Small buildings, even when they're good, don't as a rule get much attention. When a good small building also is tucked away in an alley, in an off-the-track suburban neighborhood, chances for obscurity multiply accordingly.
The Huntington Community Center has twice successfully bucked these odds. Last year, it received an architectural award from a three-member jury for the Northern Virginia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Last month, it appeared on the list of biennial awards selected by a different three-person panel for the Virginia Society of the AIA.
The community center building, designed by Robert I. Abrash of the Great Falls firm of Abrash Eddy and Eckhardt, is good in a perfectly ordinary way, which is more or less true of two other Northern Virginia buildings selected by the jury: a Springfield warehouse designed by Thomas L. Kerns of Kerns Group Architects of Washington, and One University Plaza, a government building in Fairfax County designed by Walter F. Roberts Jr. of Reston.
Three buildings hardly constitute a trend -- juror Steven Izenour (of Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown of Philidelphia) observed that a "back-to-basics" approach may simply have been the common denominator between "three rather disparate type people" on the jury -- but even so there is a modest message in it or, more accurately, a reminder. There can be a close correspondence between financial and aesthetic economy or, to put it another way, plain architecture can be good architecture.
Izenour said it as follows: "Everybody's out there rip-roaring around, throwing style around like it is going out of style. Maybe we were just trying to say to the architects , 'Hey, people have budgets and problems out there. What are you doing about that?' "
The Huntington Community Center is a textbook case in point. The architect started with a simple, existing concrete-block building, located in an alley between rows of ordinary, postwar duplexes -- a building of such low repute in the neighborhood it was called "Stalag 13." The program was as straightforward as the budget was skimpy: Renovate and enlarge the building for $360,000.
In the end, Abrash managed to triple the space (from 1,400 to 4,500 square feet) to provide a couple of acceptable outdoor areas and a small, hard-surface basketball court and to pave the alley and install sidewalks for $364,610. He did it, almost literally, with mirrors.
Rather than disguise the existing building, the architect simply enlarged it a little, covered the concrete block with stucco and applied a new, wood-trussed roof (while retaining the same low pitch) and then built a perfect twin parallel to the old structure but slightly off-center to it. The two are joined by a simple flat-roofed entrance spine. In massing and silhouette, the ensemble is plain as punch and has the particular appeal that attaches to the right idea, clearly expressed.
Obviously there was not much to play with here, either in budget or form, but Abrash managed to provide an element of delight with minimal means. The roofline is set off with vertical wood panels; large circular air vents, centrally placed just below the peak of the roofs, establish a clear visual focus, and there is color in just the right places: industrial-type steel windows with vivid, yellow-painted mullions, red doors, and a red-painted band of steel wrapping around the attached buildings precisely where wall and roofline meet.
The outdoor spaces are perhaps the least successful part of the design, especially the entry court with a poured-in-place, concrete, sundial play sculpture, which is a bit cold (but solid). The stucco covering maybe wasn't a very good idea. On a recent visit it looked as if someone had hammered away at the corners of the building with a baseball bat. Stucco crumbles when hit with a bat. But this is perhaps more a social problem than an architectural one. The neighbors who use the building didn't want anything to do with exposed concrete block walls, so it is up to them to find a way to protect the stucco and otherwise ensure that the center lives up to its intended destiny as "definitely a special place in the neighborhood."
The deterministic argument that modern architecture has caused, or at least exacerbated, social problems, definitely does not apply here. No one can say that architecture didn't give people a chance to shine in this well-wrought, well-thought project, and in the end that is perhaps its most notable achievement.
One could hardly pick a more ordinary building type than the industrial-storage warehouse, and the Fullerton Industrial Park in Springfield is full to the brim with unexceptional, if not by-and-large terribly exceptionable, warehouse structures. The faults of these buildings -- redundancy and, here and there, rather tasteless and unnecessary applique's of metal roof trim -- just don't seem to matter much. Nonetheless, Thomas Kerns set out to design for his client an inexpensive, functional and altogether typical warehouse that is just a little bit better than its neighbors, and he succeeded.
Structurally, Kerns' building, Warehouse No. 4 in Fullerton II, is like the others, a long rectangular building with bays, divided by load-bearing masonry walls. But the building is a bit cleaner and more forthcoming than its mates. Some of this has to do with details. The entrance bays, for instance, are clearly demarcated by stairs and white-painted steamship iron railings. Mostly, it has to do with the decision to place the offices at the front of the building and on a second level.
Visually, this separation of functions is emphasized by a change in color and materials, from brick at the ground level to a white modular material up above. This gives the building a meaningful top, and allowed the architect to create an interesting Lego-like pattern of windows, alternating between flattened T-shapes and inverted U's. Alternating media makes the most of the site, too. Snuggled into a hillside, the building stands out like a white temple of humdrum commerce when seen from the entrance to the industrial park more than a mile away.
Walter Roberts' building, One University Plaza, a new home for the Fairfax County Redevelopment and Housing Authority, doesn't quite fit this mold, except for its overall economy. Basically a no-nonsense, one-story building that provides for open-space offices, the building is burrowed into the ground for energy efficiency. Its most conspicuous visual feature is a sort of moonscape-modern system of sun-catching towers that rise from the grass-planted roof of the building. There's a certain contradiction here, in view of the stated requirement "to minimize the visual impact of an office structure on the surrounding residential community."
But the system seems to work: The towers, supplemented by an interior system of mirrors, are oriented to absorb light and energy from both summer and winter suns. And the building's southern fac,ade, with a collonade supporting a concrete entablature and surrounding a segmented arch portico, is nicely done. It is worth noting that two of the three buildings discussed here were commissioned by the same client -- the Fairfax County Redevelopment and Housing Authority -- an unusual and praiseworthy circumstance. It is not often that a government agency takes a lead in seeking architectural excellence.