Monday, December 29, 2008

Is that all there is?

This DC 'Dwell'er is underwhelmed by District's mention in design magazine.

I was excited when I received the December/January issue of 'Dwell' magazine and noticed the words on the front cover: Capital Ideas: Exploring Modern DC. I felt, in a sense, that DC had arrived! I was even more encouraged when I saw that the article was an interview with National Building Museum and AIA/DC veteran, and friend of architecture and design, Martin Moeller. Perched midrise above Church Street in his penthouse “loft” condo (as we know, little is high above the District), we receive the story of DC from one of its own. And, unfortunately, that story is a resounding ‘blah’.

What we find in the pages that chronicle writer Aaron Britt’s visit to the Nation’s Capital is a lackluster, and somewhat insecure, awkward city. At points it seems as though Moeller is almost apologetic. When asked what he considers to be the most significant building in DC, the response centers on the city’s rowhouse typology (granted not a bad response), but settles on a quasi-disparaging mention of The Mall (Moeller: “for all its flaws, I love The Mall because it’s a great big void.”) While there is a delicious irony in that one of the best spaces in DC is one that hasn’t been built upon, I have to say that The Mall has always left me wanting. Merely a large-scale gesture rather than a great urban park, it is, for me, little more than the equivalent of a schoolyard: A large, grassy expanse serving ultimately more function (as an assembly space) than exemplifying great design. (As an aside, the Smithsonian Gardens around the ‘Castle’ more than make up for this lack of good landscape design on The Mall). And while the nearby Hirshhorn and Pei’s East Wing do get a brief mention, there are other gems that are missed. Surely the recently completed Newseum by Polshek Partnership deserves a mention, and I’m personally in love with a few lesser known works, such as KPF’s Institute for International Economics on Massachusetts Ave., and back on the mall are the thoughtfully conceived pair that are the African Art Museum and Sackler Gallery of Asian Art.

But Moeller concedes when prompted to address the plight of modern architecture in a city of limestone-veiled traditionalism that, “Though we haven’t been as great recently, take a look at what went up here in the 1960’s. Washington was a pretty progressive town”. This is a sad commentary, as certainly there are still some progressive minded individuals helping to shape the city today. Perhaps none is more prevalent than Phil Esocoff, who has developed his own language over the years, and the city has, in most cases, been the happy beneficiary. His use of brick veneer in sweeping, graceful gestures, in addition to being a thoughtful exploration of the materials, adds a dynamic quality to the streetlife in many parts of the city, including several fine examples along Massachusetts Ave, in the city’s emerging NoMa district.

And on the subject of emerging districts, when asked about the redevelopment of 14th Street, Moeller mentions that it is ‘something of a loft district’. Of course this is part right, part myth, thanks to the zoning overlay for this area, which in part has given rebirth to many of the great industrial buildings in this area, while other infill projects tell a fabricated story that would make any reader of Pottery Barn catalogues blush. These “(expletive deleted) imitation lofts” (as our favorite “urban graffiti” pufftag stickers once proclaimed) regretfully too often resort to gratuitous use of industrial motifs to proclaim an overtly “loft-like” aesthetic. There are, of course, the exceptions, such as the new Metropol, which overcomes this irrelevant brush with BoBo nostalgia. There are, in fact, authentic lofts in the city too, though these are less prevalent. The recently completed Yale Steam Lofts by architect John Ronan is one great example; Bonstra | Haresign’s Lamont Lofts, while a bit off the beaten path along Georgia Ave., is another example worthy of comment.

But the ‘beaten path’ here was, in fact, quite narrow, and charted a decidedly Northwest-centric course. (Regrettably this tendency is one inflicting many a DC resident and visitor alike, but have no doubt that some great neighborhoods wait ready for exploration in the District’s other quadrants). The redevelopment of Barracks Row in Eastern Market, which was not all that long ago listed among the nation’s best neighborhoods, is certainly worth the trip. Likewise, back in NW, redevelopment in areas such as Columbia Heights and NoMa serve as examples of DC’s resilience. It’s the neighborhoods in DC that make this a unique place to visit and explore as an urban enthusiast, both the established (Georgetown, Adam’s Morgan, Cleveland Park) and the emerging (Mt. Pleasant, Shaw, H Street). While we won’t woo you with tall buildings (Moeller throws his hat into that arena as well), there is an eclectic, vibrant, ever pervasive progressive underground that is waiting to be discovered. Unfortunately, you won’t learn about this in ‘Dwell’s article. What you will find is a disgraceful map (that is so shortsighted that the district is reduced to an area that spans G-town to Shaw, and from the White House to Meridian Hill Park. Not even Moeller’s beloved Mall made the cut! And the list of “attractions”, while offering an eclectic mix, is lacking (and includes some spots that are best skipped). While mentions of Contemporaria, Apartment Zero, Vastu, Vegitate, NBM, and the Phillips are certainly on the money, there was the noticeable lack of other design-seeker destinations, such as the many great stores along U Street (Rckndy, Millennium, and Urban Essentials to name a few) as well as Dupont’s Tabletop, and Georgetown’s Cady’s Alley in whole, dining favs, including 14th Street’s Marvin, Dupont’s Darlington House, and Penn Quarter’s (and now Barrack Row’s) understated Matchbox, and cultural destinations, such as The Corcoran. On the list that deserved an edit were Town Danceboutique, which, with its gimmicky gestures, held this commentator’s attention for merely a DC minute, Universal Gear, and the 9:30 club, as well as most of the remaining, which failed to apply to the topic of modern DC.

