Can a weekend's work by some 130 students, guided by a number of inventive architects, have any effect upon the outcome of the biggest private-sector money game in town--the rebuilding of downtown D.C.?
Specifically, can the rough schemes and ready ideas they came up with in 12 hours or so of intensive labor last weekend have an impact upon what actually happens along a key, ripe-for-development, three-block stretch of Eighth Street near the convention center?
The clear implication of asking these questions is that the students and their architect leaders did good work and it ought to have some influence upon the future of the Eighth Street corridor. Their proposals ranged from down-to-earth details to pie-in-the-sky fancies, but all were aimed at saving a special piece of downtown D.C. from what one speaker aptly referred to as the "dreaded scourge" of office buildings.
Whether the property owners, bankers, developers, designers and city planners who in fact control the future of this important slice of urban terrain pay any attention at all is another question. Perhaps they should have attended the design seminar. At the very least they could profit from studying the results.
The seminar obviously had other benefits. Sponsored jointly by the Washington Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the Smithsonian Resident Associates, its main purpose was to educate an unusual student body attracted by the problem. This group, consisting mainly of students from local university architecture departments but also including a significant number of practicing architects, real estate agents, zoning lawyers and other professionals, was indeed able to learn a great deal about the complexities of urban design on this level during those brainstorming hours at the national AIA headquarters.
Still, it would be a shame to ignore the contributions their efforts can make to the real-world challenge of rebuilding this segment of the city, which currently has the bombed-out look that often precedes major development. The problem is a fascinating one.
The site is very, very Washington. Consisting of six big blocks on either side of Eighth Street NW as it stretches northward from the Greek Revival Old Patent Office building (currently housing the National Museum of American Art and the National Portrait Gallery) to the little Beaux Arts palace in Mount Vernon Square (formerly the city's central library, now belonging to the University of the District of Columbia), it has the typical axial view.
It also comprises a literal encyclopedia of the often-conflicting forces that determine the physical look and feel of a rebuilding city: zoning ordinances, land-use schemes, land assemblies, market demands, interest rates, potential displacement (both residential and retail), historic preservation, design controls (in this case, the lack thereof), transportation systems--the whole mixed bag. And it has two big, if very different, specific problems: the convention center, which looms to the west, and Chinatown, which penetrates the site along H Street and continues to the east.
After having been fed a reasonable dose of this information in two introductory sessions, seminar students were divided into separate design teams last weekend. Working hard into the night on Friday and returning early Saturday for a day at the drawing tables (or floors, or walls), each of the six teams was somehow able to produce at the very least a statement of intentions for presentation to the entire assembly by midafternoon.
Not surprisingly the results were varied and tended to reflect the personalities of the team leaders, experienced professional architects and planners from all parts of the country. Each team had to make a crucial decision early on about how much heed to pay to existing conditions of zoning and money, on the one hand, and desirable social goals on the other.
Two extreme positions emerged on this issue. The team led by Jean Paul Carlhian, a formidable Beaux Arts-trained architect from Boston, emphasized form almost exclusively, "designing a street," as he said, all the way from the Archives building south of Pennsylvania Avenue up to Mount Vernon Square, which was proposed as a new, expanded site for the Supreme Court. (The existing library building, "a miserable, second-rate Beaux Arts" structure in Carlhian's view, was consigned to oblivion.)
The other theoretical extreme stressed process and community involvement. San Francisco architect William Turnbull, one of the leaders of the team espousing this "maverick" position, defined it as an attempt "to throw away the existing rules and write new ones" based upon community wants and needs. Most of the teams (including Turnbull's, as it turned out) tried hard to find some middle ground between process and form and between realism and idealism.
It should be noted that even the most valiantly realistic of the schemes, hammered out by a team under the leadership of Jaquelin Robertson and Thomas Beeby of Chicago and Washington, respectively, proposed building densities at least somewhat lower than allowed by existing D.C. zoning rules for the area, which says something disconcerting about "reality," as currently defined.
Each of the schemes produced by the separate teams contained niceties of thought and design worth considering by anyone concerned with the area as a whole. Still, despite provocative differences, a few key ideas came up again and again.
Practically everybody agreed, for instance, that Eighth Street itself should be treated as a relatively quiet, primarily pedestrian interlude, a peaceful "room in the city" offering much-needed contrast to the activity of the convention center and its complementary hotels. Consequently, practically every scheme emphasized that high-density uses--the hotels and office buildings--be concentrated at the outside edges of the site, mainly on the north, abutting Mount Vernon Square, and on the east, opposite the convention center along Ninth Street.
Almost every scheme included special landscaping across from the National Museum of American Art at G Street, and all recommended generous plantings of trees along the north-south axis of Eighth Street. Most recommended some kind of residential development along Eighth Street, built around existing churches there, although very few offered helpful notions of how to halt the coming march of office buildings along the corridor.
("The churches should use their equity to bargain for the kind of development they want," advised one architect. "Washington has a hotel-incentive zone," commented another, "obviously what it needs is a housing-incentive zone, a retail-incentive zone . . . a coordinated, overall incentive program.")
Everyone agreed that, among the east-west streets that cross the site, H Street was of special importance. As it stands, H Street is a run-down assortment of restaurants and retail establishments that seem to be waiting helplessly for the wrecking ball. Clearly, until the challenge of Chinatown is addressed--as notably it was not during this gathering, despite a lot of talk--H Street will remain in limbo. My own feeling, shared by many of the seminar participants, is that H Street should be kept as low as possible, and lined with trees, restaurants and shops.
But then the spirit of the entire enterprise, and its value to people who will be making the real-world decisions concerning this piece of the cityscape, can be gauged less by details than by its broad, general appeal to the public conscience. Here we had a large group of designers telling us as if with one eloquent voice that current piecemeal development strategies just won't do, that this and other similar urban areas must be treated as complex, organic wholes subject to sensitive, rational design restraints.
As Turnbull told his team Friday night, before a single pencil was laid to paper, "We have to find ways of saying that there are some dreams out there."