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The Dynamic District

Washington, D.C., host city for the 2012 AIA National Convention, is finding new ways to represent democracy in architectural form

By Kim A. O’Connell

When you think of Washington, D.C., architecture, a few names may come to mind, none from the 20th century: Latrobe, L’Enfant, Mills, Burnham. These days, the list of architects working in Washington matches the lineups seen in any other cultural capital more better-known for contemporary architecture: Gehry, Foster, Adjaye, Safdie.

Even during a recession, Washington, D.C., is still building. As host city for the AIA Convention in May, Washington offers a diverse array of new buildings and sites worth visiting ranging from new grand monuments and museums to neighborhood libraries. Some of these attractions will be featured in convention seminars and tours, noted here by an italicized program code in parenthesis, ex: (ET155). Use these program codes in the AIA Convention website’s searchable database to find out more about these events and how to earn learning units by attending. And whether you’re venturing out from conference headquarters at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center with an AIA tour group or exploring the city on your own, AIA D.C.’s AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington, D.C. (also available as an iPhone app) can be an indispensible companion.

Remaking the monumental core

Several new spaces have enlivened Washington’s monumental core in recent years. The U.S. Capitol Visitor Center (ET105), designed by RTKL Associates under the supervision of the Architect of the Capitol, is a remarkable three-level underground space. Several skylights admit significant daylight and offer unparalleled views of the Capitol above. A staging area for Capitol tours, it features a museum exhibit on the history of Congress.

Not far away on Pennsylvania Avenue is the Newseum, the journalism museum designed by Polshek Partnership (now Ennead Architects). Completed in 2008, its glass façade is a testament to transparency in journalism (and democracy) counterbalanced by a 74-foot-tall marble engraving of the First Amendment. It is also site of the AIA DC host chapter party, A Night at the Newseum, on May 17.

The new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is a commanding presence on the western edge of the National Mall (ET202), near the Tidal Basin. Designed by Devrouax + Purnell/ROMA Design Group along with McKissack & McKissack, with sculpture by the Chinese artist Lei Yixin, the memorial is based on a King quote: “Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” Visitors enter through a cleaved Mountain of Despair to see King rising from the Stone of Hope, looking across the Tidal Basin towards the Thomas Jefferson Memorial commemorating the nation’s first and only architect-president.

The National Mall (ET125) is itself the focus of an ongoing design competition sponsored by the nonprofit Trust for the National Mall. Finalist proposals will be on public display in April, and a jury that includes Thom Mayne, FAIA, of Morphosis, will announce the winner in May.

Washington at work

One of the most ambitious efforts to improve the civic architecture of the city is the D.C. Public Library’s multiyear building program, which has engaged several high-profile architects (ET142). Most of the new branches evince a Modern aesthetic that is a fitting homage to the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Library, the only Washington building designed by Mies van der Rohe. “There are number of architects—national, international, and local—who really wanted to build projects in the District,” says D.C. Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper. “That speaks well for what this city can attract.”

The Freelon Group—perhaps best known for partnering with David Adjaye, Hon. FAIA, on the forthcoming National Museum of African-American History and Culture—has designed two completed libraries that serve two very different neighborhoods: the Anacostia library in a historic predominantly African American low-income neighborhood across the Anacostia River, and the Tenley-Friendship library in an affluent neighborhood of Northwest D.C. The Anacostia branch is one of two D.C. branches certified as LEED Gold. (The District leads the nation in terms of square footage per capita of LEED-certified commercial and institutional buildings.) Both libraries use colorful shading devices and layers of vertical transparency to offer rich visual experiences inside and out. Adjaye Associates is now working on two other library branches: the canopied-and-glass-walled Francis Gregory Library, and the Washington Highlands/Bellevue Library, which features a series of irregular volumes defined by vertical exterior fins and a deep interior light well.

In the city’s thriving Penn Quarter neighborhood, one must-visit spot for architects is the new District Architecture Center (ET139), an early 20th-century building which houses both the AIA D.C. chapter and the Washington Architectural Foundation. Hickok Cole Architects’ design includes a storefront gallery and a two-story glass box for meeting rooms and classrooms. “Our motto is, ‘where architecture meets the city,’” says Mary Fitch, Hon. AIA, the chapter’s executive director. “This site markets architects and architecture. It’s more front-and-center than any other architecture center in the country.”

