Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Travel Log : Napa County, California

...continued from previous post.... Yet another winery we stumbled upon while driving around the hundreds of wineries and vineyards that dotted the Sonoma Valley and practically flooded Napa Valley was obviously the one that had been designed by Michael Graves, Clos Pegase. I had read about this while doing a pre-trip search for wineries that were architecturally significant and/or modern. I had not intended to stop and photo document this one for it appeared online to be a typical Graves design which incorporated garish color schemes with over sized geometric shapes that allowed for a gimmicky and forced design aesthetic. Regardless of my preconceived critiques, we pulled over and decided to see if the wine was any better than the architecture. Approaching the wine tasting rooms, the landscape was riddled with some of the most world famous modern artist's sculptures. Jean DuBuffet, Richard Serra, and Henry Moore are just some of the artists whose work grace the grounds. The entry to the tasting rooms is somewhat of an abstraction of a Greek temple. Here the architecture becomes believable and well intended. It is all about framing the view and the axis of your procession through the space. Garden courtyards are rigidly groomed in a very architectural manner. Landscape elements, sculpture, and architecture all begin to mix together and play off one another, almost in competition. It can be perceived as a bit busy. The effect of the architecture to create an experience though was quite successful. Once inside, a multitude of modern paintings and sculptures were exhibited throughout the space. If the collection had been edited to a few select pieces, and had the architecture not been in competition with the art itself, the result would have been much more enjoyable. The tables which were piled with the typical wine souvenirs and themed gifts conflicted with the fine art to cheapen the whole setting. What made this winery much different than the previous one I visited was that it was more of an object in a beautiful setting that did not celebrate the natural beauty that it sat in, but tried to take all the attention for itself. This example of bold design displayed how more can be just that, more, and too much more. The wine on the other hand was simple, enjoyable, yet a bit bland and forgetable.
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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Travel Log : Sonoma County, California

In the last few weeks I traversed the diversities of the city of San Francisco, California and continued up into the amazing Sonoma and Napa counties as well. I was almost overwhelmed by the amount of modern infill housing in the city proper. My camera was fired up at almost every corner and hilltop (of which there are many!). My most exciting discovery though was in the Russian River Valley region of Sonoma County, home to vast vineyards, towering redwood forests, rocky coastlines on the Pacific, and idyllic small towns built around the quintessential American central square park. Driving the rental car, no not a your typical Sebring convertible but a pale green Prius, I made a quick turnaround on a windy country road upon discovering what looked to be a very modern looking winery. In this region, most wineries are built to replicate historic Italian, French, or old farm like estates. While meticulously detailed, none are authentic and can read as very touristy. With 500-700 wineries in this region, it is impossible to see what they all entail. Twomey winery happened to be one not to miss regarding it's innovation with involving ergonomic and site specific design to the winery typology. The compound consisted of three separate structures. The primary one being the tasting room and lounging facilities. The other two housing the more industrial and agricultural aspects of wine production and cultivation. Upon approaching the winery, low slung curving roofs with large overhangs hug close to the landscape, gradually inviting you in to the entry which welcomes you with a soft waterfall on a curved concrete retaining wall. The simplicity of the cast concrete, glass and steel openings, and warm wood cladding allow for the vibrancy of the colors and patterns in the planted landscape compliment each other. Upon entering the private enclosure of the building, immediately your view is directed towards the rear of the glass wall that wraps the entire rear and sides of the space. The view is to the vast vineyards and mountaintops beyond the hillside setting where you are perched. The wine bar is the first area where you taste the fruits of what is in the view beyond. The undulating bar area is echoed in the gentle curves of the wood clad roof which seems to float above the space. Here the architecture becomes the background and the frame for the natural beauty beyond, rather than the showcase itself, as it is in many other faux-stylized wine facilities. Venture beyond the pivoting glass doors which open up the space even more to the landscape, and you can take in the view on a softly curving terrace with a trellis structure above taking its cues from the rolling landscape. Just beyond, the other two more production oriented structures are evidently more functionally designed while still picking up on the same organic elements. The curves become a bit more hard, constructed out of steel and exposed structures. The fenestration becomes smaller while the mechanical elements become the design features. These juxtapositions in spatial functions play off of each other and integrate architecturally together, while still maintaining their functionality. In a landscape that is beyond picturesque, aggressive modern architecture still plays a part. Here the architecture does not become an object in the landscape, it becomes a part of it and celebrates it.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Happy GreenDC Day!!!!

