Asked to cite memorable works of architecture, Washington residents and tourists are likely to mention modernist Dulles International Airport or the National Gallery of Art East Building. For historic architectural examples, the U.S. Capitol, the White House, Washington National Cathedral and Mount Vernon probably would be listed.
In other cities one might point to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York City or Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. The Notre Dame cathedral and the Pompidou Center in Paris could come to mind, or perhaps the Taj Mahal in India.
Design critics, professional journals and mass media reporters tend to focus on and publicize new, visually unconventional projects when tracking recent works of architecture. They view inventive, standout, sometimes radical design as more newsworthy, notwithstanding other positive or negative attributes of such design.
But exceptional architecture — termed “foreground” buildings by architects — in fact represents a tiny percentage of built work. For every newsworthy foreground building, countless unheralded “background” buildings are designed and constructed to satisfy a city’s residential and business needs. Many are forgettable, but some merit appreciation and recognition for design excellence, even as background buildings.
Within the District, as well as in Washington’s urbanizing suburbs, are thousands of urban background buildings. You see them everywhere in downtown Washington, marching one after another along stretches of I, K, 15th and 20th streets NW. Most of them are known only by their street address.
Background buildings line and frame city streets and sidewalks, civic squares and circles, parks and plazas, and pedestrian courtyards and passageways. Encompassing mixed-use destinations activating streetscapes, they shade sidewalks in summer and help illuminate the public realm at night.
Recall the spatial character, charm and animation of “main” streets flanked by historic buildings containing shops and eateries in Old Town Alexandria, Leesburg, Annapolis and Frederick. New and old background buildings line and activate portions of Washington’s Connecticut Avenue; M Street and Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown; 14th and 17th streets; and H and U streets. Background buildings frame the city’s public open spaces such as Dupont Circle, Logan Circle, Washington Circle, Farragut Square, McPherson Square and Franklin Park.
Many background buildings, despite being aesthetically undistinguished, adequately perform their urban place-making duty. But a background building can do more than its urban duty if a talented architect and a supportive real estate developer strive for design excellence, even when site, zoning and economic constraints initially dictate a boxy form. The architectural challenge is to transform the box through creative design that artfully shapes and sculpts the box.
Successful transformation necessitates juxtaposing visually appropriate facade materials, textures and colors; interweaving well-scaled and well-proportioned surface and window-wall patterns; and composing elegant connection and structural details.
Background building facades don’t have to be blah. They can be subtly or robustly three-dimensional, becoming more visually dynamic using changes of plane or tilted, folded or curved surfaces. More highly activated facades may use projecting elements such as roofs, window bays, balconies, porches and decks, canopies and sunshades, trellises, exposed structural members and applied ornamentation.
Examples include the historic Willard Hotel at 13th and E streets NW; the Sidney Harman Hall theater on F Street across from Capital One Arena; the office building at 1875 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; and many venerable, multistory apartment buildings along Connecticut Avenue south and north of the zoo.
Look around downtown Washington. Although you will see a few architecturally notable background buildings, they are outnumbered by countless bland boxes, especially modern office buildings with flat, relatively featureless skins of glass, or glass combined with metal, limestone or precast concrete panels. These modular curtain wall systems and the buildings they clad are functional, often energy efficient, economical and forgettable.
Only the front façade of a mid-block background building is visible. Representing a significant portion of the construction cost, the street-facing, main entrance façade clearly deserves special design attention. Strictly utilitarian and much less costly are invisible party walls, abutting adjacent buildings on each side, and the rear façade overlooking a public alley or back yard. Thus shouldn’t street façades be works of art?
A background building on the corner of a block, facing two streets and their intersection, has greater urban design and architectural responsibility, but also greater aesthetic potential. It can become more of a foreground building. With two facades facing the public realm, something unique and expressive could occur where the two facades meet at the building’s corner, something more than just an edge.
Nevertheless, even well designed background buildings are rarely the focus of media stories, nor do they win lots of design awards. Yet a beautiful background building can be as challenging to design as a stand-alone, foreground building. Accordingly, let’s take more notice of background buildings exhibiting architectural excellence.
Roger K. Lewis is a retired practicing architect, a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland and a regular guest commentator on “The Kojo Nnamdi Show” on WAMU (88.5 FM).