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Shaping the City

In Washington, Orderly Is the Rule

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, January 22, 2005; Page F03

Do you prefer architecture embodying a sense of order, buildings that are geometrically comprehensible, systematically structured and logically organized using a consistent palette of materials and details?

Or are you fascinated by less orderly, more visually complex edifices that juxtapose contrasting and colliding volumes, employ multiple, overlapping grid patterns, mix disparate materials or favor curves, polygons and irregular geometry over right-angled regularity?

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No matter where they are on the planet, how and when they were built, what stylistic language they embody, or what their size and function, all buildings fall somewhere on a spectrum of orderliness. And your response to a particular building is likely to be influenced by your own feelings about order and disorder.

If ever there was a city where architectural order reigns, it is Washington. With rare exceptions, buildings lie near the "most ordered" end of the spectrum: government buildings, offices, museums, embassies, schools, churches, hospitals, stores, hotels, apartment buildings, and houses.

This is not surprising, because the plan of the nation's capital expresses 18th-century design rationality and logic by imposing an orderly network of building-shaping streets and blocks upon a rural landscape lacking order.

Take a good look at the Capitol or White House; the MCI Center; Connecticut Avenue apartment buildings; rowhouses in Georgetown and Shaw, or houses in Cleveland Park or Anacostia. All embody order that can be understood and readily sketched on the back of an envelope.

Such sketches would show building composition in plan, section, elevation and perhaps three-dimensional views. You would see key points of entry, primary circulation patterns, structural modularity and positions of major spaces.

To some, the new National Museum of the American Indian seems to depart radically from Washington's orderliness. Yet despite its non-planar facades -- undulating, dramatically cantilevered ribbons of limestone and glass -- and its circular geometry, the museum is fundamentally orderly. Its form responds to its Mall location, site and relationship to the Capitol.

But are order and orderliness boring?

Architectural orderliness is why many architects and design aficionados consider Washington to be so aesthetically conservative, a city usually reluctant to support experimentation and audacity, especially when it entails alternative ideas about orderliness. This is what makes Frank Gehry's idiosyncratic, highly sculptural design for the Corcoran Gallery of Art addition so provocative -- it's contrary to the prevailing order.

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