Not to be outdone, today has been dubbed 'GreenDC Day' in the District. (Actually, the event was scheduled to take place on Monday, but was postponed.) So in honor of such, we're keeping the green another day. Here's the info from the DC website on the event:

The District Department of the Environment Celebrates Earth Day in a Big Way

Our nation's capital is going green and the District Department of the Environment (DDOE) is leading the way. In celebration of Earth Day, DDOE is hosting Green DC Day on Monday, April 21, 2008 Wednesday, April 23, 2008 on Freedom Plaza in Northwest Washington, DC. Green DC Day is designed to promote green living and a healthy environment. Green DC Day kicks off a full week of Earth Day events taking place across the city. Please join us between 10 am and 4 pm to celebrate the District's going green efforts.

Nearly 100 District agencies, organizations and businesses will participate to educate residents about the importance of preserving our environment and using energy wisely. Exhibitors include Home Depot, DC Greenworks, DC Department of Public Works, the Environmental Protection Agency, US Green Building Council, Rainforest Bus, Segway and Zipcar to name a few.

Exciting green events will take place throughout the day such as a "Green Fashion Show" and a 10:30 am "Going Green Press Conference" which city officials have been invited to give remarks on the environmental progress in the District.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008


We here at DesignCult have gone green for Earth Day! Tomorrow we'll return to our usually colors, but we wanted to grab your attention and suggest different ways that you to can go green!

1) Paper -or- Plastic? The answer should be neither! More and more grocers are offering cloth bags as an alternative to paper or plastic bags. And some retailers, such as IKEA, are even beginning to charge for bags. So do the environment a favor and start using cloth bags for all your purchases. For more information, visit

2) Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Compost! Recycling is great, and I'm happy that DC has a recycling program in place for all residents. But what about green wastes. Green waste cans are common on the west coast, but have yet to emerge locally as the third in a triad of waste management (trash, recycle, green waste). So in the interim, consider doing your own part to keep organic waste from ending up in our landfills by composting. Consider an Indoor Compost Keeper (used to hold kitchen waste before transferring to an outdoor composter), or even an Indoor Composter (no outdoor composter required).

3) Drink from reusable mugs and bottles. Whether getting your morning coffee or hydrating with good ol' H2O, using a reusable coffee mug or water bottle will help to reduce the number of cardboard coffee cups and plastic bottles from ever needing to be recycled (or too often inevitably ending up in the trash heap). We like the stylish Sigg bottles for the latter! And some shops, such as Starbucks, will even give you a small discount on the cup of Joe if you BYOM!

4) Don't Throw That Away!! Donate it!! It's Spring Cleaning time!! But this year, consider what items can be donated to charities and local thrift stores. Renovating? One of our favorite local charities is Community Forklift, which takes donations of building materials, and, in addition to these donations, sells at very low cost salvaged, surplus, and green building materials and supplies.

5) Don't Drive! Walk or Take Metro! Too often we see people driving down the block or around town. With warm weather coming, the birds chirping, and the flowers in bloom, there is no excuse for not walking to your destination, or, for longer trips, taking public transportation.

These are just a very few ways that you can go green on Earth Day and every day! Got more tips? Add them in the comments field below!
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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Students' Design Takes Center Stage at Papal Mass

We found this a worthy footnote in all the buzz surrounding Pope Benedict XVI's visit to DC. [courtesy Fox 5 News]

It is unfortunate that the stage surrounding these attractive, well designed pieces, with its plain square columns and gold drapery, lacks a comparable level of inspiration.

