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

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, June 25, 2005

"No Creativity in Washington's Buildings" proclaimed the headline above a June 14 Washington Post letter to the editor lamenting the fate of two projects: disapproval by the National Capital Planning Commission of Sir Norman Foster's design for the curving glass canopy over the courtyard of the old Patent Office Building, now the Smithsonian's American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery, and the decision by the Corcoran Gallery of Art's board of trustees to abandon plans to build the Corcoran addition designed by Frank Gehry.

The letter from Michael D. Beyard, a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute, asserted that these two projects, "while seemingly unrelated, are emblematic of the sorry state of architecture in the nation's capital."

He wrote that Washington, despite being an exemplar of urban planning, seems "mired in a provincial and retrograde effort to build banal imitations of its fabled past." He continued, "It is a sad day when two important exceptions to this state of affairs are dragged down -- one by the limited vision of those appointed to determine the city's architectural future, and the other by a lack of community financial support."

His letter echoed the sentiments of Post columnist Marc Fisher, who a week earlier chided federal arts commissions for turning away architects who challenge their "fantasy of the capital as 19th-century theme park."

There is some truth in these assertions, but also some misinterpretation and oversimplification. These particular projects are in fact unrelated, not just seemingly unrelated.

The Corcoran addition bogged down not because it was too creative, or because of its non-traditional aesthetic language, but rather because the Corcoran was unable to raise the huge sums it needed. It reportedly would have cost about $200 million to build the Gehry-designed addition, which has been approved by the Commission of Fine Arts, and to make essential improvements to the existing building.

For a private, city-based art school and gallery, the Corcoran's financial aim was extraordinarily high. It bought a creative, very costly design. In the end, it was a design it simply could not afford. For those who are stewards of nonprofit cultural institutions, this is an all-too-familiar scenario, and one not unique to tradition-bound Washington.

The National Capital Planning Commission's rejection of the Smithsonian museum courtyard roof design is more nuanced and not just a matter of money. In this case, the questions pertain to federal law, aesthetic judgment and cultural legacy.

How can a technologically innovative design be wedded successfully to a historically significant structure? And how much can a National Historic Landmark be changed before its character is threatened or lost?

In its analysis and response, the commission agreed with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the Interior Department, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board and the private Committee of 100. All felt that Foster's glass canopy, clearly visible above the neoclassical facades of the Old Patent Office Building, would be too visually dominant from the exterior, especially looking from the National Archives northward along Eighth Street NW.

The commission believed that the hovering canopy would adversely affect both the character of this architectural landmark and the L'Enfant Plan. The key word here is "adversely," and that's a judgment call.

Thus the planning commission's objections are not ideological. They are not based on style or antipathy toward conceptual innovation, but rather on the degree and details of transformation of a historic edifice, always reasonable concerns. In fact, the commission previously approved Foster's concept for roofing the courtyard, a strategy he followed with great success at the British Museum in London, where the glass canopy cannot be seen from the exterior.

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.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company