Sunday, September 30, 2007

Modernism In Your Neighborhood

Modern architecture has been popping up in almost all of Washington's neighborhoods lately. The revitalizing urban neighborhood of NoMa (North of Massachusetts Avenue) has become one of the hotbeds for examples of current ideologies in urban modernism. The fabric of this neighborhood contains many vacant lots which are being utilized for the incorporation of modern design into the existing historical context. Many of these new infill projects are designed by Suzane Reatig Architecture, . Today's most innovative technologies and materials such as storefront glazing systems, curtain wall technologies, and raw commercial materials such as prefabricated concrete structure and concrete block sit next door to classical Washingtonian rowhouses. Both typologies are very unique and can contrast with each other. In these examples, there is a relationship in scale, massing, use, and texture. Both the historic and the modern example compliment the other, without mimicry or direct interpretation, but by letting the other stand on its on merit. Here both the old and the new have individual importance and clarity, but work together to create a cohesive and unique streetscape. A primary difference between the new and the old is the massing placement on the building site. The historic rowhouses have their building massing predominantly towards the front of the site, while the yard space is towards the rear. In the new condo building, the building massing is focused along the front and the rear of the site, leaving a large open courtyard in the center. The openness and transparency of the architecture allow for a publicity on the street fronts while the inner courtyards create a privacy for the inhabitants as well. Modern architecture as in this example, does not take away from the importance of the historic area, but increases the significance of the existing history. The modern architecture is created for today, and will one day be an important part of the city's evolving historic fabric as well.
Read more!

Thursday, September 27, 2007


Exhibition spaces have always been an exciting opportunity to involve innovative architecture. Many of the world's most prominent structures are utilized or designed for the exhibition of art. There are situations where not only is the exhibition the destination but so is the space that it inhabits. Can the architecture overwhelm the contents? Should the structure become just the background to what is exhibited? How can the importance of the architecture not dominate the art itself? The building itself can become a destination. References have been made where the architecture is actually unfriendly to the art exhibited inside. Here some might say that the architecture has become more important than the use it was designed for, art exhibition. A local example of art in architecture is the Project4 Gallery at 903 U Street, NW, Washington, DC. A well executed example of incorporating modern design within a historic structure, the architecture of the gallery is very distinct. The obvious integration of the new into the old has given a certain vibrancy to the building. In this case, not only does the architecture itself create interest, but so does the contents within the space. The interior space itself is a good example of modern architecture, yet it becomes a background to the art itself. The architecture utilizes modern materials and open spaces, which have a relative transparency allowing the exhibited art to become the foreground. The modern and innovative architecture creates a dynamic experience for its specific funcition, the displaying and viewing of fine art. The most current exhibit, Landscape/Star Wars On Earth by Cedric Delsaux, is itself an example of a collision of two very distinct entities. The work montages decaying Parisian industrial and suburban landscapes with synthetic Star Wars situations. As the gallery's architecture and art work together to make a cohesive experience, the entities within the photographs intertwine to become a single cohesive subject, with one entity supporting the other.

Read more!

A Diamond in the Rough?

On Tuesday I was afforded the opportunity to tour the new Washington Nationals' baseball stadium, designed by HOK Sport and Devrouax & Pernell. It is with great anticipation that fans await Opening Day 2008, and the opening of the new ballpark. The park certainly has the bits of flair that fans will be looking for, from a restaurant behind left field to an open concourse which promises views to the field (while your in route to get a dog and a beer), and even a posh Founder's Club, complete with windows overlooking indoor batting cages (though admittedly only a fraction of fans will get to see that).

The concepts behind the stadium are pretty solid, from the initial decision to site the new stadium in a blighted and often ignored area of the city, south of the Capitol along the Anacostia River, to the massing along South Capitol Street, intended to create a 'wall' to the street, appropriate for its urban setting (however, it should be stated that this sort of urban density does not yet exist here, so there is no counterpart to this 'wall' on the other side of the street, but rather a scattering of low lying townhouses and a storage facility -- but I expect that will change in time.) And it should be duly noted that the building is applying for LEED credits, a first for a major league facility.

Having said that, I couldn't help but leave with a few disappointments. While undoubtedly the value engineering process has taken its toll on this building, as often happens, the exterior pre-cast finish in a limestone-esque cream color and alternating metal siding panels seems lackluster and cheap. The orientation seems off, as on a sunny afternoon the outfield, including the home team's bullpen, were facing the sun. The stadium also turns its back on the Anacostia River, which is unfortunate. (As a rower on the Anacostia I hope that the stadium may still focus some attention on the river, which is a victim of industry, urban runoff, and sewage overflow discharge, and in need of clean up.) There is a focus on the monuments, such as the Capitol dome, Washington Monument, and National Cathedral from the upper deck seats, though as our guide indicated, with new buildings under construction around the stadium, you'll be lucky to still have these views on Opening Day.

