There is a certain creeping sameness to recent architectural years in Washington that tends to dull the mind to brighter things. It is not the sameness of old as in the once popular game of guess the number of columns on the buildings of Washington, D.C., and win a cruise on the Caribbean. It is a new, pervasive sensation, like a dull pain, that is the collective imprint of our new office buildings.
This is a contagion that transcends jurisdictional lines although, so far, Northern Virginia and downtown D.C. have been more seriously hit than the Maryland suburbs. Most likely this geographical imbalance is temporary, for one of the amazing things about the disease is the way it is welcomed by its victims--or at least by their leading commercial and governmental voices.
For instance, in a news report titled "Silver Spring's Hope" that appeared this week in The Post, government officials and businessmen drooled their admiration of a depressing new office tower (ribbon windows row on row) in fond hope that it be a harbinger of "revitalization" of the hard-pressed downtown business district of Silver Spring. What the place really needs, said one developer, is "that major injection of development activity--cranes in the sky--to get more developers bullish on Silver Spring." Silver Spring needs help, it is true, but with this kind of friends, it needs very few enemies.
The problem is that this developer expressed what apparently is the common sense of the matter. He could have been talking about anywhere in the metropolitan area, or anywhere in the USA, for that matter. Ditto for the designer of that new building, which from the looks of the picture in the paper would merit nomination, at least, for the worst building of the year award were not that barrel already overflowing. Simply to list the nominations in agate type might take two columns of space, an exercise in futility since, after all, what's the point of choosing? The buildings are so alike, except for minor differences of materials, fenestration and such, that the winning loser could be picked blindly.
It is hard to figure out what's gone wrong here, or to point a precise finger of blame. Modern architecture is a convenient and to a degree a justifiable target. The style is modernist and so is the notion of some universal treatment, valid anywhere. But more than modernism, mediocrity (or worse) is the operative principle here.
Architects are willing accomplices in this, of course--somebody has to design those buildings and salve the exposed consciences of the people who pay to put them up--although larger forces obviously are at work. The mediocrity also is due, in no particular order, to the economics of construction, to demands of the marketplace, to the ethics of speculation, to weak or unsophisticated local planning agencies, and to rotten taste.
Washington area planners, developers and their architects by and large can't, won't or don't deal very well with the problems of smaller scale commercial construction, with modulations of larger buildings, with essential connections between buildings, cars and people, with sophisticated mixed-use projects, with edges and borders between differing kinds and densities of land uses, with existing stylistic contexts, and so on. Most prefer to operate according to established formulas for efficient construction and top-dollar return, which is understandable but very bad for places such as Chinatown or downtown Silver Spring.
But hold on, there was good news in 1982. Some architects (and some planners and even developers) are responding creatively to the challenges of the 1980s. There is in the air a set of changed attitudes that, presumably, will filter down eventually to less imaginative architects and their clients. (This won't solve the problem of mediocrity, though it may make it more bearable.) These new attitudes have yet to be given a name--Post Modernism, the leading candidate, is an acceptable title only if considered broadly and not limited to the stylistic mannerisms of a few hot architects.
The new attitudes deal precisely with the design and planning problems that most bother metropolitan Washington--with scale, context and connection. Architect George Hartman even proposed in a lecture last year that these concerns are shared by enough local architects to make up a Washington School of Architects. If so, then every city should have such a school, for a responsive, responsible sort of regionalism, an architecture based upon respect for specific site and specific precedent, would be a healthy thing for every American place.
Among outstanding projects started or completed last year showing some aspect of a new sense of architectural responsibility are the Martin & Jones office building, a tower rising behind three existing brownstone buildings, in the 1700 block of N Street NW; David Schwarz's design for a building, now under construction, behind existing 19th-century brick facades in the 1800 block of N Street NW; the Kerns Group Architects' addition to a narrow existing office building in the 1900 block of I Street NW, and a sleek Hartman/Cox office building in the 4200 block of Connecticut Avenue NW.
To so concentrate on office buildings in a year-end review is excusable only because office buildings, for better or worse, are the primary public and private building type of our time and, worse for Washington, most of the new ones we get are so unimaginative.
Other extraordinary things happened last year, though, that deserve quick mention. The first and second issues of a regional architectural magazine, "Design Action," were published--a solid contribution; Prince George's County completed action on an excellent, if limited and long overdue, historic preservation program, and the District's Joint Committee on Landmarks completed work on a Downtown Historic District that can contribute greatly to the renewal of the old central business district (although developers and the Barry administration, apparently, don't think so). Last but not least, Maya Lin's design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was built and dedicated, a moving monument that in six weeks has become an important part of the city.