The debate goes on in Alexandria about the appropriate look of new architecture in or near the city's historic core, although it has shifted somewhat from words to actual buildings as developers move to fill in spaces close by the King Street Metro connection.
Two years ago, for instance, there was a terrific hue and cry concerning the design of a new office structure at 106 S. Alfred St. As the building nears completion, its design only slightly altered despite protests, one can wonder in a way what the shouting was about.
Although it is not "contempolonial" -- which is what one local architect calls the combination of 20th and 18th centuries that many Alexandrians seem to prefer -- it is quite a decent building, respectful of its older neighbors and, with its new companion structure at 116 South Alfred, part of an appealing new urban open space.
There is some irony in this result. Though both buildings were designed by the same architectural firm (Alexandria's Bairley & Maginniss), they make a contrasting pair, the office structure being a reasonably sensitive mid-1980s design, while its companion, the 47-room Morrison Inn (named after its owner, Washington parking executive Robert E. Morrison), recalls the 1780s. This architectural odd couple is by no means an ideal prescription for the "Alexandria problem" -- how to fit new buildings with new uses and larger scale into the historic context -- but it works almost in spite of itself.
Certain details were used successfully to soften the contrast. Though the office building, for example, is sheathed in a somber-colored brick, its decorative stripes are made up of the same soft red brick as those that cover the inn. (Certain other details are not so successful. The office building windows are not so neutral as intended, perhaps because of the deep-dark tinted glass.)
More importantly, the office building's style, though contemporary, is not rudely so. With those stripes, and the slightly articulated cornice, it looks a bit as if it were an industrial structure built in the 1920s and recently adapted to office use. By the same token the inn is not "contempolonial" in the pejorative sense. It is more like a respectful revival structure, archeologically correct in detail, that, too, could have been built in the '20s. (The difference will be apparent if one compares this building to, say, the definitely "contempolonial" bank buildings on the northwest and northeast corners of Cameron and Washington streets, respectively.)
Most important is the space in between the buildings. A working alley, paved in red brick, this is an easygoing kind of place that looks as if it just happened. Actually, the space was the focal point in the design of both buildings: the entrance to the office building is tucked under balconies and its corner cut away, the better to focus on the inn, with its handsome centerpiece stairwell facing the alley. It is a comfortable space that can only get better as the dogwood trees grow and people begin to come and go.
In addition to these buildings and the high-image new office structure at King and North Henry streets, there are a number of other recent structures that contribute, in one way or another, to the Alexandria debate.
The Bogle Industries Building, at Commerce and Duke streets, is a picturesque little piece -- a brick box with handsome high windows and hipped-roof towers on each corner -- that without being cute about it has the look of a reconditioned Victorian-era leftover. Designed by the Alexandria firm of Lewis Wisnewski & Associates, it adds a much-needed note of personality to the fast-developing Duke Street corridor. (This corridor, with more than half a dozen buildings under construction or recently completed, is for the most part your basic bland suburban thoroughfare, though very heavy on Alexandria brick.)
An interesting confrontation takes place at the intersection of South Peyton and King streets.
On the eastern corner is the Washington Engineering Center, designed by VVKR Associates of Alexandria. The architects clearly took some trouble with this six-story structure -- they varied the window pattern, they changed the brick color in a zig-zag line along the principal fac,ades in an attempt to reduce the impression of bulk, and they provided a curvy wiggle-waggle at the corner to emphasize the entrance. But these devices don't really work. The building looks like what it is: a fairly standard brick-and-ribbon window office box. It's not hard to imagine personable King Street being taken over by such buildings, and it's not a comforting idea.
On the western corner, by contrast, there is the 1930s Coca-Cola bottling plant, reconditioned and added to by Bairley & Maginniss in a most winning way. So skillfully did the architects add a third story to the two-story building, setting it back and covering it with sympathetic materials, that it is hard to discern what's old and what's new. And the new windows -- industrial-looking, with glass of Coke-bottle green surrounded by green metal trim -- are a real delight, the kind of detail that surprises you and makes you smile. Another thing: the lobby, with its crisp hardwood trim, is something special. In scale, texture and rhythm, this building is altogether of the kind the doctor should order for King Street.
What the doctor will order in the future is another matter. The residue of the tussle two years ago remains, in the form of the well-intended but ill-advised "Statement of Architectural Intentions" adopted then by the city council. Though born of an understandable frustration with, and even fear of, Modernist architecture, this document, which specifies certain period styles (Federal through Victorian) for new construction in the historic district, is at the very least a mischievous guide.
Still, it is possible, on the basis of the recently built evidence, to be reasonably optimistic about Alexandria's architectural future. By demonstrating the kind of contextual sensitivity that is a healthy byproduct of the Post-Modernist esthetic sensibility -- it may, indeed, be the crucial conscience of Post-Modernism -- they already have moved far beyond the limitations of the unfortunate "Statement."