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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