Eyesores and Oddities

Thinking Outside the Box in NW

Is this structure at a Northwest plaza an artist's rendering of concrete thinking in an age of transparency? Um, no.
Is this structure at a Northwest plaza an artist's rendering of concrete thinking in an age of transparency? Um, no. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
Tuesday, July 25, 2006

You come upon one every now and then -- a mystery of ugliness. What is it? How on earth did it get there? Why doesn't someone get rid of it? We attempt to shed light through this occasional feature.

An eyesore might have 10,000 faces, but it can have no better definition than what sits in a public plaza near Judiciary Square, surrounded by a courthouse and the offices of the D.C. police and the Department of Motor Vehicles.

The boxlike structure is six feet tall. It has four walls, each five feet wide, made of "decorative" see-through cinder blocks. It is topped with a rusty grate.

How did it get there?

Imagine if the DMV and the city police department decided to collaborate on a sculpture.

Now imagine if their materials were limited to cinder blocks, steel pipe and a few errant beer cans.

The result: an untitled work firmly inspired by the Brutalist School of modernist architecture.

Five cinder blocks around the top are missing. Was it the sculptor's vision -- a commentary on the voids we all struggle with in our lives? Or was it just time and neglect? We're guessing neglect, judging by the fact that several broken pieces can be seen inside the concrete cage, surrounded by rotting leaves and the aforementioned beer cans.

There is something in the middle of the box, but it is in the shadows, unrecognizable even from a few feet away. Is it a fountain? The base of a statue? Some sort of weather or security device?

Put your face up to the structure and peer through the dirty cinder blocks. Then you'll see the prize: a 12-inch-diameter steel pipe with a flat, hinged cover.

The box stands in a small oasis of lush grass and a dozen shade trees just north of John Marshall Park. It is almost directly in line with the more traditional sculpture of the nation's first chief justice.

In the past, the patch of green was used for landings by police helicopters and for pickup football games. The "sculpture" now makes the former impossible and the latter potentially painful, especially for someone catching a midfield pass.

Vulgarians who do not view the installation as a dialogue between nature and the industrial age might ask why city officials decided to place it in the middle of a lovely urban oasis.

Concrete answers are hard to come by. A comprehensive survey of a couple of city maintenance guys reveals that the concrete structure protects the exhaust pipe for an emergency generator used by police and the DMV. It was installed during the 1980s.

Yes, art can indeed serve several masters.

-- Eric M. Weiss, staff writer

© 2006 The Washington Post Company