Thursday, December 27, 2007

Travel Log :: Florida and the Caribbean

Many Americans traveled over the holiday season, and we here at DesignCult are no exception. But even in our travels we are looking for great examples of design, art, and culture. Herein and below are some of our finds!

Caribbean Style

The Caribbean is a great place to get some R&R, but don't discount it for the opportunity to find a hip restaurant or stylish fashion.

On the island of St. Maarten, in the Dutch capital of Phillipsburg, I made a second visit to Taloula Mango's (located right on the boardwalk). This restaurant, with its 'Blue Bitch Bar' is a stylish respite from the warm island sun. The quirky decor has a mid-century modern feel to it, with decorative concrete blocks, concrete and pebble surfaces, and soothing blue and earth rust red color palette. A clever reinterpretation of the wood carved 'gingerbread' even uses the motif from the restaurant's signage.

Order a Carib, kick back, and enjoy!

Now, you can't go to the islands without doing a little shopping, and more than anything, the islands are known for jewelry. In the islands you can often find big discounts over prices in the US. And there are some stylish items to be found. In addition to our pursuit for the lowest prices on Movado watches (on average 30% less than US retail), we were also tempted (and succumbed to said temptation) by Rev.v fashion rings. Fashioned of titanium, tungsten, and including inlays as varied as platinum and rose gold to steel cable, these rings are quite unique. Also of note were the jewelry line by Colibri (the London based company known mostly for men's accessories such as pens and lighter), which included cross pendants of decidedly contemporary design.

Fort Lauderdale Chic

Back on the mainland we enjoyed several days at the new Hilton Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort. Built as combination condominium and hotel, most suites offer full kitchens, luxurious baths, and balconies with views towards the beach or the intercoastal waterway. The lobby features warm woods, comfortable hues of white and blue, seaform inspired lighting, and backlit alabaster hex tiles. The design strikes a harmonious balance of upscale style and comfort. Architecture by Falkanger Snyder Martineau & Yates Architects & Engineers, Inc.; Interiors by Kobi Karp.

The Hilton Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort is flanked by two other notable projects in the works, the new W Fort Lauderdale and the Trump International Hotel & Tower. The forme
r, designed by Adache Group Architects, will feature interiors by famed designer Clodagh. This seems to be the greater of these two, with its sweeping curves and cantilevering balconies. The latter is by Michael Graves & Associates, and features a design and color scheme reminiscent of his unrelenting egg-inspired creations for Target. We'll have to make a follow up visit to see how these two new projects turn out!

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Florida Modern

My holiday travels offered up a fantastic opportunity to document some of central Florida's mid-century modern jewels. Winterpark, Florida offers up an exciting number of vintage "Florida Modern" houses that completely embraced the period and the notion of outdoor living. Low slung rooflines create sun shading, while floor to ceiling glazing angles with the roof edges. Carports as well as covered loggia blur the line between indoor and outdoor spaces. The kidney shaped pool and outdoor barbecue pit are also requisites of course. Unfortunately many people view these historic icons as tear downs. Of course the horrific Florida version of the McMansion (neo-Mediterranean style) tends to take over the lots where these sensible and well designed houses once stood. Fortunately some people see these houses as treasures that are just as modern and relevant to today's living standards as they were when they were first built decades ago. Enjoy the photo documentation while I go back to daydreaming of lounging poolside while the 1965 280 SE Cabriolet sits in the carport.

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Modernism In Your Neighborhood