Perhaps our intrepid reporter merely had an evening to explore Moeller’s backyard (as most of the mentions are within blocks of Moeller’s roost). This is unfortunate, for while DC is still striving to find its voice in today’s design world, the design community is making strides. If you’ve not yet caught wind of the emerging creative energy in the District, stay tuned, and rest assure that it will not remain stifled. But perhaps the silver-lining here is that again…once again…the stage is set, and the challenge has been thrown down. If this IS all there is to DC, then let this be our time to overcome the timidness that undermines our fair city. Let this lackluster commentary of a mundane DC reawake the progressiveness that has been declared dead. Otherwise it may too be our fate that we reluctantly excuse our mediocrity when asked about ‘Modern DC’.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Modernism in Your Neighborhood

Project 4 Gallery has always been a bastion for great modern art and design. It's old digs were way cool and a great addition to the U street neighborhood. Just down the street is where they recently moved. It is in the Hamiltonian Building at 1354 U Street NW. This building housed a gallery on the first floor, two architecture firms on the upper floors and the fabulous new location for Project 4. The original facade of the building is a simple brick face, with a great storefront presence on the street. Enter the side door and go up two flights of stairs in a stairway with exposed brick and minimalist lighting. A person walking by on the street would never have any idea what the person in walking up the stairs is about to experience. Pass through the door marked Project 4, you venture outside onto a rooftop courtyard. Facing you is a two story glass and metal clad box, perched way above the street. Simple curtain wall divisions make a simple play of geometry and transparency along the facade. Once inside, the first level of the gallery is partially open to the second level above, with a network of catwalks and perches. The art is experienced in horizontal and vertical instances. Loft-like and almost doorless, the interior spaces play off of the perception of volume, light and view. The entire building is a great study on massing, modern materiality, transparency, spatial perceptions, and incorporating modern architecture into an existing historic fabric. Way cool. Go take a look for yourself.

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Friday, October 24, 2008

Green Festival DC Coming November 8th & 9th to DC Convention Center

We've learned today that Green Festival DC will be at the DC Convention Center on November 8th & 9th. Scheduled speakers to include architect William McDonough. Transit riders receive a $5 discount off the regular $15 price by showing their fare cards.

From the event website:

At the Washington DC Green Festival™, a joint project of Global Exchange and Co-op America, we’re celebrating what’s working in our communities—across the District, Maryland and Virginia—for people, for business and for the environment.

You’ll enjoy more than 125 renowned speakers and 350 green businesses (start your holiday shopping now!), great how-to workshops, green films, a Fair Trade pavilion, yoga classes, organic beer, delicious organic cuisine and live music.

Find out about DC environmental initiatives; and learn how neighbors, community nonprofits and city departments are working together to make their cities healthier places to live.

More information at
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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Listen Now: DC Height Limits Topic of The Kojo Nnamdi Show

Roger K. Lewis, architect, University of Maryland professor emeritus of architecture, and columnist of the Washington Post's "Shaping the City" column, discusses Washington's skyline, its effects on metro area residents, and common misconceptions about the DC Height Act on The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5 FM.

Listen now: Real Audio | Windows Media
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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Modernism In Your Neighborhood

