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In Washington, Orderly Is the Rule

Looking for the cutting edge, the avant garde? All signs point to New York or Los Angeles, to Europe or Japan, not Washington.

You only have to read design magazines and visit some recent well-publicized projects to realize that anti-orderliness is in vogue.

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For example, in Wellington, New Zealand, a couple weeks ago, I visited the city's touted Te Papa national museum as well as its Civic Centre, a complex of old and new buildings grouped around a large plaza overlooking the harbor.

Designed in the 1990s, the museum is a gigantic but visually playful collage of shifting geometries, huge volumes, soaring wall surfaces of stone, tile, metal and glass, exposed structural elements, high-tech details and diverse colors. Individual parts are orderly. But the building as a whole lacks unifying, order-giving architectural themes. And its architectural fragmentation makes the interior challenging to navigate, an especially regrettable characteristic for a museum of this scale.

The Wellington Civic Centre likewise is a collage. Disparate buildings, some individually "ordered," have no discernable geometric relationship to one another and therefore only loosely frame the multi-level, irregularly shaped civic plaza. Animated by visitors and capitalizing on great views of the District and harbor, the ensemble as a whole is the kind of romantic spatial disorder attributable to seemingly arbitrary and haphazard building placement and orientation. Being in the amorphously configured Civic Centre plaza was less like being in the Roman Forum or Lafayette Square and more like standing at a fairground or at Disney World.

There's no doubt my response was conditioned by my affinity for order, for well-shaped spaces, for aesthetic coherence. Perhaps I have spent too much time in Washington.

Nevertheless, intentionally disordered, romantic composition can be appropriate at the right place and for the right purpose, if done skillfully. When visual disorder becomes merely an architectural fashion, embraced and used indiscriminately and inappropriately, then it's time to restore order.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.


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