Spotting modern design on my jaunts around the city are always an exciting part of my day. I recently discovered two newer projects in a neighborhood that I had least expected to see them in. The area North of Georgetown, Glover Park, consists of rows upon rows of late 1920's-1940's townhouses. They all are variations on a theme based on simple colonial and Georgian styles. Traditional, functional, and accommodating are the descriptions that come to mind with these houses. The first modern example are two side by side residences that were recently constructed in the middle of one of the above mentioned rows of classic decades old American housing. At first glance, you absolutely cannot miss it, as it looms over the rest of the block as if a giant modernist house fell out of the sky and landed in the middle of this unsuspecting block. The consistency of the row was dramatically broken up by the modern intervention. The design thrusts the houses to the street edge, where most of the other houses on the block are set back to allow for a substantial front yard. The existing houses are all two storys, while the new is maxed out at almost four. The house looks as though it was ballooned to the extents of the building lot and height limitations. It is what I would consider contextually inconsiderate. While the various materials that clad the exterior are sleek and beautiful, none relate to the original palate of the street. If this house had been designed more sensitive to the neighborhood scale, proportion, and materiality, it definitely would have been a more integrated modern approach to the row houses on the block. The interplay between large glazed areas and textural cladding gives interest to the front elevation. One half comes further forward the the other half, shifting the overall massing. The half set back from the street edge is screened along the front with a system of metal cabling and rails. This softens the heaviness of the overall elevation and adds a nice layer of screening to the full glass wall behind. The interior living spaces are designed to be open and full of light. This concept translates to the front elevation but not to the overall massing. Had the design of the front elevation been further edited and translated to the other sides of the house, and had the massing been minimized to create less of a juxtaposition to the existing neighbors, it would have been a very successful modern addition to the neighborhood.

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Modernism In Your Neighborhood

The second house that I came across in the neighborhood of Glover Park, consisted of a modern addition to an existing classic Washington rowhouse. The first house was discussed in the post directly below this one. The existing house is located at the end of a row, and the entire exposed end and rear elevations are visible along the side street. This prominent and visible location was quite the opportunity for an "in your face" modern transformation to the unassuming and commonplace house. This is not the case as it was in the former house. The design of the modern addition actually works hard to keep with the original integrity of the house, and for that matter the houses in the entire row. It is rather tame on the modern intervention end. The extension of the roof ridge line is the only change along the front elevation, and this actually keeps with historical precedents where end houses were taller and a bit more prominent, having a "bookend" affect to the row. The exposed side begins to show the more rigid and simplified lines of modernism. The two story projection at first seems to be a very dramatic gesture, but it actually also plays on the historical precedent of the end houses on rows having a two story side bay that begins on the second floor and continues to the third. This element is a great example of contextual modernism. Moving to the rear, the walls open up with large amounts of glass and steel mullion systems. Balconies and decks are screened with a simple metal rail system, adding a nice layer to the composition of the facade. The projections on the first and third floors though, add a certain level of haphazardness. There is a lack of overall consistency along the rear elevation. A mitigation of window types and sizes, and less variations in massing could have cleaned the design up. The lack of difference in materiality and color makes the original and new pieces blend together, but almost in a negative way. Bolder gestures of more modern materials such as metal or wood cladding, rather than stucco, would have added a nice texture and subtle differentiation between both architectures. At least the stucco of the modern elements could have been painted a varied color other than the grey brick of the existing. Bottom line is that the modern interventions play on historical precedents, but revive them in a new way. This is what good contextual modernism should look like. Next time, more innovation with materiality would make this house stand out in a positive way just that much more.

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Sunday, December 9, 2007

IN : Public Transport

In today's urban world, you cannot travel throughout the city's boundaries without encountering some pitch for going "green". What better way to contribute to this hip new movement of the moment, and hopefully a movement for the rest of today and the future, than to hop on the readily available mode of public transport nearest you? Finally, Washington has begun to take hints that it's means of public transport are shabby, outdated, and unfriendly to the sophisticated urbanite with sensitive taste buds for the world of design. New buses are on the streets with engines that minimize pollution and are even baring new elements of well executed design, such as more ergonomic interiors as well as more aerodynamic and up-to-date exterior detailing. Then there is the MetroRail system. At it's inception, the newly constructed stations, both exterior and interior flaunted high modernist expressions of the time. The cast concrete formworks underground have a unique and energized texture, and play with light and shadow. The cylandroid forms scream sleek, fast, and chic transportation. The Metro cars themselves also showcased shiny metal frames, housing trendy (for the time) interior finishes and color schemes. The burnt orange to chocolate brown range of color added a unique consistency to the interior design schemes. The colors may have been a bit trendy and later viewed as dismal and drab, but at LEAST they were consistent and period. Recently, the Metro cars have been updated and repaired. The orange/brown carpets have been replaced by a deep red colored carpet. I never understood the use of carpet in the Metro in the first place, let alone replacing the existing with a color that isn't even close to compatible with the original color scheme. I applaud the proposed new design to utilize a synthetic rubberized flooring in the color medium grey. Anything is better than carpet, especially carpet that doesn't match. Random seats have also been replaced with dark red and a pale blue/grey vinyl material. The orange wasn't exactly pleasant, but mixing in the worst red and blue shades possible to it just added to the offensiveness of the interior design. If in any way the colors of red, white, and blue in the new design were purposefully intended to represent the nation's capital, it failed miserably. People who take the Metro are doing so for varied reasons, ease of travel, urban convenience, or as an adventure for out of town visitors, and should be exposed to a vibrant, consistently designed, and informative experience. Metro is experimenting with various new options regarding accommodation, but they should also experiment with a cost effective way to design a consistent and exciting palate for the citizens of the 21st century. The current trainwreck of an interior has so many possibilities and potential to make DC proud. Photos courtesy WMATA
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Thursday, December 6, 2007