One of the most exciting neighborhoods architecturally right now in DC is the North Shaw/ U Street area. During the last few years this pocket of mixed industrial/residential buildings has transformed from a dead crumbling zone to a hot bed of architectural innovation. One of the pioneering architecture firms in this neighborhood, DivisionOne Architecture has launched another innovative and modern project that is soon to be complete. The Condo building is located at the corner of Florida Ave and 11th Street NW. Over a dozen new projects have been built in the area, some great while others seriously lack in good design. The Lacey, is an exception on both accounts. It is a fantastic example of innovative modern architecture, and it stands out from all of the other projects on the blocks nearby. At first sight, the structure is unique from everything else in the neighborhood. I think this is appropriate. The surrounding context has no real typical typology. There are some very small nondescript Victorian townhouses, some post-industrial warehouses mixed in with larger public buildings of no particular style. The heights are all varied, creating a unique rhythm to each block. The scale of this building is on the larger side, but it fits with the scale of the other large buildings. It is much smaller than the ten story modern condo developments just down Florida Avenue. The massing consists of a continuation of the contextual deep front yards and a larger cantilevered glass box overhanging delicately above the lower level setbacks. There are a series of metal stairs leading from the street level to the first floors of the street facing units. This plays on the larger scale townhouse entrances in the area. The floating glass box above creates interest to its elevation by playing with a "Modrian-esque" pattern of glass that varies from translucent to opaque. Balconies inset have a shadowline-punched effect to add a nice depth the the elevation. The most innovative piece of the design is circulation from the street to each unit. It avoids completely the traditional interior corridor system by utilizing a central exterior spine that bisects the main massing. This allows for more natural light to enter into the inner sides of each unit. The spine protrudes out to the side and creates a dynamic detail to the street front of the building. The vertical circulation to each level of the external spine is clad in a system of metal louvers which cast playful shadows alongside more solid ends of the primary massing. A matrix of horizontal and vertical gestures in the side concrete panels are almost violently sliced by the steel framework of the courtyard circulation. The rear of the building is as equally designed as the rest of the building. The glass box is fractured by a more minor vertical steel balcony element and a very strong horizontal concrete frame. Overall, this building adds a strong modern and technologically innovative design to the neighborhood. It stands out on it's own. The large variegation of the other buildings on the block make that appropriate. It is a building that says, "I am modern, I am innovative, and by using these elements I create amazing urban spaces." It is always exciting to come across such a dynamic piece of modern architecture in our city. It gives me hope that more and more people will be exposed to how great modern architecture can invigorate their lives and just keep wanting more of it.
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Monday, October 13, 2008

Art for Change

By now you've seen the red, white, and blue image with the tag 'HOPE'. This image, by street artist Shepard Fairey, has become one of the most recognizable images from the current election. In Irvine Contemporary's new exhibit, Fairey is joined by Al Farrow and Paul D. Miller (DJ Spooky) in the politically-themed three-person exhibition Regime Change Starts at Home, running October 18 - December 6, 2008, with an opening reception on Saturday, October 18th, from 6-8PM.

An Artist Talk with Fairey and Farrow will also be held at The Corcoran Gallery of Art on Friday, October 17th at 7PM (ticketed event). See 'Upcoming Events' on the sidebar for more information.

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Thursday, October 2, 2008

Date Set for 2nd Anacostia Waterfront Community Information Fair

This past January we reported on the 1st Anacostia Waterfront Community Information Fair, where we learned not only about all of the projects on the boards and in the pipeline along the Anacostia Waterfront, but also about a lot of entities that already exist along DC's lesser known waterway.

Today we obtained a 'Save the Date' for the 2nd Anacostia Waterfront Community Information Fair, to be held Saturday, November 15th, 2008, from 1 - 5 PM at Nationals Baseball Park. So be sure to 'save the date' and see what's coming to the shores of the Anacostia.
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Tuesday, September 23, 2008


Back around the turn of the last century, a certain style of new urban design began popping up in major cities. DC received it's fair share of this design craze as well. One bar in particular was Dragonfly, which is located just below the intersection of 18th St. and Connecticut Ave. Plenty of high gloss surfaces, lots of chrome and synthetic plastics with a good does of super-graphics summed up the "Y2K" stark white and glossy trend at that time. While back then the place was exciting and new, it's aesthetic grew dated quickly. It's recent replacement is called Current. It too gives a nod to the former life the space had with more high gloss surfaces and gimmicky light elements, this time in the form of see-through ceiling/floor water features. The space has a new combination of warmer natural materials against the plastic synthetics. Upon entry, a grand open riser staircase clutters the streetfront space. Above on the ceiling wave-like undulating glossy forms seem like an interesting idea to add some movement to the space but is unsuccessful. Their failure stems from the groupings being disjointed. The flow is broken up by the ugly and pointless (yet probably very expensive) ceiling/ floor water features which glow different colors and are filled with water jets. I understand how they wanted to play with the theme but they just don't work for the space. An entire ceiling of the glossy waves would have been a more successful and cohesive gesture. The bar surfaces are a wavelike design of alternating dark wood and a translucent poly-resin material that glows. This is a nice piece but there is a bit too much of in throughout the space. The dining tables and chairs feel very heavy and awkward in a space where the theme is supposed to be that of light and flowing currents. Overall it is a nice addition to the trendy bar/lounge scene in the city but in its newness, it already feels as though it has been dated by the year 2000.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Design for the Common Good

Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams' New Statement is Tailored to Enrich All of Our Lives
Ordinarily when we hear about a 'Crisis' at a design store we imagine that it means they've run out of sideboards, or that that 'must have' chaise doesn't come in that oh so crucial shade of blue, or comes with a six week lead time. There are times when what is deemed 'dire' in the design world can truly become quite trivial when we step back and take a broader picture of the world we live in. So we were pleasantly surprised when we were invited to attend the release party for 'Crisis', the new book edited by Mitchell Gold, with an impressive list of contributors, that in addition to Gold's partner Bob Williams, includes the likes of Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, Congressman Barney Frank, Richard Chamberlain, Candice Gingrich, and Hilary Rosen, to name just a few. Centered around the 'personal, social, and religious pains of growing up gay in America', Gold's goal is to spread awareness of the challenges faced by not only these 40 individuals in their own lives, but for all of us who have similar personal stories. As recounted in his introduction, when asked why someone as 'successful' and 'well adjusted' as himself might be compelled to take up such a task, Gold responds, " not one more gay teen will have to go through what I did growing up." Furthermore, Gold and his fellow contributors are moved to action by the sheer number of teens and adolescents who have been victims of mistreatment and abuse, and the startling number that turn to suicide as the only means of escape.
Through the stories we find both optimism and stark realism. Through the accounts we not only see how far we have come as a society, but also how far we have yet to progress if we are to understand what equality truly is.

The release party, hosted by Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams themselves, was held at their DC showroom. Contributors in attendance included Wisconsin Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, Executive Director and CEO of the National Black Justice Association, H. Alexander Robinson, and former United Methodist Pastor Jimmy Creech, as well as news correspondent Scott Shepard, to whom the book is dedicated. Proceeds from the sale of 'Crisis: 40 Stories revealing the Personal Social, and Religious Pain and Truama of Growing Up Gay in America' benefit non-profits working with gay teenagers and their families, such as The Trevor Project, the Point Foundation, GLSEN, and PFLAG.

For more information about the book, and to order your own copy, please visit
(Or just stop by the showroom, and be sure to check out the fine selection of furnishings while you're there!)

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

DC Architecture Week Begins This Saturday!

[From AIA|DC]

Architecture Week 2008

The 10th Annual Architecture Week celebrates architecture in the nation's capital through tours, lectures, and special events. Click here for more information.

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National Building Museum Spotlight on Design: Weiss/Manfredi

[From NBM]

Olympic Sculpture Park

September 15, 6:30 - 8:00 pm

Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi, founding partners of the New York-based firm, will discuss their work, which includes Olympic Sculpture Park for the Seattle Art Museum. Following the lecture, they will sign copies of their latest book, Surface/Subsurface (Princeton Architectural Press). This program is presented in celebration of Architecture Week. FREE to students with student ID. 1.5 LU (AIA)
Learn More

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2008 Capitals Alliance Conference Begins Next Week

[From NCPC]

It’s not too late to register for Capitals Alliance 2008: Greening the World’s Capital Cities. A week of sessions exploring how national capitals can lead the way in creating a greener planet begins on Monday, September 15 with a keynote address by celebrated author and filmmaker Herbert Girardet. His address, Understanding the Complex Relationship Between Cities, People, and the World, will take place at 9:00 a.m. at the National Press Club.

Other sessions during the week include What it Means to Be Green, Promoting and Sustaining Smart Growth Policies, Capital Cities Leading the Way, and the Impact of Green Design on Architecture & Public Space. The sessions are free and open to the public, but please RSVP to ensure the availability of seating. Registrations may be submitted online. For more information visit

A featured event, World Leaders on Sustainability, will take place in the Great Hall of the National Building Museum on Wednesday, September 17, from 6:30 – 8:30 p.m. in conjunction with the Museum’s green lecture series. Leaders from Sweden, Brazil, and the United States will discuss how they are leading the charge to create a more sustainable planet. Registration is being handled by the National Building Museum. To register for this event only, visit the National Building Museum's website.

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Performance Art : Meat Market Gallery

This is a MUST SEE. Check out the other gallery openings the same night at the 1515 14th Street NW Arts Building including Hemphill, G Fine Art, The Curator's Office and then check out the performance going on in the parking lot next door sponsored by the legendary Meat Market Gallery.

