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Rejection of Smithsonian Glass Roof Design Doesn't Mean Creativity Is Dead

The commission has instructed the Smithsonian to restore elements of the original courtyard and avoid compromising the original 1830s architecture. At the same time, it has invited Foster and his client to come back with a modified canopy, not a neoclassical design, that would beautifully cover the light-filled courtyard and also meet historic preservation goals.

Notwithstanding the circumstances of these two projects, Fisher's and Beyard's generalized observations about the architectural ethos of the nation's capital have merit.

Washington has long been a conservative town when it comes to architectural creativity and innovation. Those who wield power here tend to be traditional in their tastes, and power and taste have always expressed themselves in architecture.

With neoclassicism established two centuries ago as the aesthetic language of choice for building Washington's civic edifices, these "retrograde" tendencies are firmly rooted and reinforced.

Dominant urban plan patterns -- street, block and lot configurations -- coupled with height limits unique to Washington further challenge certain strains of design creativity. Added to these constraints are functional and financial necessities that often yield background buildings shaped primarily by zoning envelopes and economics.

Nevertheless, talented architects can be creative. They can still think outside of the box even when constructing a box. Regrettably, the common misconception lies in believing that architecture is creative only if a building's geometry is unusual, complex and idiosyncratic.

Unconventional massing with radical volumetric composition is but one strain of innovation. Creativity can occur in many other ways and at many scales of design, independent of geometric gymnastics: composing artful fa├žades; shaping and proportioning beautiful interior spaces; exploiting the play of natural light; imaginatively using materials, colors and textures; crafting elegant finish details; and inventively configuring structural elements.

Given all this, there is reason to be optimistic about the prospects for architecture in Washington. If the Smithsonian and Foster are able to refine the roof design while satisfying historic preservation goals, this in itself would be a truly creative accomplishment, a reminder that most great architecture entails creative compromise.

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


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