DC: A Storied Future?

Reconsidering the DC Height Act of 1910
If there is a single noticeable feature of DC that distinguishes it from most other major cities, it is the skyline...or the lack thereof. This lack of a skyline is the result of the DC Height Act of 1910, which was the subject of a recent DC Building Industry Association (DCBIA) meeting, where presenters Steven Sher, Roger Lewis, FAIA, and Don Hawkins provided an overview of the Height Act and varying views regarding its place in history and its relevance today.

The history of the DC Height Act is traced to the last decade of the 19th century, with the first Height Act being signed into law by President McKinley in 1899, and then amended in 1903 (to respond to the McMillan plan) prior to the signing into law of the Height Act of 1910 by President Taft. A common misconception is that the building height limit in the District of Columbia is intended to insure that no structure is built taller than the Capitol dome. But the reality is that the height limit has little symbolic bearing, but rather was intended to insure that building designs at the turn of the last century did not exceed the technologies of the time. Primarily, the DC Height Act was established in response to the limitations of fire fighting technology at the time. Additionally, concerns were being raised about the viability of new structural advances. Finally, public welfare weighed in with consideration given to preserving proper daylight and ventilation at street level. These were seen, in all, as matters of practicality. But over time, these matters of practicality have given way to questions of symbolism and the design of the 'monumental' city.

Only Congress has the authority to amend the Height Act. Over the past century that that the Act has been in effect, it has only been amended four times to allow exceptions for specific buildings (the last being for Georgetown Hospital).

A consequence of the height limit has been the economic impact on development. By limiting the height of a building, the square footage that can be provided is significantly reduced in relation to other metropolitan cities. This has been the focus of several district lead studies, including a 2002 report (performed by Einhorn Yaffee Architects and The Jair Lynch Companies) that studied the impact on development based merely on the limits established by the Schedule of Heights, a component of the 1910 act. The report considered only commercial zones, and considered maximum building height to, but not exceeding, the maximum height allowed by the act: 160 feet. But even making adjustments to allowable building heights within the structure of the act indicated substantial economic potential, from rental income and worker spending on local goods and services, to tax revenues and employment. The realization of the further impact that greater height may provide is worthy of consideration.

Don Hawkins, Chairman of the Committee of 100 of the Federal City and the requisite nay-sayer of the DCBIA event asserted that the need for greater height in the district does not exist, and until such time that the city is out of land for development, that revisions and amendments to the Height Act need not be considered. Furthermore, much of his disdain regarding the consideration of amending the act derives from his, and others, reverence of Pierre Charles L'Enfant's vision for the city of Washington.

One has to consider this question of 'need', however. The mere availability of development sites is an evasive credential upon which to assess the worthiness of the height limit, because such an argument does not take into account relevant issues such as supporting resources and infrastructure. Introducing greater densities in undeveloped areas of the city in lieu of rethinking the potential of our central business district would require the addition of and upgrades to the transportation, services, and utilities in these areas. Why not take advantage of the established elements that existing in our CBD? But this is not an issue, as all presenters agreed, based upon practicality or need alone.