As for the plan itself, it seems fractured. In some ways this is to allow for the 'views' cut through the stadium, but the result feels like an assemblage of parts. In contrast to the formal geometry and graceful curves of RFK, the new Nats' ballpark's design is hard to visualize. While the form of aging RFK is memorable, the new stadium relies more of creating spaces and sightlines. And unfortunately the greatest of these sightlines is only afforded to patron's entering through the Founder's Club. Finally, the wrapping shape of the stadiums concourses is rigid and faceted, denying us the graceful curves expected of a stadium, and granted us by RFK.

In all, the new Washington Nationals' ball park will undoubtedly be a crowd pleaser, and offer fans all that they might expect. And in the spring I will return to watch a game, and see if my impression is changed. But I really have to wonder if it will leave a lasting impression on it's visitors. For now, at least, that grand gesture or memorable element seems to be lacking. In the words of Gertrude Stein, "There is no there there".
Read more!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

In The News: 'Look What Just Popped Up'

Today's Washington Post features an article on rooftop additions to rowhouses in the District. And while there are no doubt some horrible examples of rooftop additions in DC, such as the one pictured in the article, the reactions to these ill-conceived modifications can be just as concerning. Take for example a developer mentioned in the piece, who states that "A year from now...a visitor to the street won't know if the building was constructed 'in 2007 or 1907.'" Or the statement of DC Office of Planning assistant director Travis Parker, who the Post quoted as saying that an approach to dealing with such additions is to draft regulations "that define its existing building types and set that as the existing standard." The concern raised by such statements is that they indicate the extreme, yet often too-quickly embraced notion that either such additions and alterations to an existing building should either strictly adhere to a defined style or be prohibited all together. But there are certain inherit risks to this approach.

As a professional in the design industry and a student of the city, there is a certain disdain that I feel towards this approach. I believe that a building should be of the time. That a building, like a city, is ages, and it changes over time. This can be a beautiful aspect of any renovation, for it provides the opportunity to create a dialogue through the design, between the existing and the new which it must respond to, that serves several ends. First, such a dialogue informs the observer of the life of a building. One understands the development that the building went through. And such a dialogue can take many different approaches, from the respectful melding of similar masses or materials, to the more aggressive interplay of old and new. But this dialogue further serves to distinguish the existing, original contributing elements of a building from that which is added, serving to add authenticity to that which is original, and simultaneously add an element of contemporaneousness to the composition.

Granted, this must be done well. Such an addition should be respectful in many ways to the existing context. The forms, scale, massing, and materials of the existing structure and its surroundings should inform the design of the renovation, modification, or addition. It is a question of the language, the underlying characteristics of the object, rather than the motif. But all too often when we hear discussions such as this, regarding additions to structures that we are compelled to label 'historic' or 'contributing', the tendency is to respond 'in kind' through the employment of the motifs of a style. I feel that this is detrimental, as motifs have, and continue to be, employed in ways that are not appropriate or original. Take for instance one of the examples featured in the article. The composition includes a large mansard roof with two tall windows, over an existing three window arrangement on the second floor existing facade. While the composition employs elements of a design style, they are applied haphazardly. Furthermore the scale of the addition overpowers the existing. While it is clear to see that this is an example of what not to do, it is a consequence that such a mentality of working within a prescribed architectural style can produce.

While zoning regulations and the designation of areas as historic districts are an important means of moderating the density and appropriateness of a design in our cities' neighborhoods, it is important that they not be used in a way that would stymie the advancement of modern design. There are countless, worthy examples of good, modern design in historic districts, and the results can often render vibrant, energetic neighborhoods. Therefore, the regulations should be based on massing and scale, more so than actual stylistic elements. If our existing historical buildings are to remain truly unique and authentic, then we should not degrade them with newly built impostors. We respect our past by responding and engaging appropriately, not by mocking.

Read more!

Friday, September 21, 2007

ON THE SCENE : Pedini Opening Party

Modernism IS in your neighborhood. Cady's Alley in Georgetown, Washington, DC, has become a host to direct public access to intelligent modern design. One of the new kids on the block, Pedini, opened it's doors to allow for an inside look at the sleek modern Italian kitchens and storage systems it will be offering to Washington's modern design starved urbanites. Here commercial functionality meets the warmer residential needs of today's best designed kitchens. Key features that caught our eye were the concealed and fully integrated appliances, darker organic colors matched with softer white marble counters and matte stainless steel hardware. Well-crafted cabinetry with smooth hardware and fine woods are only made more appealing by the variety of looks, from clean and simple minimalistic to graceful, dramatic sweeping curves.

Owner, Roy Wellman, has been hard at work preparing for the opening, which included a cooking demonstration and appetizers as pleasing to the eye as to the palatte, prepared by Ris Lacoste, former executive chef of Georgetown's 1789, who is reportedly putting the finishing touches on her much anticipated new restaurant, slated to open later this year.

We wish Roy and the Pedini DC Family much luck, and are pleased with this recent entry into DC's design market!
Read more!

