Print Columns   |   Web Chats   |   Blog Archives   |  

The Whale Has No Famous Author

With that quotation from Melville's "Moby Dick," Washington architect Julian Hunt has published the first edition of a journal that bulldozes through the usually gentle rhetorical terrain of D.C. urban design and architecture. In DCenter, Hunt and a slew of others who care deeply about how this city looks and what that tells us about who we are set out to name the forces responsible for making the District "a place permanently obscured by political atmospherics," as Hunt writes in his introduction to the handsome, glossy magazine.

How has the federal government managed to saddle the District with an incoherent visual identity? Hunt says this has been accomplished "through the abuse of power, meddling oversight, philistine interference, [and] a failure of imagination." Together with Catholic University's School of Architecture and Planning, Hunt, who has a studio on Swann Street NW, wants to reclaim influence over how Washington looks from the blue-ribbon committees and federal agencies that seem to think a capital full of Jersey barriers and security zones is perfectly ok.

Few of the authors in the inaugural edition of DCenter share Hunt's righteous anger and optimistic belief that the capital can be taken back by its residents and by the nation's citizens. All too many of the articles seem to accept the current fashion for reshaping the city through central planning by semi-independent, semi-governmental authorities such as the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation or the National Capital Revitalization Corporation.

But reading through the good, serious work in this volume, it's possible to find some consensus: The District, through lack of vision, bureaucratic obstacles and fear of the new, has failed massively to make something of its waterfront land along the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. Iris Miller, a landscape architect who teaches at Catholic, makes the case for keeping the Whitehurst Freeway where it is rather than tearing it down and creating a more city-friendly boulevard along K Street NW; surprisingly, when she put this touchy problem to her students, they all voted to keep the Whitehurst standing. But Miller nonetheless urges that Washington "loosen up, get the fervor of creativity, allow the playful mind to pursue its wit."

It falls to Hunt to unleash his verbal stiletto and slash away at Georgetown University for failing to imagine a more daring design for its proposed boathouse on the Potomac near Key Bridge. Hunt dismisses the proposed design as "loathesomely, even panderingly conventional," and accuses Georgetown of "intellectual blindness, institutional cowardice and a contempt for public opinion." Actually, the problem that produces all too many mediocre buildings and public works in Washington is not contempt for public opinion, but institutions that pay way too much attention to the whining and carping of the loudest objectors.

Still, it's a joy to read Hunt taking on "the matron saint of preservation," the tendency in the District to slap a "historic" label on all manner of structures, even the comically mediocre. Hunt dares to wonder how the city might have developed had the Three Sisters Bridge been built from Spout Run in Arlington into Georgetown over the objections of preservationists in the 1960s. The I-266 highway that was never built would have involved a tunnel beginning at the western end of K Street and continuing under the State Department, Federal Reserve, White House and much of downtown. While that project would obviously have obliterated some lovely bits of Washington, Hunt asks whether the stunted bits of highway that we're left with in various spots around the city have turned out to be more damaging than if the interstate system had been built as originally proposed.

What makes DCenter worth a look is Hunt's insistence that Washington must be a place open to new ideas about design and architecture, a city that demands its symbols reflect not only the past but the sense of possibility that America stands for as the world's greatest experiment in welcoming immigrants. Preservation, he argues, is a "reaction of fear to the speed of change and an institutionalized means of maintaining the status quo." We have seen how right Hunt is again and again--in the sadly accepting attitude that pervaded the city as the woefully inadequate World War II Memorial made its way through the approval process, in the instinctive initial rejection of Norman Foster's new canopy for the Smithsonian's Museum of American Art, in various neighborhood battles such as those that led to Cleveland Park being saddled with a 1950s Giant supermarket and Tenleytown being left without a fire station for years.

What would Hunt have the city look like? He provides a clue in a fascinating proposal to cover over the ramps that lead to the tunnel under Dupont Circle and use the reclaimed street space to change Dupont from a traffic circle into a social and cultural space, creating a permanent home for the joyful farmers' market that now operates on weekends just northwest of the circle, and adding a much-needed branch of the public library, a theater, and office buildings, including an underground home for the city archives.

The District needs more issues of DCenter, and more people like Julian Hunt who care about using the city to create a public conversation about what kind of society we want.

By Marc Fisher |  December 11, 2006; 8:14 AM ET
Previous: Listener: The Deflating of Air America | Next: Coda for the Classics: Public Radio's Failed Mission

Comments

Please email us to report offensive comments.



am i missing something, because i can't access any of the material on dcenter's website. it asks for a login and password when i try to click on any of the articles.

Posted by: imgoph | December 11, 2006 10:28 AM

imgoph, I was able to get into the site.

