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At Mount Vernon, New Centers Offer Lessons in Harmony

The new orientation center and museum at Mount Vernon show that contextually harmonious architecture does not depend on importing trendy formulas, nor on reproducing historic styles.
The new orientation center and museum at Mount Vernon show that contextually harmonious architecture does not depend on importing trendy formulas, nor on reproducing historic styles. (By Dayna Smith -- The Washington Post)

This design strategy has yielded a choreographed yet logical journey. It clearly responds to the wishes of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, which sought to preserve the historic, pastoral setting near the mansion, as well as views of and from the mansion.

Although much of the complex is underground, the designers have managed to introduce light and exterior views. Especially effective are the high clerestory window bands wrapping around lobby walls in both the orientation center and museum. I looked up periodically to see the sky and sense the changing quality of light as sunset approached.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the absence of 18th-century design motifs, neoclassical riffs or allusions to Colonial architecture. There are no Doric, Ionian or Corinthian columns or pilasters, no Greek- or Roman-inspired entablatures and pediments, no Palladian windows, no dentils or cornices, no arches or keystones.

These two buildings are decidedly modern. Both traditional and modern materials, assembled with consistently modern detailing, clad reinforced concrete and steel structural skeletons. The building facades are glass, metal and red brick, and interiors are finished with Spanish limestone, plaster, hardwood, monochromatic ceiling and wall fabrics, carpeting, and tile, all deployed appropriately.

This is not in-your-face modernism, not the modernism of bombast, exotic geometry or architectural hyperbole that so often competes with and detracts from what is on display. The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association and the design team wisely decided that these new buildings should be elegant and memorable but also aesthetically comfortable for both exhibits and people.

After years of planning, including consideration of alternative aesthetic languages, the designers found just the right tone. They struck a balance among the competing forces of client expectations, functional needs, site constraints and opportunities, historical and cultural context, and budget.

Those familiar with Mount Vernon have good reason to go back. Given the new design lessons to be learned, some visitors in particular should head there. Sponsors of the proposed Vietnam Veterans National Memorial visitors center should go to see why their proposal for an underground bunker to exist invisibly next to the Lincoln Memorial makes little sense. And anyone who believes traditional and modern design cannot coexist also should go take a good look.

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


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