Monday, September 17, 2007

Modernism In Your Neighborhood

Washington, DC is a very difficult city to find any hint of Modernism on the typical city street. Sometimes it appears in the most unexpected places on the street front, but many times, due to historical restrictions, appears along the alley ways behind the urban street. Here is a great example of how modern design can be sucessfully incorporated with the pre-existing historic fabric. What is really exciting about this example, is that since it is located on a side alley, it can also be partially seen from the main urban street. By restoring the front and existing townhouse facade and details, the project met the historic district requirements. By adding an addition which gently overlaps the existing, but stands on its own merit, enhances the original building and its importance. Here simple industrial materials focusing on simplicity and transparency make this piece of modernism a great example of what is priority in today's design philosophies. An obvious blend of old and new enhances the texture of this urban block.

Read more!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Symbolism as the Impetus of Design

"I feel this way about it. World trade means world peace and consequently the World Trade Center buildings in New York ... had a bigger purpose than just to provide room for tenants. The World Trade Center is a living symbol of man's dedication to world peace ... beyond the compelling need to make this a monument to world peace, the World Trade Center should, because of its importance, become a representation of man's belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his beliefs in the cooperation of men, and through cooperation, his ability to find greatness."

— Minoru Yamasaki

The words of architect Minoru Yamasaki, describing his design for the World Trade Center in New York City, carry an especially ironic meaning today, six years after the towers were destroyed in a terrorist attack. And although such peace as the architect hoped to symbolize in his great structures has yet to be realized, it is commendable that such a notion should be associated with this work of architecture.

A work of architecture, as with any object, has certain prerequisite functions that it must achieve. This is the project's program. But a project's program is not synonymous with a project's goal. For the goal of any well designed object should not merely be to satisfy the basic needs, but to strive to be something more. It should meet certain, less tangible needs. Sensual needs. The goal should not merely be basic. And although Henri Louis Sullivan's assertion that "Form follows function" is one of the cornerstones, if not catch phrases of modern design, as Frank Lloyd Wright later stated, "'Form follows function'...has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union." While function is what gives rise to the design, and dictates its basic organization, it is this spirit, this sense of meaning, or of evoking some human response, that ultimately leads to form.

Too often I see works of architecture that are truly uninspired. They have no expression to offer, no higher purpose, no soul. Every design object can have a life of it's own. A certain response to its placement or surroundings, to its time, to its function; it is these responses in the design that give it a voice; it's what makes a building more than just floors, walls, and a roof. It's what causes us to stand in admiration of a beautiful object, a great building, or a towering skyline. It's what reaches us on our most basic level, and gives a work its humanity. It is more than form following function. It is form following ambition.

Read more!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Contextual Modernism

In the typical American society, the common attitude is that all that is older than 50 years is condisered "Historic", and all that is newer than 50 years or is unbuilt, should "blend" with the existing "Historic" elements. I ask, Why does everything have to look as though it is from a past time period in history? Do we want our cities and neighborhoods to be relics from past times even before they are fully realized? If we allow all new architecture to mimic what history has given to us, then the visual historical time table of each city and neighborhood will be lost. If we make a new building, built today, look as though it is from one hundred years ago, you not only take away some of the significance of the existing historic buildings, but in another hundred years from now, how will anyone in that future society be able to recognize the spceific innovations, technologies, materials, society structure and ways of life from today's world? These are questions that I will be addressing in my future posts. Modernism does not have to be scary. Modernism should be welcome in our neighborhoods, not cast off. Next post- "Can you find Modernism in your neighborhood?"

Read more!

Friday, September 7, 2007

Looks We Like

For our very first installment of 'Looks We Like', we've decided to feature these little, hand-blown fixtures from Niche Modern (available at We are fond of the variety of shapes and colors, as well as the use of unique incandescent bulbs. The craft of such objects seems to suggest a return to products produced according to time honored traditions, and evoke a sense of nostalgia. We believe that, along with an over-inflated passion for all things 'green', we will also see a welcomed return to well-crafted, hand-made objects. At a time when the organic and all-natural craze is ever present in our grocery stores and restaurants, is this same return to 'wholesome goodness' and a lack of 'processing' becoming a trend in modern design? Perhaps. And, admittedly, while we pause for a second and fear the fate of these clever little luminaries in a world rapidly switching out incandescent bulbs for more energy efficient fluorescents, with such a unique design, we do not hesitate for long.
Read more!

The Fall Forecast (DesignCult Edition)

The Washington Post just gave their fall forecast for home design. So we decided to counter with our own forecast!

Our forecast? Exotic textiles & patterns, white remains supreme with eggplant and mauves making an appearance (esp. as super-graphics)
, dark woods & acrylic furnishings make for a stunning uptown look, iridescent silks and microfiber & velor upholstery and energetic, handmade accents.

Read more!

And so it begins...

This is a blog. It is a blog about design and the culture associated with design, in all it's forms. From architecture to interior design to industrial design to fashion and art and so on. This is DesignCult.


Read more!