Posted by: WB | December 11, 2006 10:33 AM

New definition of security nightmare- a tunnel beginning at the western end of K Street and continuing under the State Department, Federal Reserve, White House and much of downtown.

Posted by: crc | December 11, 2006 12:34 PM

WB - what browser/OS are you using? i've got firefox 2.0 on OS 10.4.8 (a mac). it still doesn't work for me. i can get to the article list, like i said, but that's it.

Posted by: imgoph | December 11, 2006 1:18 PM

I think the reason why the District is so quick to declare questionable structures as "historic" is because it is a pressure valve to siphon off citizens' frustration over the lack of true involvement in planning.

This city is run by developers who run roughshod over citizens and ignorant ANC commissioners for the sake of profit (at all costs over everything else). Those developers dictate to, and answer to, a District government all too willing to go for the quick solution and appearance of progress.

On top of that, you have oversight from federal and quasi-public agencies (i.e., Commission on Fine Arts, NCRC, AWC) that are more willing to embrace the conventional than to take a chance on something different.

All of this yields what we have in the downtown: a Disneyland-on-the-Potomac marbled throughout with fortresses demarcated by bollards, planters and Jersey barriers.

And in communities that try to develop some retail, we instead get bastardized versions of the suburban streetscapes and big box stores. Look at Chinatown, 8th Street SE, Brentwood and soon 4th Street SW for examples.

Washingtonians get stuck repeatedly with bad architecture, bland streetscapes and areas full of chain stores because they are the only ones who can afford the rent. As a result, we're losing more and more of our character and slowly resembling any other mid-sized city in the US.

It would be nice if our version of architectural progress included creativity and thoughtful involvement from citizens, not developers or politically connected organizations.

Posted by: dirrtysw | December 11, 2006 1:20 PM

to dirrtysw,

"On top of that, you have oversight from federal and quasi-public agencies (i.e., Commission on Fine Arts, NCRC, AWC) that are more willing to embrace the conventional than to take a chance on something different."

You're spot-on. The entire region, not just DC, has just about the boring architecture I've seen in any large US or European city - ALL structures, whether homes, government buildings or commercial, look the same. There is no creativity.

And thanks to the architectural banality and the height restrictions, downtown DC looks like a cemetary. The buildings are the same height and theyall look alike.

But I don't think the developers are wholly to blame. A lot of it is due to the mindset of many in this region. Many people here are adverse to taller buildings, they get upset about anything different, and they feel they are entitled to a scenic view.

Posted by: CEEAF | December 11, 2006 5:26 PM

to dirrtysw,

"On top of that, you have oversight from federal and quasi-public agencies (i.e., Commission on Fine Arts, NCRC, AWC) that are more willing to embrace the conventional than to take a chance on something different."

You're spot-on. The entire region, not just DC, has just about the boring architecture I've seen in any large US or European city - ALL structures, whether homes, government buildings or commercial, look the same. There is no creativity.

And thanks to the architectural banality and the height restrictions, downtown DC looks like a cemetary. The buildings are the same height and theyall look alike.

But I don't think the developers are wholly to blame. A lot of it is due to the mindset of many in this region. Many people here are adverse to taller buildings, they get upset about anything different, and they feel they are entitled to a scenic view.

Posted by: CEEAF | December 11, 2006 5:27 PM

to dirrtysw,

"On top of that, you have oversight from federal and quasi-public agencies (i.e., Commission on Fine Arts, NCRC, AWC) that are more willing to embrace the conventional than to take a chance on something different."

You're spot-on. The entire region, not just DC, has just about the boring architecture I've seen in any large US or European city - ALL structures, whether homes, government buildings or commercial, look the same. There is no creativity.

And thanks to the architectural banality and the height restrictions, downtown DC looks like a cemetary. The buildings are the same height and theyall look alike.

But I don't think the developers are wholly to blame. A lot of it is due to the mindset of many in this region. Many people here are adverse to taller buildings, they get upset about anything different, and they feel they are entitled to a scenic view.

Posted by: to dirrtysw | December 11, 2006 5:28 PM

"The I-266 highway that was never built would have involved a tunnel beginning at the western end of K Street and continuing under the State Department, Federal Reserve, White House and much of downtown. While that project would obviously have obliterated some lovely bits of Washington, Hunt asks whether the stunted bits of highway that we're left with in various spots around the city have turned out to be more damaging than if the interstate system had been built as originally proposed."

There was never a tunnel planned to go under the State Department or the White House, etc.

There was a tunnel to be under K Street to turn along New York Avenue; the K Street tunnel itself would have taken zero buildings.

The Washington Post needs to get a fact checker

Posted by: Douglas Willinger | December 15, 2006 11:55 PM

Posted by: Douglas Willinger | December 16, 2006 12:42 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 

© 2010 The Washington Post Company