  It had a tremendous impact on the history of architecture, and we would be lucky to have something like it here in the Nation’s capital.

Yet DC’s lone claim to Mies fame strikes me as being little more than a derivative version of far superior work which he created elsewhere.  For here we see little more than the middling effort of a very famous and very busy man, who left to underlings the job of bringing his ideas into reality. In the end, it is a pity that public funds need to be expended on preserving and expanding upon a structure that has really nothing much at all to commend it.

Library

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library
Washington, D.C.

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