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Fall for New Art

As the crispness of fall is in the air and the days are becoming quite pleasant, we are pleased to note that area galleries are kicking off their fall exhibits! Here are a few openings coming up this weekend:

Teo González, 23.4837K A Solo Exhibition of New Paintings

September 13 – October 11
Opening reception: Saturday, September 13, 6-8PM

Irvine Contemporary is pleased to announce a solo exhibition of new paintings by Teo González, 23.4837K, the artist’s third solo exhibition with Irvine Contemporary, Opening reception with the artist, Saturday, September 13, 6-8PM.

Read Full Release

Teo González, Untitled (No. 516), 2008. 23.5K gold pigment and acrylic on panel. Detail.

t r a n s f o r m e r

September 12 & 13, 2008

Featuring work by ten emerging Mexico City based artists, ID-entity will be presented at Transformer and the Mexican Cultural Institute

Seeking to further international contemporary art dialogue, build alliances for artists, and promote cultural exchange, Transformer is thrilled to be partnering with the Mexican Cultural Institute in presenting the comprehensive, two-site, ID-entity exhibition.
Presenting work that reflects issues of living within a capital city, urban life, as well as larger issues of identity both national and personal - Domestic Fine Arts, Gilberto Esparza, Saúl Gómez, Ricardo Harispuru, Mauricio Limón, Edith Pons, Xavier Rodríguez, Marco Rountree Cruz, Amaranta Sánchez and Joaquín Segura, several of whom will be exhibiting in the US and/or DC for the first time - present photography, video, painting, drawing, and mixed-media work in site-specific and site-responsive installations at Transformer and throughout the Mexican Cultural Institute. ID-entity is co-curated by Transformer's Executive & Artistic Director Victoria Reis and Mexico City based independent curator Giovanna Esposito Yussif.
View Exhibition Page

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Sunday, September 7, 2008

DesignCult is 1!

Exactly a year ago today, we began our humble little blog dedicated to design in all its forms, with a decidedly local focus. We've been honored over this past year to meet many new friends and become a voice in the emerging modern art and design movement in DC. We were even ranked number 2 in DC Modern Luxury's list of DC Best Bloggers , which was quite humbling! We are grateful to our friends and readers for your continuing support!

In the upcoming year we look forward to expanding our coverage of the DC design scene. We hope to start featuring interviews with local artist and designers that are helping to shape DC's future. We'll continue our commentary on the design process in the District, including the limitations and challenges that face forward-thinking designers, and we'll look at what other cities are doing right that might inform design and development here in DC.

As always, we love to hear from you and receive comments, suggestions, and ideas! And if you have an event that you'd like us to know about, we'd love to hear from you. We can be reached at

All the Best!

Brian & Bill
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Friday, September 5, 2008

Metro and DDOT to Host Public Meetings on Neighborhood Circulation Study

WMATA issued a news release today indicating that they and DDOT will be hosting public meetings to discuss the connectivity of DC neighborhoods to public transit. The neighborhood circulation study is particularly aimed at public transit service offered in the means of bus service, which seems like a nice stepping off point, though we'd like to see the discussion expanded to areas underserved by metro as well. No mention of other means of transit, such as the streetcar service pending for parts of Anacostia and H Street, NE. The full release follows (click on 'Read More!')

Metro and DDOT host public meetings on Neighborhood Circulation Study

Residents encouraged to participate in effort to improve transit connections in the District of Columbia

Metro and the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) are asking residents to help enhance bus service in their neighborhoods. Metro and DDOT are conducting a comprehensive Neighborhood Circulation Study to ensure all District neighborhoods have the proper surface transit service to support mobility and accessibility.

The DC Neighborhood Circulation Study has four primary goals:

· To identify current deficiencies in neighborhood transit connectivity
· To improve local bus services to enhance neighborhood circulation and connectivity
· To identify new neighborhood services that will enhance circulation and connectivity
· To complement the long-range growth of the transit system in the District of Columbia

Metro and DDOT understand residents are critical to the success of the study and want to hear from you at one of the four public meetings scheduled this month.

Meeting Information:

What: Neighborhood Circulation Study Public Meeting
When: Wednesday, September 10, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Where: Mary’s Center, 2333 Ontario Road, NW

What: Neighborhood Circulation Study Public Meeting
When: Thursday, September 11, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Where: Southeast Hospital, 1310 Southern Avenue, SE

What: Neighborhood Circulation Study Public Meeting
When: Tuesday, September 16, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Where: Trinidad Recreation Center, 1310 Childress Street, NE

What: Neighborhood Circulation Study Public Meeting
When: Wednesday, September 17, 2008, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Where: Hughes Memorial Church, 25 53rd Street, NE

Meeting locations are accessible. Anyone with special needs or need of translation services is asked to call the project hotline at 202-561-3700 or visit

