Architecture and the Ability to Draw People In

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 30, 2008

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of a plan to redevelop the site of the old Convention Center is an alley.

The architecture firm of Foster and Partners, the same team that designed the space-age yet lyrical new covering over the courtyard of the Old Patent Office Building, has proposed a mixed-use assembly of office buildings, retail, apartments and condos, with a long, narrow alley running through the middle of it. It will not be a dark, dank alley, used mainly by garbage and delivery trucks, but rather an attempt to produce a narrow, bustling, urban street, a center for retail that mimics the canyons of commerce one finds in New York City. The alley will lead to a public plaza with some kind of fountain.

At a recent meeting of the National Capital Planning Commission, the oversight group that determines whether plans for building in and around the District are consistent with "the federal interest," there was grumbling about the alley. It didn't seem very Washington to some members, who noted that the capital city is distinguished by its wide and open streets, not narrow ones. Without quite damning the proposal, some members argued that it was an attempt to introduce a more vertical, urban feel to a decidedly horizontal city.

There is something revealing in this language. In Washington, there are people who wander the streets looking for things that feel like a city. And then there is the school of urban planning that worries more about whether this or that building feels like Washington. What Foster is proposing may not be what Washingtonians are used to, architecturally. But it is a modest effort to produce something that will appeal to those of us who crave more of a city.

And what is a city?

Free-associate on the subject, and the words that come to mind are usually about people, motion, business, crowds and chance encounters. Artists who do architectural renderings create the feel of a city through the strange use of spectral people overlaid on the streetscape, colorful, almost transparent renderings of bodies in motion. Cars are reduced to a blur of headlights and taillights, a fantasy of the automobile as motion, without any suggestion of traffic jams, honking horns or near-miss pedestrian encounters.

An early rendering of a street design for the area near the new Nationals stadium, produced by Gensler, a D.C.-based firm, is revealing. People, some of them represented by nothing more than a human-shaped blur, spill out into the street, where only two cars are visible. Traffic is represented by dynamic streaks of light. Small crowds of people gather in front of shops and at street corners. Others look down from balconies just above the street level. Above the happy crowds is a canopy of thin metal arches that form a trellis, from which hang streetlights, as if the whole streetscape is meant to feel like an indoor space with overhead lighting.

There are lots of problems with this drawing -- no black people and too many of the usual brands plastered everywhere. The metal arches over the street may violate laws meant to preserve the open, uncluttered vistas created by L'Enfant's original street layout, and they certainly contribute to visual clutter. But the image is clearly meant to suggest something dynamic, something urban, something better than the often sterile feel of Washington's supposedly distinctive grand avenues.

Which is the same idea behind the commercial alley planned for the old Convention Center site. It will force people to move about in a denser urban space, with the psychological comfort of a narrower, more interior feeling of enclosure. It is, to the street, what the kitchen is to the party: a space for clustering that works despite the greater appeal of bigger rooms and more comfy seating in the empty living room.

It is, of course, equally possible that it won't feel urban but rather like an imitation of the enclosed faux-street of the suburban shopping mall. It may well feel forced, contrived and fake. The good thing, however, is that if it fails, it won't be a particularly onerous encumbrance on the city. Plans for the Old Convention Center include opening up the old streets -- parts of I Street and 10th Street NW -- that were erased when the original convention center footprint was laid out. Those streets will be a permanent gift back to the city, and they will be entirely Washington in their feel -- for better and worse.

The alley is an addition to the street grid, and an experiment. Its potential success -- if it doesn't feel like an indoor version of Tysons Corner, if people actually gather there, if it has a nice hum through the day -- may teach us lessons about how Washington needs to be less like Washington. It may be that the basic psychology of street life -- the need to be thrown upon one another -- can't thrive without changes to the very bones of our city. The alley, a little crevasse in the downtown wall of blank windows and masonry, may open up something larger than anyone devoted to the feels like Washington school of planning can predict.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company