A JURY OF architects and architectural buffs met the other day to consider the first Orchids and Onions award of the American Institute of Architects, Northern Virginia Chapter. (Unfortunately they lost their nerves and sent plaques with pictures of orchids or onions instead of the real plants.)
They got along pretty well for most of the session. Nobody threatened to walk out, commit mayhem, or any of the other sorts of actions you might expect when people who have strong feelings take up matters to taste.
Then they hit the case of Johnston's Auto Body and Paint Shop on Gallows Road at Lee Highway in Merrifield, Va. Try and try again, the jury couldn't make up their mind if the shop deserved an orchid or an onion. Finally, four spouses called to find out if anyone were going to come home or if they were to be sequestered for the week. Then the jury threw up their hands and left the decision to the membership. Which is it: "Excellence in individual expression and identity" or "urban clutter"?
At a dinner meeting at Evans Farm Inn, the jury showed slides of the body shop. Even those who'd seen it before stared in stunned astonishment. The front of the shop looks like a gingerbread house baked by a mad hatter. There's peaked three-cornered hat affair over the door. The roof has a steep peak as well, with heart shaped arrows pointing in. Several balconies, real and unreal are on the second floor. The big garage doors have bay-window-type roofs. Two pseudo-dormers sprout from the sides. Several wooden fake chimneys rise from the roof. A two-color balustrade runs around the one-story section. Atop the whole thing is a cupola with what the owner describes as a "fallen angel" inside. A snowman, a cigar-store Indian, some hoop-skirted ladies, a wagon wheel and what looks like one of each of everything in the world are distributed around.
Ed Johnston Sr., the perpetrator of all this, says some of the objects that are hard to identify are "The Three Musketeers, Robin Hood, Laurel and Hardy in a car, a clock and I forget what else."
Johnston started decorating when he moved in the old building in 1963. "Merrifield was in a bad way. Everything was all run down. I had a good, stout building, so I decided to fix it up. I couldn't drive a nail back then. Now I just do it. Most ladies really like the way I've fixed it up. A lady came by one afternoon. She lived in a place that looked like a castle. When they sold it, she gave me two little figures she called fallen angels. Another person gave me something else. She said put it up so I can see it when I go to work every day."
The membership thought about Johnston and his works long and hard. During the dinner, the arguments went back and forth. Some compared Johnston's edifice to the Watts Towers in California and other folk projects. Some purists wanted to organize a vigilante party to go put a dust cover over it.The Johnston job might well be considered not a blot on the landscape, but a Rorschach test, because it brought out the deep hidden psychology of how everybody felt about architecture without architects, folk building, ornament, kitsch, bad taste and so on.
The vote at the AIA chapter dinner came with dessert - almost 50 in favor of Johnston, only about 30 against. One vote suggested sending Johnston a snap dragon, another wanted to put half a vote on each side of the question. So much for less is more and the demise of Mies.
At least you can say this for Johnston's work: It isn't a glass box looking as though it were popped out of an ice-cube tray. It's a very individual effort by a man to change his surroundings to suit himself, to make a little corner that conforms to his - if not everybody else's - idea of beauty. Obviously, if all the owners along Lee Highway did up their building to match Johnston's, there would be automobile wrecks from one end to the other, caused by motorists averting their eyes. (More business for Johnston's body shop?) But it does seem as though the world can use one Johnston's like a dash of Tabasco in the eggs.
The other awards didn't give anybody much trouble. Nor were they as much fun or as imaginative. Most of the onions seemed well deserved. The virtures of all the orchids wasn't obvious to me.
Of the sound barrier wall along 495, by the Virginia State Highway Commission, the jury said, "the walls are very imposing, expensive and ineffective." Don Keith, the resident engineer, promised at the dinner that it would look better when it's landscaped. Even so, the striated walls give the impression that behind them, people in striped uniforms are making little rocks out of big ones.
The Route 1 pedestrian overpass at Gibbon Street in Alexandria was criticized for being overdesigned and ungraceful. Chunky supports hold up plain pipe racks topped with screening. It looks as though it were made in the backyard by some eccentric soul with chickens. The city of Alexandria was charged with this one.
Koons Ford Inc., 1051 East Broad St., Falls Church, Va., was sent an onion placque for its "uncoordinated and insensitive signs."
Signs are about the worst visual problems on the Washington metropolitan area highways. They sprout from every horizontal and vertical surface, like some unsavory growth. Route 7 is so densely pockmarked with signs that you can't see one for the other. There's no organization of color or size, so there's no scenic sense to be made of them.
Tysons Corner area was roundly condemned for "general lack of planning and the inadequate road system." The jury decided everybody was to blame: the Fairfax County Planning Department, Virginia State Highway Commission and local politicians. People spoke of growing long beards while sitting in lines trying to get in or out of the parking places and of the practicality of mounting a high-flying flag on your car so you could find it in the massive parking lot.
The George Washington Memorial Parkway Bike Path was commended for its excellence in landscape design, and the use of natural, compatible materials. The bridges are made of wood, with wood posts holding dark-painted chains. The path meanders along, never calling attention to itself, but fitting into the landscape in a quiet, non-polluting way, as do bicycles. Receiving congratulations was the National Park Service, National Capitol Region.
Dranesville Tavern, 11919 Leesburg Pike, McLean; Hunter House, 9537 Courthouse Rd., Vienna; and Colvin Run Mill, 1007 Colvier Run Rd., Great Falls, all were cheered. The Jury applauded the Fairfax County Park Authority's "consistent high-quality design." Not only were these historic structures restored to a high standard, but all are designed to be used. Dranesville Tavern will resume its old function of solacing the weary traveler with food and drink. Hunter House is a Community Center; Colvin Run Mill, which has won other awards from Washington Metropolitan Chapter and National Trust for Historic Preservation, is an educational facility.
McDonald's at 5009 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, and at 6808 Elm St., McLean, were both admired for their landscape design and neighborhood compatibility.
The intersection of Route 95 and Franconia Road was praised for its exellence in landscape design - colorful plants covering a steep bank. Don Keith for the Virginia State Highway Commission accepted the orchid as he had the onion (for the Route 495 sound barrier).
The Great Falls Post Office, 9812 Georgetown Pike, is a nice old house, complete with a front porch and a log fence. The architects liked it because it fits the community in scale and style. And they were very glad it hasn't been renovated or replaced. Everbody was chilled at the awards ceremony when a postal officer said, "We appreciate the award, but our post office is too small."
Jurors were Martin Crahan, director of Fairfax County community development; Ellen Bozman, a member of Arlington County Board of Supervisors, and Tony Rounds, an architect who is on the University of Maryland faculty.
Good design, like love and charity, should begin at home. The Northern Virginia AIA chapter should be congratulated for an awards program that points the finger of what's good and bad and Johnston's Auto and Body Shop in their neck of the Beltway. CAPTION: Picture 1, 2 and 3, The jury sent orchids to Johnston's Auto Body and Paint Shop in Merrifield, Va., and to the Great Falls Post Office, but the Route 1 pedestrian overpass in Alexandria was awarded an onion. By Harry Naltchayan - The Washington Post, Picture 4, Orchids for George Washington Bike Path and McDonald's in Arlington.