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Thursday, September 4, 2008

School of Modernism

Last weekend while driving up Georgia Avenue to explore the growing Petworth neighborhood I could see a looming new building come into view on the horizon. From a distance the unique massing of the structure became immediately evident. It got my attention and I pulled over to investigate. This was the new Euphemia L. Haynes Public Charter School. I was so excited to see a positive aspect to the much discussed DC public school infrastructure, which tends to be crumbling and dated. This building was neither. The design is very simple and straightforward. It retains a somewhat "no frills" design approach while at the same time commanding a lot of interest. The bulk of the building is a central mass clad in large light gray metal panels. This facade is broken up with a series of horizontal staggered ribbon windows which create a movement along the elevation. Anchoring one corner, where the entrance is located, is a large rectangular mass clad in a rust colored corrugated metal. It protrudes just slightly from the structure as to make it appear to have been partially enveloped by the main building. This instance happens on a larger scale on the other end as well. It is what can be refereed to as a play on "figure / ground" in the massing. Subtle gestures here produce big design moves. The corner entrance beneath the rust colored element is clad in floor to ceiling storefront glass. This also allows for the "figure" to appear to float above the entry. The base of the entire building consists of a tile pattern that plays with some color and mixes in glass block, but only mildly. This could have created a much more vibrant gesture and given excitement to the pedestrian level of the building had there been a greater play with color, pattern, or mix of materials. In it's current state is seems a bit weak. All in all this new school is an attention getter and it's clean lines and creative design make it a wonderful addition to the neighborhood and the public school system.
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Monday, August 18, 2008

Say 'Hello' to Stylish Treats!

An Exclusive sneak peak at Dupont's New Cupcake Boutique, 'Hello Cupcake'

Starting this week, DC style aficionados will have a new treat to savor in Dupont Circle. The two chandeliers have been hung, the white carerra marble counters have been installed, the signs are ready to be hung, and there are just a few details here and there that need to be completed, as workers hurry to finish the newest modern hot spot in Dupont. Only this time it's not home furnishings or fashions that are served up in this hot new boutique, but rather cupcakes. That's right, those tasty treats you loved as a child are back, but this time with a heightened level of style and sophistication.

With the opening of Hello Cupcake, proprietor and head baker Penny Karas has brought together what she describes as 'two separate but interconnected ideas." First, as the bakery's motto suggest, this is 'a sophisticated twist on a an old-fashioned classic', meaning that all the ingredients are top quality, and in most cases organic and locally grown. Many of the inventive flavors are geared towards a sophisticated palette. And rather than the slathered on icing with sprinkles you grew up with, these cupcakes feature artistically piped icing with an array of carefully made confectioner toppers.

But the level of sophistication and modern style does not stop at the little cakes themselves, but is extended to the bakery's interior as well. As Karas suggests, this is "also a modern take on the concept of a bakery." The idea behind the interior of the bakery, designed by Karas' architect husband, Bill Bonstra of Bonstra Haresign Architects, is that the retail space read more as a boutique, such as small jewelry shop, than a bakery.

"Washington is ready," says Karas, who says that she has been watching what is happening in Washington with the emergence of more modern and forward thinking design amidst a vastness of traditionalism. Recently, areas throughout the city have seen a resurgence, in many ways brought about by the many new, more contemporary condominium and apartment buildings, which have attracted many new residents with a decidedly more modern aesthetic, to whom Karas expects her bakery will especially have a certain appeal. In fact Karas is quite familiar with the real estate market and the modern aesthetic, having spent a number of years in marketing, publicity, and real estate development. But baking, too, is in her blood, having spent many years growing up in her family's restaurant business.

It comes as no surprise then that Hello Cupcake is a family business as well, with her husband's primary contribution being that of the design. In fact Karas is quick to admit that her favorite part was "working with Bill and the way he was able to draw it out of my mind." She got to see his talent throughout the process, especially as he worked on the design of the millwork, drafting all the details by hand. And the outcome is a space that really captures Karas' concept. As Karas puts it, "It is a warm and inviting place".

Upon entering Hello Cupcake, guests will certainly take note of the contemporary design with allusions to this concept of 'sophisticated twists', which start with the pair of glass chandeliers, seemingly traditional elements, which have been both reinterpreted in colors from the bakery's branding palette and hung in a very anti-traditional, asymmetric arrangement. The white carerra marble counter stretches along one side of the shop, topping an expanse of molded pattered gypsum panels from ModularArts that resembles frosting. Karas calls attention to a favorite detail here, the turned down edge of the countertop, which her husband again and again asked Karas to consider and in the end finally convinced her was the proper detail. "He was right" Karas smiles. Overhead, four drywall panels, almost resembling piano keys, extend out from the side wall over the main counter area. And behind the counter, built-in millwork runs beneath a wall with a series of back-lit niches, which the baker can use to showcase various ingredients. Opposite, a chocolate brown wall will soon receive brightly colored 'sprinkles'. Four marble-top table with steel bases are paired with bent plywood chairs and a bar-height counter and stools provide the seating for this small but well-tailored space. Karas feels that the guests to her space will see the thought and care that was put into the design of the bakery and will understand that this is a reflection of the thought and care put into her products as well. She feels that the design of the space accentuates the little treats themselves, making them even more appealing.