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Downtown : Facade Facelifts

Downtown Washington has never had quite an inspiring aspect when it comes to innovative architecture. The building boom from the 1960's to the 1980's left the city with blocks of monotonous concrete corporate boxes which created a bleakness which was echoed by the lack of urban energy on the streets. Many historic mixed use buildings were torn down to make way for these cheap and efficient solutions whose sole intentions were for workday uses. What were once vibrant downtown streets that had storefront shopping, classy hotels, apartments and offices became a barren wasteland that was only utilized during business hours, and a dead zone during the evenings and weekends. The last ten years these once ignored neighborhoods have been regaining their lost urban vitality. The historic buildings have been restored to house shops, restaurants and modern office spaces. The incorporation of museums, large scale infill buildings designed as mixed use, and the re-conversion of shabby apartment buildings into hip downtown condos has brought people back into these neglected zones. Now these areas are bustling not only during the workday but with restaurant goers in the evenings and tourists and shoppers on weekends. Residents now inhabit these streets 24-7 to add to the base population. The popular elements of design for the 21st century of green design and modern and light filled work spaces have also created a craze downtown to turn the bunker-like concrete blocks into more modern buildings. Powerhouse corporate firms are seeing that these design elements can be used as a marketing tool and sign of prestige for their companies. The Washington Post has done a number of articles regarding this subject. Many developers and building owners want this transformation for the buildings they own that may have ideal locations but dated and dismal designs. One way to achieve this is to just completely tear down the existing structure, as is currently happening on several blocks of the K Street corridor. Another way is to strip the interiors to the concrete structure of floor slabs, staircases and columns, and to rip the entire or part of the exterior facade off as well. These skeletons are then re-fit with modern and more efficient systems and a more desirable facade. The easier solution for the facade replacement is to just clad the building in a glass and steel curtain wall system. This design will give the exterior a more current look and the interiors with day light filled office spaces that will be more pleasant to work in. This solution does accomplish these two goals, but at the same time, does the building become more architecturally significant and a more positive addition to the urban street scape? Does replacing a concrete facade with punched window openings with a standard glass and steel wall system create a better architecture? Yes, the buildings might contain more pleasant spaces to inhabit, but will block after block of flat glass facades be more interesting and significant than flat concrete and glass facades? I think that if no unique design solutions are incorporated into these building facelifts, the new look will have the same effect as the original facades, unoriginal, uninspired, and not architecturally significant. There are ways to avoid this problem. One way is to incorporate modern glass elements into the existing concrete formwork of the original facade. This allows for a variation in materiality and adds more of a vibrancy to the building. One successful example is the building at 1110
Vermont Avenue. It's simple design solution adds a fresh face and creates an interplay between the old and the new. Other buildings try to play with a layering effect by adding different glazing patterns and opacity to the surface. Creating a certain depth to the building elevation will definitely help its presence on the street. Much of the design flaw in the straightforward glass cladding comes from the lack of a combination of horizontal and vertical elements. These buildings due to the height restrictions seem squat. By adding a prominent vertical element, whether it be in the form of a tower or just mixing the orientations of the metal frameworks can allow these buildings to rid themselves of that short boxy stigma. Angled or undulating elements added to the facades can also create a more unique diversity. Some of the new buildings that were constructed from the ground up employ these design moves to make them stand out from their less inspired neighbors. This revitalization of DC's downtown is most welcome. The city needs to take advantage of this opportunity to turn it's street corridors into a fantastic and vibrant urban architecture that gives this city a modern global image. Modern design updates are not always the best solution to a problem. They are a great solution when they are incorporated in an innovative, creative and intelligent way.

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Considering the Future of Stadium-Armory -- Part Two: DC's Own Le Champ de Mar?

"You're going to be rich!", quips my friend, a mechanical engineer who is aware of the changes poised to take place in the Stadium-Armory section of Capitol Hill, as we discuss my home renovations. Though a nice notion, I think he might be a bit optimistic. Then again a little optimism can go a long way. That's how I usually feel when I look at the various development studies and master plans that are developed for target areas around the city. Projects such as the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, H Street/Benning Road Transportation study (including those controversial, albeit attractive streetcars), and Poplar Point redevelopment appeal to our senses of what a city can be. I always get a rush of excitement when I look at the glossy renderings, especially viewed in contrast with images of what the areas look like today. I think that it is in our nature to want to see things made better (a quick glance at the TV Guide certainly attests to this fascination, with entire networks now devoted to improving home, health, and lifestyle).

The National Capital Planning Commission's RFK Stadium Site Redevelopment Study, released December 2006, is one of these types of proposals that can stir the imagination with visions of what might be. And it's a solid study, recommending the creation of greenspace in the form of a waterfront park with recreation facilities and a monument site, a commemorative facility, such as a museum or federal building, to match the scale of the adjacent Armory, and mixed-use development to provide residential and retail elements, such as cafes, restaurants, dry-cleaners, and bookshops. The study also recommends the realignment of the transportation network to establish Constitution and Independence Avenues as 'symmetrical key avenues' and reinforcing East Capitol Street as a grand avenue. Finally, there's also the clever notion to create a design element of the less than ideal, above-grade Metro line, such as Rem Koolhaas's rail station for the McCormick Tribune Campus at IIT.

