Students returning to George Washington University this week are enjoying the weather on the fresh grass of a genuine quad -- an outdoor place this urban school has long needed. The young women at Mount Vernon College will have a dramatic, airy new library to study in this fall. And about 700 Georgetown University students are beginning a second year in an excellent new dormitory with the unresonant name of Village C.
A common denominator of these diverse architectural improvements is a splendid sense of place -- each in its way contributes to the visual and psychological identity of its school and each adds a little something to the sum of pleasant, usable spaces in the city.
The GW quadrangle represents a modest, happy ending to a drawn-out tale. Unlike older, inward-facing American campuses, GW's grew like Topsy in an established in-town site, its buildings placed directly on city streets. As a result the centerpiece quadrangle, facing H Street NW between 20th and 21st streets, never amounted to much -- there was some grass, and a proud sycamore, but basically the space was treated like an unwanted back yard by generations of administrators and architects. Students, of course, made do.
Attitudes began to change a decade or so ago in the heat of controversy over the university's ill-conceived master plan, which showed a lot of building blocks (many of which, unfortunately, got built) but very little understanding of the kinds of spaces and pedestrian interconnections necessary to make a center-city campus both vital and commodious.
The first physical manifestation of change was a pathway cut through the sleek new office building the university put up, after a monumental wrangle, behind the row of 19th-century buildings lining the 2000 block of I Street NW. This established a midblock link to the campus from Pennsylvania Avenue. Then came the snappy new Law School complex designed by Keyes Condon Florance, which partially undid some of the previous damage by providing a covered passage from 20th Street to the still unfocused open space.
Then came Dorn McGrath, Oliver Carr and David Childs, in that order. McGrath, a professor at GW's School of Urban and Regional Planning, had long agitated for a true, unifying open space at the heart of the campus. Carr, the developer, decided to put up $250,000, half of the cost, to construct McGrath's idea. Childs, a partner in the architecture firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, did the design work at cost (meaning SOM took no profit on the job). This formidable trio convinced GW President Lloyd Elliott that it was an idea whose time had come, and a bargain.
The resulting quadrangle is a simple affair -- an open yard framed by buildings, trees, paved pathways and benches, and quinquesected by red brick walks that come together in the middle -- but it meets two important tests of quality. Even in its not-quite-finished state it looks as if it has been there for years, and already it is being heavily used by students for a wide variety of activities. It's a shortcut, a frisbee field, a meeting place, an open-air study hall.
To be sure, this is not one of the great campus quads of the western world (it's still surrounded mostly by the backs of mediocre buildings), and there is work left to be done -- a crosswalk is needed on H Street to link the quad paths with the Pennsylvania Avenue connection, and new buildings are required on cleared lots on the northern edge of H Street to complete the urban frame for the park. (Strict urban design standards, mandating heights, shapes, setbacks, entrance locations and predominant materials -- red brick with stone trim -- will be necessary here to assure superior quality.) But the quad will do wonders for the university and the neighborhood -- it's a welcoming place, sheltered but open, in the middle of the city.
Mount Vernon College, bordering Foxhall Road NW, is architecturally divided into two parts. There's the main campus, comprising a neat little quad surrounded by frumpy Georgian buildings designed and built in the late 1940s and the 1950s, and there is the western campus, a laboratory of the early work of Hartman-Cox, one of the city's important architecture firms, which designed a wonderful chapel, a dormitory and a gatehouse there in the late 1960s.
The new library -- officially, the Charles Ellison Eckles and Anita Heurich Eckles Memorial Library -- designed by Gunter Buerck of the Washington office of Perkins & Will, is situated directly on the main quad. With its high, steeply pitched roof, topped by a narrow skylight that runs its entire length, the building has a sharp, quasi-industrial profile. But it's impossible to quarrel with Buerck's refusal to play copycat here. The library gives the campus a decisive new focal point where once there was but a humdrum little building and an unused roadway.
And it manages, more or less, to fit in even as it stands out. The red bricks match the prevailing material; rusticated pilasters, echoing those of existing buildings, punctuate the fac ades; and the new building's wings and pergolas line up with neighboring cornice lines. Although the entrance, pushed off to the side, is hard to find and seriously out of sync with the spirit of the place, the payoffs are plentiful on the inside: The floor plans are brilliantly conceived and the spaces, with hints of natural light everywhere, are fine.
There's a 24-hour reading room located in just the right place -- the most prominent corner -- and there are scads of other well-lighted places to read and write. There are welcoming lounges (a little short on furniture as yet), meeting rooms and open-air terraces. Best of all, there's that skylighted spine, which gives a strangely clean-cut, low-key Piranesian character to the spaces. The only things still needed are additional trees to screen the building a bit from Foxhall Road. (Though it's somewhat off the subject, I can't help remarking that the college should replace its chain link fence -- it gives the place the look of a second-rate military installation.)
Librarian Lucy Cook predicts that, besides serving its own constituency, the new library will attract students from other campuses in the city, reversing a decades-old pattern -- rather than use their old facility, squeezed into a corner of the administration building, many Mount Vernon students habitually headed elsewhere to study. Doubtless Cook is correct. There may be details to quibble about -- a halfhearted ornamental scheme, some interior trim with an on-the-cheap postmodern look -- but basically this is one of the pleasanter small libraries I've seen.
Village C, at Georgetown University, is a midrise dormitory designed by Mariani & Associates (Reginald Cude, principal in charge, with George Eaton, project architect). It's big, and it could have been a monster along the lines of New South, the flat-roofed late-'50s dorm immediately to the south. But, thankfully, it isn't.
The architects cleverly used the sloping site to disguise the building's size; they refined its scale by breaking it into three units of differing heights; they enlivened the skyline with pitched roofs and dormers; and they articulated the fac ades with insets, rounded bays and varying window sizes and shapes. The result is a winning exercise from many points of view.
Although the double rooms, predictably, are small -- squeezing in 700 students was a tall order -- there are lots of compensations. Corridors are relatively short, for instance, and the architects took pains to make sure the hallways terminated in windows wherever possible. Every room is close by a study lounge, centrally located on each floor. These are hard spaces -- maintenance-free concrete block is the preferred wall surface in dormitories these days -- but they are reasonably spacious and well lit. On the whole this is a dormitory that "feels" good on the inside; unlike New South, its institutional character has been minimized.
But the really distinguishing feature of Village C is the way it fits so snugly into the hillside west of Dahlgren Chapel and Healy Hall -- the university's most notable landmarks. The new cluster encloses the core of the Georgetown campus, transforming what was a sprawling, open-ended space into a definable place. One could hardly ask for more.