In addition to the 14-16 flavors of cupcakes offered daily, Hello Cupcake will also serve a variety of beverages, featuring DC original M.E. Swing Coffees, 'Hint' water, and 'GuS' sodas (which stands for 'Grown Up Sodas', but which also has a sentimental draw for Karas, whose father was named Gus.) And keep an eye out cupcake decorating classes, as well as Lola's cupcakes: K-9 cupcakes named for the baker's pooch.

Hello Cupcake is located on the east side of Connecticut Avenue just south of Dupont Circle, and opens at the end of this week.

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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

These Mean Streets

The title of the July 6th, Washington Post article read "Drivers Feeling Shunned by D.C.: City Less Welcoming to Suburban Cars".

Two days later, Alice Swanson, a DC resident, was struck and killed by a garbage truck in Dupont Circle.

While the two instances might not immediately seem interconnected, there is an underlying thread here. In the Washington Post article that reported Swanson's death, a coworker recalled that "she was nervous because of D.C. traffic".

It is this nervousness on the part of District residents that the DC government is concerned about. And it seems that it is for that very reason that DC is now exploring various options to help return the streets to the residents of the District.

The July 6th article mentions several alternatives that are being considered. The most ambitious, it seems, is the possibility of closing the third street tunnel, which connects I-395 to New York Avenue (Rte. 50), and is a well-traveled "short-cut" for Virginians and Marylanders who prefer not to travel the beltway or I-295. There is the expected opposition from suburbanites, as well as those which utilize the route to commute into the city on a daily basis. This traffic study, in culmination with a series of other proposed measures, have commuters crying foul at the city's tactics, claiming that DC either is attempting to punish commuters for those who drive aggressively, or simply to levy fees to turn a profit at commuters' expense. (Attempts to pass a commuter tax have been shut down by the federal government.) While I'm sure that those like myself who live in the city and are self-proclaimed urbanists must admit a certain back of the mind sadistic pleasure from the thought of punishing people for living in the 'burbs, the reality is that DC's efforts here appear to be genuinely aimed at making the District a safer, more walkable city, and in many ways should be lauded.

Back in February I attended the WDCEP program "Leinberger, Wells & Tregoning on Walkable Communities - inDC Economic Trendsetters", the central theme of which was DC as a liveable and walkable community. The event's lead-off presenter, Christopher Leinberger, is a visiting fellow at the Brooking Institution, and author of The Option of Urbanism, where he explores how government policy has favored the development of suburbs, and what can be done to change that. Leinberger contends that there are really only two options for development: walkable urban -or- drivable suburban. Leinberger cites that, for several reasons, DC has seen an influx of new residents - these include the allure to Gen-Xers (thanks in part to TV show set in urban areas) and the fact that the baby-boomers are now empty nesters, and states that to sustain such growth that cities need to maintain walkability through access to resources and public transit. Walkable distance is measured as being no more than 1500-3000 ft.

Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells at the same event reiterated the importance of creating walkable communities, and said that emphasis is being placed on implementing strategies which support and encourage that goal. He admits that some are not as well-received as others, such as parking metering strategies near and around the new Nationals stadium, which, in addition to potentially charging higher rates for on-street parking, also extend metered parking hours. However, as indicated by subsequent meetings with residents in Ward 6 regarding pedestrian safety, it is clear that at least Wells is taking the task of making DC streets safer for pedestrians seriously. His elimination of the one-way traffic flow in the mornings on Constitution Ave, NE is one such policy that has been well-received. Now other similar one-way and reversible lane thoroughfares are under consideration for elimination as well.

As a Ward 6 resident, every morning that I walk to the metro from my house I have to be extremely careful at two intersections which were mentioned in the July 6th article, as well as another: 17th, 18th, and 19th Streets in NE/SE along East Capitol, which is a main access point for MD commuters as well that come in VIA 295 and cut through to the SE/SW Freeway. While improvements to the 11th Street bridges are aimed at creating a better connection between the SE/SW Freeway and 295 to further ease pressures such as these on the cities neighborhood streets, the completion of this work, which will lessen the flow of traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue's Sousa Bridge, is at least five years away.