Not surprisingly, the word 'Gateway' is used to define the area. Seemingly a catch-phrase of modern redevelopment, any project along what is considered a transportation corridor into the city is now dubbed a 'Gateway'. There's the Anacostia Gateway, the Northeast Gateway, the Georgia Avenue Gateway, and the winner for most titles, the South Capitol Street Gateway (aka the 'Monumental Gateway', aka the 'Gateway to the Future', and yes, even, the 'Green Gateway'). Because it is sited at the western base of the East Capitol Bridge at the edge of L'Enfant's historic plan for the City of Washington, the term gateway is applied here too (the 'Eastern Gateway' to be sure), though I question how fitting this is. And, despite it's alignment with the Capitol, L'Enfant actually paid little mind to this eastern most tip of E. Capitol Street, simply cutting off his grid of residential blocks just short of the river. If this is to truly be a gateway, then what will be the draw?

This is perhaps the greatest question raised by this study. If you build it, who will come? With Fenty's notion to retain the site for stadium use, at least there is the promise of civic use. As a nearby resident the notion of a waterfront park is, of course, appealing, and long overdue in our appreciation of the waterfront that the city has for too long neglected. And a waterfront park here could certainly create a significant tie to nearby Heritage and Kingman Islands. But I cast a look at underutilized Anacostia Park and wonder if waterfront parks alone are a real draw, or if they are simply a romantic notion. And while the study examines examples such as St. Louis's Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Park, with Eero Saarinen's iconic arch, and Paris's Le Champ de Mar, with its Eiffel Tower, the suggestion of a monument here is diminutive by comparison. The truth is that a monument of comparable scale would be inappropriate here, as it would compete with DC's signature Washington Monument. As such these comparisons may not be apt. I ask myself: Would Le Champ de Mar be the same without the Eiffel Tower?

If then landmark alone may not be enough to encourage the 'steady flow of visitors' discussed in the report, are there other legitimate notions to attract users here? While some of the images in the report suggest the potential for outdoor entertainment, this is not specifically identified in the text. But having an outdoor space for smaller scale live entertainment or perhaps even something like a DC Food, Wine, or Jazz Festival would be a novelty, (though of course concessions would need to be made by the National Park Service). Norfolk, VA's Town Point Park is a successful example of a waterfront park which successfully hosts these types of events annually.

Perhaps the more likely draw will be the commemorative facility, to be built opposite the Armory on East Capitol Street. Potential facilities mentioned include a museum, performance house, aquarium, or federal building. Like any study of this type, the specific use is left rather general, to be determined at a later date. Therefore implementation will be an important factor. But this aspect is one of the study's more well-conceived notions.

The mixed-use component of the study certainly stands to benefit the community the most if plans to establish restaurants and service-oriented businesses are carried out. (Mind you this is coming from someone who is eager for the new Harris Teeter to open a metro stop away). But these are not swift moving projects. The Old Convention Center Site is an example of this, where the the process towards a new mixed-use development began in '05, yet the first buildings here won't be complete until 2011. So these things take time, and the whims of an ebb and flow housing market will undoubtedly have an affect as well.

From my vantage, there is much reason to focus efforts on this area beyond the obvious 'the stadium may soon be empty' reasoning. At a time that the housing market is on a downswing, the location is attractive to home-buyers looking for an affordable residential neighborhood that has single-family housing options and is decidedly less dicey than other emerging parts of the city. Well served by public transportation, including metro, and walking distance to nearby Lincoln Park and Eastern Market, the neighborhood comes alive on sunny weekends. And I am optimistic that the redevelopment of this area might further benefit existing community resources such as neighboring schools.

As I mentioned in Part One, there are several ways in which the groundwork of the NCPC study might be combined with a potential new sports complex, should efforts to get the Redskins to return to the District pan out. I'm hopeful that, should that endeavor succeed, aspects of the NCPC study will be implemented.

It will certainly be some time before any actions are taken towards the realization of a redeveloped site. My only hope is that the stakeholders in this project are ready to act once the last game is played and the lights go out on RFK.
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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Considering the Future of Stadium-Armory -- Part One: A New RFK?

Well the opening pitch has been thrown out as the Nationals' season has begun. The new stadium complete just in time for opening day, the Nationals won their season opener against the Atlanta Braves. But meanwhile, just upstream, another stadium sat empty. With the exodus of baseball and the Post and Times reporting the eminent departure of the D.C. United, RFK's days seem to be numbered.

