Too Much Ado About Apple Store Design

(By Roger K. Lewis For The Washington Post)
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By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, March 14, 2009

Deciding how to best preserve historic places is never easy, especially when new architectural ideas are proposed. What fits? What does it mean to fit? And who decides what fits?

Such decisions inevitably boil down to debatable aesthetic opinions and judgments put forth by whomever has final say.

Questions involve style, scale, proportions, materials, colors and details. Should contrast and innovation trump continuity and replication? Should new architecture mimic the old or express contemporary design sensibilities?

The saga of the proposed Apple building and storefront on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown shows just how difficult it can be to agree about what fits in a historic district.

After a year and a half of proposals and meetings, the Old Georgetown Board finally approved a design last week, according to an article by Post reporter Paul Schwartzman. This was the fifth scheme to be reviewed since September 2007. The board turned down the first four.

Along with many preservation-minded citizens, the board objected to the facade and window patterns of Apple's initial concepts. They especially opposed Apple's signature storefront design: a continuous plane of glass uninterrupted by mullions, those vertical and horizontal framing members typically supporting rectangular glass panels.

On the fifth try, Apple added mullions and a recessed central bay "echoing the bay windows and entrances that dominate Georgetown."

Evidently all concerned -- board members and Georgetown residents -- are now satisfied. No doubt Apple and its architect, Karl Backus, are happy that their ordeal is over, maybe even happy with the outcome. The Post reported that after getting the concept approved, Backus said, "Creating a design in any historic district poses inevitable challenges -- historic districts have characteristics that need to be respected -- and it's a matter of working with a board to determine what's appropriate."

Yet for many months, the board and Apple seemed to have quite different views about which Georgetown characteristics needed to be respected.

Apple must have persisted in pursuing its undivided glass storefront because of its importance as an iconic Apple image and significant retailing symbol. The company must have been very committed to that glass plane to have stuck with it after being told repeatedly that it was unacceptable. Apple undoubtedly relented because there was no choice. Perhaps the company also realized that customers would visit the store no matter how its glazed storefront was designed.

But Apple's mullion-free storefront was not necessarily problematic aesthetically. While it would have been a visual exception to the scale and rhythm of Wisconsin Avenue storefronts, it would not have been so bizarre as to spoil the quality and historic character.

Thanks to the many preserved 19th and early 20th century buildings lining lower Wisconsin Avenue, this part of Georgetown enjoys great architectural vibrancy and resilience. It can tolerate occasional departures from the norm, creative exceptions that can be welcomed. The Apple store could have been one such exception.

Perhaps there was anxiety about setting a precedent: If Apple has a sheer glass storefront, others would want the same. And having a string of Apple-style storefronts lining Wisconsin Avenue could compromise the visual character. But Apple's storefront did not have to set a precedent. It could have been approved as and remained an exception.

The Apple story illustrates challenges likely to increase here and elsewhere. In coming decades, with more buildings and neighborhoods deemed historic, the number of proposals to demolish, modify or rebuild historic properties will increase substantially.

Thus weighing preservation interests against redevelopment interests will require more attention and judgment. We will need to grapple more frequently to balance new and old. But maybe we can reach agreement in less than 18 months and five review meetings.

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

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