As for the highly criticized traffic study centered around the closing of the 3rd street tunnel, while it is as of yet indeterminable what the final recommendations will be, it seems that such efforts to ease traffic on certain overly used corridors are in fact quite prudent, especially given that such avenues, such as New York Avenue, were never really intended to handle that volume. I imagine that there will be alternatives that are born from these studies that are less extreme, but I much favor the urbanistic notion of allowing streets to serve pedestrians as well as vehicular traffic -- it has been well illustrated that the faster that traffic moves on a street, the less pleasant the street is to be on from a pedestrian and aesthetic standpoint, and that affects the quality of life on that street for the residents and shop owners...I think that unfortunately, New York Avenue as we know if today is especially a reminder of that, as are nearby Florida Avenue and North Capitol Street.

In the end, what is perhaps most telling is that Washington Post polls of suburban residents and DC residents both illustrated support for what the DC government is doing.

As I pass by the intersection of 18th & K on my way to work on July 23rd I come upon the scene of another hit-and-run -- fortunately not fatal this time. As reported by the Post, "The District has higher pedestrian death rates than New York, Boston, Seattle, Chicago and Los Angeles, with 2.7 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Pedestrian injuries rose from 586 in 2000 to 725 in 2006." While getting into and around the city will always be an important aspect to residents and commuters, feeling safe and not fearing DC traffic must become a top priority.
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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

NBM to Continue the DC Height Act Dialogue

Back in December we discussed the DC Height Limit in a post DC: A Storied Future. We found the topic of DC's Height Limit, as prescribed by the Height Act of 1910, to be of interest to many. And since attendance at the DCBIA discussion, which prompted our discussion of the Height Act, we have noticed the issue being raise in a variety of forums, such as the potential for greater height or density for new developments such as Poplar Point, as well as in the recent Witold Rybczynski lecture at the National Building Museum on May 13th, where the architecture author and critic had a hard time convincing us that revising the Height Act would be a bad idea (stating, "if it's not broken, don't fix it", but then later agreeing that a more undulating, visually interesting skyline is an appealing notion for this horizontal city). We are therefore pleased to see that NBM is continuing this discussion on September 24th with DC Builds: How High to Build? (6:30 – 8 pm). Moderated by Mary Fitch, AICP, Hon. AIA, Executive Director, AIA|DC, panelists Thomas Luebke (Secretary, US Commission of Fine Arts), Christopher Leinberger (Brookings Institution Visiting Fellow), and Whayne Quinn (Holland & Knight, LLP) will debate the pros and cons of revising this almost century old act.

$12 Museum members and students; $20 nonmembers. Prepaid registration is required.
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Monday, July 28, 2008

Modernism In Your Neighborhood : Columbia Heights

Modernism appears in places where you would least expect it. This happening gives neighborhoods a special spark of interest. This example appears on the block directly behind the new Target store in Columbia Heights. The block is a quiet one, lined with a grid of varied classic townhouse typologies. A row of simple 1920's two story porch front federals anchors one side, while mid-sized Victorian walk-ups are on the other. Tall trees soften the block of varied rooflines and jagged angled bayfronts. Slammed in between all of these variations on the block is a brand new townhouse scaled condo building. Its large bay cantilevers over the street front. Its overscaled glazing makes this dominating element reflect the trees, giving it more transparency. It's reflections allow it to blend with the surroundings. It is a simple design that uses the odd angles of the lot and surrounding buildings to it's advantage. This is what gives the architecture it's dynamism. The roofline thrusts outwards to give a dramatic overhang. This is a play off of the neighboring buildings' prominent cornice lines. It is still a very modern aesthetic for a classic block, but by taking cues from the historic architectures, it respects the existing history while exuding a contrasting modernism in it's own right.

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Monday, July 21, 2008

A Sweet Tooth for Design

If you are looking for a quick sugar fix topped off with slick design, hop on over to the newly opened TangySweet (P Street near 21st Street, NW). Designed by Washington-based KUBE Architecture, the space, much like the tasty treat served, is colorful, refreshing, and not overly complicated.

Upon entry (once the line is short enough that you have emerged into this oft-packed space) you will almost immediately notice the color-changing light features-cum-standing height tables. Described by the architects as "woven light" which "introduce the fresh colors and flavors of the yogurt and fruit toppings", these elements embrace, rather than defy, the low-light nature of this lower-level space in a pleasing way. For customers wanting to sit and relax there is a small seating area, opposite the cantilevered, LED enhanced tables, dubbed the "yogurt lounge". In fact the entire space, which employs energy-efficient lighting and sustainable materials, feels like a lounge -- one would almost be inclined to order a mojito or cosmo (perhaps future flavor offerings?) --but for now you'll have to indulge in a 'well-dressed' yogurt or smoothie.
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