Welcome to Generic High: Winning design for new Dunbar High School underwhelms

An animated video tour of the proposed $100 million redesign for Dunbar Senior High School from the architecture firm hired to transform the school.
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 14, 2010; 6:22 PM

The good news is that the city will replace the grim, concrete behemoth that currently serves as the home of Dunbar High School, a storied institution with a distinguished roster of alumni. The bad news is that it is impossible to know if the city made the right choice after soliciting designs from 17 architecture firms, and whittling the shortlist down to four teams, including some with substantial international reputations.

The city decided to go local, choosing Ehrenkrantz, Eckstut & Kuhn/Moody-Nolan, a Washington-based team that has also worked on Stoddert Elementary School and the School Without Walls. The design team, which was announced at a news conference this morning, has already made some good choices, reorienting the school towards the surrounding neighborhood and away from an unappealing stretch of New Jersey Avenue NW. They will also reopen O Street as a pedestrian promenade through the school campus, which will help integrate the facility better into its surroundings. And, in their initial designs, they have introduced large expanses of glass to let light flow into the space. All of this is a major improvement over the 1970s concrete-and-brick structure that replaced the 1917 Dunbar High School, which includes among its alumni the District's congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and its current mayor-elect, Vince Gray.

Unfortunately, it looks like the design choice may also be a near miss with greatness. At least two London-based architects, Norman Foster and David Adjaye, were among the groups that entered the contest. Adjaye is the designer behind two new public libraries being built in the District and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Foster + Partners is the firm that built the critically lauded undulating courtyard canopy at the Old Patent Office Building. The shortlist also included Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, the firm associated with the elderly I.M. Pei, architect of the National Gallery's East Wing.

It's impossible to say, based merely on the stellar reputation of two firms that didn't get the final nod (Foster + Partners withdrew from the process before submitting a design), if the District made the right choice. Allen Y. Lew, head of the Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization (and soon to be Gray's city administrator), would not release the designs that failed to make the cut. That's unfortunate, given that this was the first time the city has held a competition that attracted this level of contestants.

The design that will be built is a generic take on retro-modern, mimicking the basic outlines of early-20th-century institutional architecture one sees all over the city. It would surprise no one, looking at the renderings seen today, to learn that it was meant to hold a shopping center, or standard mixed-use, office-residential design. The basic layout of the building, the muted palette of colors, the attempt to suggest the general horizontal massing of old school buildings, is characteristic of architecture intended to look new and old at the same time, offending neither traditionalists nor advocates of contemporary design. The new Dunbar will look a lot less like the Maginot Line, but a little too much like a Payless shoe store. It is generic.

At the news conference, there was as much (if not more) discussion of the school's athletic facilities as there was boilerplate praise of an environment intended to be "conducive" to learning. Gray took note of five Dunbar football players in the National Football League, an accomplishment that speaks well of the school's activities program, but says nothing of its academic accomplishments. The design of the school is oriented to its playing fields, dominated by a gigantic gymnasium. Learning will take place in "academic neighborhoods" off to one side of the structure, but they look like an afterthought. The school will also feature a pool, auditorium and central "armory," which is intended to provide architectural focus. But the new Dunbar resembles many libraries and performance spaces with its emphasis on the extras, at the expense (aesthetically, at least) of the building's central purpose.

The pure ghastliness of the current Dunbar facility ensures that the new, $120 million structure will be an improvement. Several participants at today's news conference spoke fondly of the "old Dunbar," the 1917 school built for African American students, and of the solid, dour architecture that defined school buildings for generations. The new structure is obviously intended to recall the old one, at least in materials and profile. But it was the quality of construction, the dour gravity and solidity of the old public schools that earned affection. Very little of the new generation of faux-brick civic architecture, which usually feels a bit like a digital photograph with a sepia tint, rises to the old level of construction.

Bad architecture casts a long shadow. The 1970s iteration of Dunbar High School was almost criminal in its neglect of the basic sensibilities of students, who deserve light and openness and a design in which they can take pride. Very likely, the people who chose the current plans wanted to be sure that it didn't stress architectural novelty at the expense of an interior environment that is healthy and inspiring. Tight budgets and lean economic times may also have constrained the selection process. But if they were indeed gun-shy when it comes to contemporary architecture, they may well have missed an opportunity to build something that rises above the merely serviceable. Were there ideas in the mix that rose above the blandly commercial look of the winning design? Or did the committee select the best option they had?

It would be nice to know the answer.

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