As a recent transplant to this part of the city, living a stones throw from RFK Stadium, I've begun to really take a close look at the plans to redevelop the area. For now, only one thing is certain...there is a great deal of uncertainty about what will happen here. On the one hand, the National Capital Planning Commission has prepared a redevelopment study for the area which recommends demolishing RFK and replacing it with a mixed-use development, including office space, residences, and a monument and waterfront park space. Then there's Mayor Fenty's intention to woo the Redskins back to RFK.

With change on the horizon, I'm left pondering what really is the best option for the RFK Stadium site. In this two part series I'll consider the pros and cons of each notion. Also, I'd like to hear what others have to say. Be sure to vote in our poll on this issue, and leave your comments!

What would a new or retrofitted RFK mean for the area? Would it really even bring a notable change at all? On the one hand the return of the Redskins to a new or retrofitted RFK could be just the stimulus needed to boost much of the area, much like the area around the new Nationals' ballpark is now experiencing. But my concern here is that much of what doesn't work for the RFK site currently would remain unchanged. There are some major shortcomings of the current RFK site. These include the sea of parking which surrounds RFK, making it much more isolated than its replacement. And while the new stadium falls short of making a meaningful link to the Anacostia River just beyond its bleachers, the waterfront is not completely ignored either, whereas RFK's proximity to the Anacostia is imperceptible. If not for the damp chill that issues forth from the river on cold winter mornings, one would forget that the river was just out of sight, beyond this mammoth bowl. Traffic patterns and a loop of highway ramps deliver impatient morning commuters into the city, dumping them onto residential East Capitol and C Streets, making pedestrian safety a concern. Would proposed renovations to the stadium site rectify these issues? I fear that they would not. And there is the greater concern regarding the seasonal uses of a sports stadium. (Granted I do enjoy the off-season respite.) True other auxiliary uses might support the facility in the off-season, but with the Armory just steps away, and other complexes throughout the city, is there a need for more assembly space? In fact one has to ask the more pressing question: Does DC really need another stadium?

This is in fact the very question being posed regarding the fate of the DC United -- but that's soccer, which all seem to agree just doesn't generate the same revenue as DC's other sports teams. It would seem that a football stadium, on the other hand, offers greater incentives.

This leads me to wonder: Was there a missed opportunity? Well, perhaps. In this age of downsizing in the name of environmental consciousness, does it make sense that DC is now looking to have four separate facilities for its five different sports teams? Considered the nation's first multi-purpose stadium, was that one of the things that RFK actually got right? With the Nationals already in a new stadium, and all indications of a new soccer stadium on the way, this now seems to be a question left to the next generation of urban planners. While I suppose that there may be some notion of a shared football and soccer facility, no such suggestion has been made. Though the thought of a multi-team stadium a la Herzog & de Meuron's Allianz Arena is appealing.

Should the Mayor succeed in his efforts to bring the Redskins back to the District, hopefully an evaluation of the things that don't quite work for RFK will be considered. Access to the waterfront in the creation of a waterfront park, an idea proposed by the NCPC's proposal, would certainly be a good start, and perhaps justified as a public assembly space or 'front lawn' for the stadium. Considering the amount of runoff produced by the parking lots that surround the stadium which flows into the already polluted Anacostia River, it would certainly be the ecologically sensitive thing to do. Parking therefore may need to be relegated to parking structures, the reduced footprint and increased density of which could be seen as positives in this reimagining of the site, leading to residential and retail blocks on the northern and southern sides of the stadium and reinforcing monumental East Capital Street on the west, in much the same way that plans for land adjacent to the new Nationals' ballpark hopes to transform South Capital Street. Interestingly, other issues that are addressed by the NCPC study would be relevant to consider when imagining a new RFK, such as reworking existing traffic patterns to address the transition between the city grid and nearby freeway. I'll weigh the pros and cons of that proposal in my next post.
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Saturday, April 5, 2008

On The Scene : Hirshhorn After Hours

This is the kind of event that gets my creative juices flowing. What could be better then wandering around the Hirshhorn late at night, avant gaurde music playing in the background, light shows and the art party set surrounding you. Oh yeah, also add in a bar to add another element to your experience through the cinematography exhibit currently on show. WOW. It could have been sensory overload, but I think it was just perfect for a fantastic spring night. Here it was all about the unexpected, the modern culture that surrounds us, and celebrating it. Never has the Modernist gem of the museum looked so good and so appropriate.

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Wednesday, April 2, 2008


This is one of those art parties not to be missed. Check out this site for all the needed info. Get tickets early because they will sell out fast!

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