Despite that the primary reason the height act was established was one of concern for public safety in light of technologies at the time (technologies which have obviously been improved upon and should no longer have a bearing on building height restrictions
), the notion of the heights as a significant aesthetic contribution to the development of DC has fueled much of the existing justification for not reconsidering the act. Opposing arguments champion L'Enfant's vision for the city, further reinforced by the McMillan plan, embodying the City Beautiful ideal of classical monumentality, suggesting low-rise development as a socially responsible urban movement. Of course it is relevant to note that L'Enfant's vision for Washington was not fully embraced by the District Commissioners, who ultimately dismissed L'Enfant. Notwithstanding, basing the argument of low-height development on the proposed vision of L'Enfant creates certain anachronisms. It is quite unlikely that L'Enfant's late eighteenth century concept for the city could have considered the technologies and potential building heights of a twentieth and twenty-first century city. While undoubtedly the beauty of the L'Enfant plan lies in the axial views and vistas that he imagined, these views are not affected by the greater development of the block, but rather are a consequent of the void between these blocks. As presenter Roger Lewis has asserted in a recent article of his 'Shaping the City' column in the Washington Post, the DC Height Limit, and in fact the L'Enfant plan itself, is not sacred. Lewis' recommendation is that the height limits be reconsidered, but thoughtfully, where it makes aesthetic and economic sense. Careful considerations of the zoning would be a prerequisite to amending or lifting the height limit, and would allow for the creation of architectural monuments at key locations, such as at significant intersections and the circles which are prevalent throughout the city, to create, as Lewis puts it, a "more undulating urban fabric and skyline". It is clear as well that this is not just a questions of appropriate heights, but also a matter of appropriate densities, which the zoning would necessarily continue to govern.

I for one am a proponent of amending or eliminating the DC Height Act. I fully agree with the suggestions made that allowing for greater height in the District should be accompanied by new design guidelines and a thoughtful approach to where such increases in allowable height make sense. It is important to acknowledge that relief of the height act does not mean creating a 'free for all' with regards to new buildings. Even in cities where building heights are much greater than they would be in the District, the heights are not all uniform, but vary from building to building. It's simply not realistic to expect that the height of every building would suddenly be increased. But certainly the fears of opponents seem based on such expectations.

But beyond the practical reasons, the overwhelming notion for raising the allowable heights for buildings in the District is aesthetic. There is a noticeable lack of height in the District, one that I don't feel is a pleasing consequence, but rather a let down. Take a walk around the Golden Triangle area, K Street, up 18th Street, or even around the area allowed the greatest height along Pennsylvania Ave., and the overwhelming characteristic is the rise of the building from the ground and then the sudden, deliberate termination as prescribed by the height act. There is an allure of city buildings, of towering beauties, of buildings whose wide stance at street level is appropriately balanced by their stature, that is absent in our capital city. DC as a vertical city is an appealing notion. There are many times that I've driven into the city via the Fourteenth Street bridge and seen the Jefferson Memorial and Washington Monument and imagined a backdrop of a skyline fitting of this great city. A skyline which does not interfere, but which enhances the compositions of the city, and would be a new symbol to this modern capital city and its strength. Just as we as residents have become the benefactors of the great monuments which already grace our city, we could embrace with pride these monuments to our city's achievements. There is both a romanticism as well as a symbolism that is evoked by a great skyline. When I lived in Norfolk, VA after graduating from Architecture School, I rented an apartment with a spectacular view of the city's skyline, and my blinds were never closed. If tall buildings make sense in a city of a more modest scale, such as Norfolk, then why not in DC? Don Hawkins likes to pose the question 'Why?' when the suggestion of amending the DC Height Act is made. In response, we pose the question "Why not?".

(The DCBIA Event featured presenters Steven E. Sher, Director of Zoning and Land Use Services, Holland & Knight LLP; Roger K. Lewis, FAIA, Architect & Planner, Professor Emeritus, University of Maryland, School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, Columnist, The Washington Post; and Don A. Hawkins, Chairman, Committee of 100 on the Federal City. Special thanks to The Jair Lynch Companies for providing a copy of the 2002 DC Height Limit Study.)
Poll Results: When we asked our readers if they thought that the DC Height Act of 1910 should be amended to allow for taller buildings in the city, 12 readers (46%) reponded 'yes'; 14 readers (53%) responded 'no' (26 votes total).

