Roger Lewis's pet peeves about the District and its architecture

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By Roger K. Lewis
Friday, December 17, 2010; 10:04 AM

In this final column of 2010, I once again offer a few of my "pet peeves" arising from day-to-day interactions with the city and its architecture. Peeves vary in scale, but all are attributable to faulty design, questionable construction standards, misunderstood human needs and behavior, and sometimes poor maintenance.

Parking garages. A popular holdover from my previous lists, too many parking garages are still inadequately lighted to ensure good visibility for drivers and pedestrians and for late-night safety. Directional and exit signage in parking garages is often hard to see and follow. Ramps, driving aisles and parking spaces in many garages are still too tight for comfortably turning corners and for parking with reasonable ease without hitting a column.

Really loud restaurants. Near the top of many people's annoyance lists are restaurants in which the noise level is so painfully elevated that conversation with the person sitting next to you, much less with someone only a few feet away, borders on the impossible. An excess of hard, acoustically reflective interior finishes and furnishings, along with loud music and boisterous patrons, is the fundamental cause. Believe it or not, loudness is a purposeful marketing tactic for many establishments, a symbol of being hip and popular.

Elevator control panel "Open Door" buttons. I continue to wonder why an elevator's "open door" button can't be made significantly larger, or of a different shape and color, than the floor-selection buttons and the "close door" button. How many times, as a matter of courtesy, have you struggled in vain to quickly find the "open door" button when people tried to enter the elevator as the doors started closing? There is still little progress, as all the buttons inside an elevator generally are identical.

Residential gutters and downspouts. Ubiquitous because they are cheap, off-the-shelf aluminum gutters and downspouts invariably are unattractive, flimsy and easily deformed. No matter how well attached to a roof edge, over time gutters warp and deflect, with seams prone to coming apart. And with trees nearby, gutters must be cleaned at least two or three times a year. Downspouts likewise eventually become misshapen, get blocked up with leaves and other debris, and regularly cause gutters to overflow during hard rains. A durable, well performing gutter and downspout system can be custom designed and built, but at much greater expense, well beyond production housing budgets.

Public restrooms. Surely you have experienced these challenges: toilet stalls much too tight, with inward-swinging doors further compressing you and your belongings; no-touch, automated toilets that flush themselves at will and always at inappropriate moments; the scourge of noisy, warm-air hand dryers claiming to be "green" but which, in fact, consume much electrical energy; automated, valve-less lavatory spigots from which wholly insufficient amounts of water dribble out, if the spigots work at all, and, in single-user restrooms, push-button doorknob locks whose locking reliability for avoiding surprising intrusions is always suspect.

City and suburban streets. This list of pet peeves never changes: bone-jarring potholes left unrepaired; multi-lane streets where lane demarcation lines are omitted, faded or worn away entirely; lack of sidewalks and pedestrian crosswalks where needed to encourage walking and ensure public safety; lack of left-turn traffic signals at intersections where left turns are frequent but often risky; geometrically unconventional, signalized street intersections - three or more streets converging or two non-perpendicular streets crossing -where drivers cannot readily discern which traffic lights face which streets; and the absence of deciduous street trees to enhance streetscape character, provide shade and absorb carbon dioxide.

Bridge guardrails. Crossing bridges over creeks or river valleys, or even urban bridges, do you enjoy seeing the landscape or cityscape beyond and to left and right below the bridge? If you are like me and are not acrophobic, you probably prefer relatively transparent bridge guardrails that enable views, as opposed to mostly solid, visually opaque guardrails that obstruct views. And why must bridge guardrails emulate concrete jersey barriers, since structurally robust steel guardrails can be attractive while ensuring safety? Crossing a bridge should not feel like driving in a channel.

Navigational signage. Wayfinding in the Washington area can be daunting. Street names and addresses are frequently hard to see or missing. Portions of the region's road network display directional signs that are ambiguous and confusing, overloaded with information relative to highway speeds or improperly placed for upcoming turns and exits. And among the most challenging signs to read and interpret are the often small, brown-and-white National Park Service signs along the region's parkways. Of course, GPS technology increasingly is helping alleviate navigational uncertainty.

A number of these plaints appeared in my first pet peeve column, written in the 1980s. Some things never change. Happy holidays.

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

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