The most prominent D.C. project to date for Boston-based architect Moshe Safdie, FAIA, who has a deep catalogue of federal architecture commissions, is the U.S. Institute of Peace (ET109), located on Constitution Avenue across from the Lincoln Memorial (not too far from AIA’s National Component headquarters). There, swooping rooflines resemble sails, or the wings of a bird. Like the Newseum, it’s an assertively Modernist building within view of the Mall’s Neo-Classical monuments.

Washington’s edgiest recent building might be Richard Rogers’, Hon. FAIA, 300 New Jersey Ave. NW, an addition to a 1936 Art Deco building near the Capitol that houses the Jones Day law firm. The glass structure, squeezed into a pentagonal site, creates a bridge between three office buildings and offers trapezoidal platforms for meeting and viewing the Capitol.

Rebuilding the city

Beyond its monumental and governmental core, the city of Washington has always struggled to be recognized. But in recent years, D.C.’s cultural and creative energies have taken a strong leap forward, and the architecture of these neighborhoods has responded in kind. In the heart of the city, where the monolithic old convention center once stood, ground has been broken for CityCenter DC, the Foster +Partners 10-acre mixed-use development that will include hotels, offices, restaurants, and retail. Norman Foster’s, Hon. FAIA, firm also is responsible for the undulating roof over the Kogod Courtyard linking the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery (GT101), completed in 2007.

Several redevelopment schemes are under way in the District’s Southwest quadrant, anchored by the 2010 reopening of the Arena Stage theater (ET129), expanded and redesigned by Bing Thom, AIA. The architect gathered the theater’s two original buildings under an elegant glass superstructure and white curving roof that beckons to the Washington Monument. “[The] Arena Stage is a turning point for Modern architecture in Washington, D.C.,” says Jon Penndorf, AIA, current president of AIA DC. “It’s a completely different and dramatic utilization of space.”

Elsewhere, urban redevelopment is occurring near HOK Sport’s (now Populous) Nationals Ballpark (EV105, EV121) in Southeast, the first-ever LEED Silver–rated baseball stadium. Near Capitol Hill and Union Station, the NoMa (North of Massachusetts Avenue) neighborhood cuts a glass cube office park from whole cloth, building up a disused warehouse district with buildings by Chicago Modernists Krueck and Sexton, among others.

Looking ahead

The next big thing in Washington may be Frank Gehry’s, FAIA, design for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, which will feature woven metal tapestries punctuated by 80-foot-high columns. It’s expected to break ground later this year near Capitol Hill and the National Air and Space Museum.

And if your architectural curiosity isn’t sated by all this, then stop by the National Building Museum’s acclaimed Unbuilt Washington exhibit (ET155), which runs through May 28, for a look at the alternative design history of the District. From Thomas Jefferson’s ideas on what the White House should look like to Gehry’s daring—but aborted—addition to the Corcoran Museum, the exhibition offers a kaleidoscopic view of how to represent, design, and build democracy. More and more, the answers to these questions are becoming untethered from past traditions and moving the city into a new design age. “People think D.C. is a very classical place where we’re known only for our Ionic columns,” Penndorf says. “But we’re seeing more and more risks being taken here.”

   
   



Click to view a map of D.C.’s newest architecture.


United States Institute of Peace, designed by Moshe Safdie, FAIA. Images courtesy of Bill Fitz-Patrick/USIP.


Foster + Partners’ Kogod Courtyard at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery. Image courtesy of Timothy Hursley.


The Newseum, designed by Polshek Partnership (now Ennead). Image courtesy of James P. Blair/Newseum.


Arena Stage theater, designed by Bing Thom Associates. Image courtesy of Nic LeHoux/Bing Thom Architects.


Exterior of Bing Thom’s Arena Stage theater. Image courtesy of Nic LeHoux/Bing Thom Architects.


Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. Image courtesy of the National Park Service.

     

Recent Related:

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Reference:

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