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Monday, December 3, 2007

Upcoming Events

Design Discussion and Book Signing

December 14, 2007
7:00 - 8:30 pm

Join RCKNDY for an evening discussion on modern collecting and book signing with author and design consultant Lisa Roberts. Following the discussion Lisa will answer questions and sign her book, Antiques of the Future. A must attend for anyone interested in 21st century design and decor. For more info about the author and book please visit her web site at:

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Friday, November 30, 2007

Smart Modernism Downtown

Not long ago, every building along the streets of downtown DC was a large, looming, ambiguous and concrete clad bunker. This typology was utilized to maximize rentable space, lessen construction cost, and for its quick construction timeline. DC's building height restriction forces many of these buildings to balloon every inch of their rentable space to the perimeters. The lack of any intelligent design among these building blocks almost destroyed any sense of place along the downtown streets. Fortunately, a handful of Washington developers have been listening to the needs of the people who inhabit these dreadful buildings along with the architects. Buildings that add interest to the street and create a "place", buildings that allow for a uniqueness to each space, bring in large amounts of daylight, and can give the owner and inhabitants a sense of "pride", will make up for any amount of rent lost to loosing a bit of square footage. One excellent example of how this can be achieved, regarding how a building can be designed in this manner, is the Newseum, by Polshek Partnership Architects of New York. Instead of monotonous prefabricated concrete panels and small windows, the building utilizes a series of layers and translucent skins. The massive limestone panel along the front elevation seems to float in front of the actual building. This heaviness to the facade is countered by creating a void space directly adjacent. Large amounts of glass are broken up into changing divisions and delicate translucent brie soleil are added to create surface texture and shadow. The interplay of massing, varying transparencies of the layers, and the different curtain wall divisions make the architecture stand out, while at the same time integrating it well into the surrounding context. This building fits very well into the more formally composed DC street fabric, but it definitely does not blend in with the rest. This is a fantastic approach to how modern design should be done in the District.
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New(s)! Hotel Washington to become W Hotel

The Hotel Washington, located at 15th & Pennsylvania, NW, will soon close it's doors. But this is (at least in our view) good news, as the stately hotel will be renovated and reopened as WDC's first W Hotel. The news was reported this morning. The 90 year old hotel, built in the Italian Renaissance Revival style, is slated to close on January 1, 2008, and reopen sometime in 2009. The news brings with it the anticipation of a contextually modern renovation of the interior spaces, combining W's sleek, modern aesthetic and chic room decor with the building's classical beauty to create an energetic counterpoint. Of course we'll have to wait to see the final product. (As the hotel's current website illustrates, the interiors are in much need of an update!) In the interim this announcement is yet another sign of DC's emerging appeal as a cosmopolitan destination city.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Modernism In Your Neighborhood

Modern residential architecture is appearing around just about every street corner in DC, except for maybe Georgetown. That is a whole other monster that will in due time get it's 15 minutes of critique. I applaud the architects of, and especially those who inhabit, modern buildings in Washington. In a city with rigid and often ridiculous hysterical (historic) preservation boards, it is prohibitively difficult to have an opportunity to allow modern design from today's society to make it's mark on the urban fabric. The area North of U Street and between 13th and 9th Streets NW, seems to be a melting pot of modernism. This neighborhood had mostly existed of run down Victorian tenement townhouses, empty lots and some relics of light industries that long ago closed shop. Within the last five years the empty lots have been built upon, the existing townhouses have been cleaned up, and the industrial buildings have been made into loft-esque spaces. For better or for worse, most of the new construction is in the modern vernacular. They have brought on mixed opinions, and have escaped the incriminating opinions of any historic board due to their location outside of the historic districts. They all have given modern residential architecture incorporated into an existing historic context more visibility, but at the same time have proved that not all modern architecture is good architecture. Three projects in this neighborhood were randomly selected.

The first is a corner lot infill project. Innovative materials as metal cladding, prefabricated masonry units, and storefront window systems are a great nod to the new residential materials available for construction today. Interlocking elements as balconies, louver sun screens and wrapping surface materials are where this townhouse gets an "A" for modern form and concept. Although, this building fails to make any sort of gesture to the existing context surrounding it. Instead of respecting the past by making a simple gesture to scale, materiality, or proportion, it stands out on its own merit, but in snubbed nose sort of way. A good round of editing in the design process would have eliminated random elements that give the overall design a "gimmick" like aesthetic.

