Polishing The Relics of A Recent Past

(Joseph Romeo Photography - Joseph Romeo Photography)
By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 29, 2006

Washington is often said to be a conservative architectural town. And that it remains, up to a point.

But let's pause to think about all the modernist buildings in the city. Better yet, let's take a look around.

Much of the "new downtown," west of 15th Street NW roughly to Georgetown, is composed of buildings constructed since the late 1940s, most of them in a modernist style. Much of the old downtown, east of 15th to, say, Union Station (and now called "the East End" by real estate agents), has been rebuilt in the past two decades. Increasingly of late, these are modernist structures, too.

Then, not counting the exemplary modernist cul-de-sacs in the suburbs -- such as architect Charles Goodman's Hollin Hills, nestled in tall stands of trees in southern Alexandria -- there's a goodly number of first-rate modernist houses scattered throughout the city. We don't see them much because they, too, are largely hidden by trees.

Many postwar churches, schools, embassies and other institutional buildings have been built in various modernist styles. For goodness' sake, we don't even have to look beyond the Mall, where Gordon Bunshaft's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (1974), Gyo Obata's Air and Space Museum (1976), I. M. Pei's East Building of the National Gallery (1978) and Douglas Cardinal's National Museum of the American Indian (2004) occupy so much prominent territory.

I suppose you could say, too, that the National Museum of American History (1964) is a modern building -- although with its distant recall of a classical colonnade, it's a halfhearted sort of mix, the sad last gasp of McKim, Mead and White (by then reconstituted as Steinman, Cain & White), once one of the nation's premier classic revival firms. The same sort of superficial, half-here, half-there recipe afflicts Edward Durrell Stone's 1971 Kennedy Center -- that, and its gargantuan size.

"The Kennedy Center is the box the Watergate came in," goes the quip. Come to think of it, faults and all, Luigi Moretti's 1971 Watergate complex, with its dramatic curves and concrete-teeth balcony railings, is a notable modernist not-quite masterpiece. The mixed-use complex was supposed to come with public walkways through to the Potomac waterfront, but instead it became an impassable, but very interesting, wall.

Mixing styles and references is not necessarily a bad thing, as we see in James Ingo Freed's design of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. But by 1993, when the building opened, savvy architects such as Freed had learned that modern architecture and powerful metaphors were not mutually exclusive qualities.

This meandering tour was occasioned by "D.C. Modern," a fascinating two-day conference held recently under the leadership of the D.C. Preservation League and the city's Historic Preservation Office. (Full disclosure requires that I admit to volunteering as moderator for one of the panel discussions -- probably the most interesting of all, if I may say so, in that it brought together seven of the most prominent surviving practitioners of the '50s, '60s and '70s to tell their firsthand stories.)

It is, of course, immensely ironic that such a conference was held under preservationist auspices. The modern-day preservationist movement, after all, was fueled by hostility to modernist architecture. The contempt went both ways, of course. What rightfully activated preservationists was the penchant of modernist planners and their architects to tear down anything that got in the way of their vision of a new urban future.

In Washington, it was the fate of a particular building -- the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue -- that stimulated preservationists to hit the streets and, equally important, to mobilize lobbying efforts in Congress to help save the building. But the idea to destroy the Old Post Office was, in fact, a holdover from the days of triumphant classicism -- planners of the becolumned buildings of the Federal Triangle had penciled the Old Post Office out of existence back in the 1920s.

By the time of the 1970s protests, of course, much of the new downtown had been erased by modern office buildings, many of them quite mediocre by any standard. Even more critically, a huge, lively swath of Southwest Washington had been wiped out in favor of modernism's typically open plan of mid-rise apartments in green gardens.

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