The second is also an infill lot that borders on a public alley. This residential pocket in the city is by no means stylized by a consistent original vernacular. The older townhouses are all different and lack a large amount of detail. The dominating element that they all have is the proportion within the elevation divisions. The one third/two third typology exists with a bay typically occupying the two third section, and the front door on the one third section. This modern intervention holds to these proportions. It simplifies these elements using systems of glass and metal framework. Yet, it also neglects unifying fenestration head heights along with the material connections that are key to the execution of good modern architecture. Just because the ideas are simplified, does not mean you can neglect the details. The detailing in modern architecture can make the difference between sloppy and refined.

The last example is a multi-family building that is still under construction. Elements such as exposed structural steel framework and concrete slabs create interest in the elevation along with function as outdoor balcony space. Glazing systems and walls play the solid/void game instead of punched windows on a solid background. The strength of these elements will be determined by the material and color of the cladding yet to be applied. Again, editing in the design process can be the fine line between great and mediocre modernism.

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Wednesday, November 7, 2007


Urban grit mixed with sleek modernism is a favorite. Take the shell of a turn of the century commercial space, strip the interior to the raw structure, leave all of it exposed, and add glossy high end luxury pieces of modern furniture to the scene and you get a very chic urban space. Palace 5ive gives street culture some serious attention. Whether you are a seasoned skater or an edgy fashionista, this storefront shop will provide for your urban wardrobe and gear needs. Exposed brick walls, concrete floors, and rough open joists combined with modern furniture donning high gloss laminates and fluid designs creates an energized high / low contrast. This is just the platform created for showcasing the goods. Skateboards and full wall graffiti are the high art on display. Urban gear from the latest sneaks to uniforms for the street are at their best. This is a Palace where anyone part of the urban street culture will feel like royalty.

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Monday, November 5, 2007

In: Float Glass is the new Stainless

Not long ago, if you wanted to keep up with the Jones' in the kitchen the choice for appliance finish was simple: Stainless Steel. And the market reacted accordingly, with a strong presence of stainless steel and stainless-like finishes. Likewise, developers in the housing market considered stainless appliances the gold standard in amenities, when combined with stained cabinets and granite countertops. But stainless appliances may just have a new contender: Float Glass.

Recently, companies as varied as Jenn-Air and IKEA (appliances by KitchenAid) introduced appliances with float glass fronts. The slick, glossy finish is a chic, high-end look, and signals too the return of high gloss black, white, and colored kitchen cabinets. And while the Jenn-Air versions come with a bit of sticker shock (both the refrigerator and wall oven pictured are priced at $2949.00 each), the IKEA models (sadly, only available in ovens currently) are not only reasonable (priced at $649 as shown), but with widths as small as 24", are the perfect size for the
urban kitchen as well!

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Friday, November 2, 2007


Not always does a
great venue need signage to catch your attention on the street. Sometimes hints of great design and refined taste will pop out from the chaos of the gritty urban streetscape and become its own form of signage. A new Belgian inspired brasserie, Marvin, does just this act of incognito for the cognoscenti. Just north of U Street, on 14th, it situates itself in a restored simplified Victorian building. Attention getting refined taste is in the clean lines, classic light fixtures, and a storefront that beckons to the window shopper to peer into what appears to be a chic underground salon, marked only by a nondescript logo on the front door. Inside, a relaxed atmosphere charged with a serious chicness is inhabited by a diverse and refined crowd of urban dwellers. Classics given new life create the interior vibe. Simple but elegantly rich marbles, tiles, punched tin and dark woods with plenty of mirrors (to see and be seen) dominate. Move upstairs to the lounge, and marble topped cafe tables tightly fit with banquettes in modernized damask prints allow for a cozy and social experience. Outside on the roof deck bar/lounge vintage light fixtures and Victorian mantelpieces give the bar the same modern interpretation of vintage pieces that is the recurring theme throughout. The entire experience of excellent food, great scenery, a funky urban mood and chic design place Marvin on the *IT* list for anyone in-the-know.
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