Architect Melvin Mitchell and his hardy band of students at the Architectural Research Institute of the University of the District of Columbia spent much of the spring working on a big idea, and a fitting one, for the university's Carnegie Library downtown.
The old Beaux-Arts building, they thought, would make an ideal headquarters for their institute and the UDC's fledgling five-year architecture program -- its fine interior spaces perfect for conversion to studios and exhibition halls, its central location fitting the new function to a T-square. The advantages, in their view, would be reciprocal. Just as the building would give identity to the little-known department, so would the department bring needed new focus to the underused building.
"We never really got a chance to present our ideas" to top university administrators and the board of trustees, Mitchell recalls. "We were en route, but we were waved off at a lower level. It was made clear that something big was on the way, and that it was a long way along."
That something, it turned out, was artist Judy Chicago's "The Dinner Party," a big 1970s multimedia art piece reinterpreting human history from a feminist point of view. The university trustees had agreed to accept the piece as a gift, with the understanding that it be placed on public view in the Carnegie building and that part of the $1.6 million for renovating the building be applied to altering interior spaces to suit it.
Because, mainly, of its explicit sexual symbolism, the Chicago piece ran afoul of conservatives in Congress, who showed sufficient muscle in the House to cut the university's budget by exactly $1.6 million. A key Senate committee simply questioned the expenditure at a time of fiscal strain for UDC. University trustees are said to be reconsidering the decision; they could hardly do otherwise.
For the pause, if not its meddlesome cause, one can be thankful. No matter what one thinks of "The Dinner Party" -- that its stylized genital place settings are jejune, vulgar, satirical, beautiful, celebratory or whatever -- its choice as a principal showpiece for this institution is questionable. The Carnegie building, formerly Washington's central library, has for years been considered the actual and symbolic flagship of a future downtown campus for the city college. To install "The Dinner Party" in splendid isolation there would be both misleading and inapt.
Just the reverse can be said of the thwarted proposal of Mitchell and company: It seems right for the place. A turf-gathering gambit in a time-honored academic tradition, it meets the tests of need and appropriateness. Both the architecture department under the leadership of Chairman Clarence Pearson and the research institute under Mitchell are pushing the limits of their current spaces in the university's Van Ness campus; the downtown building would reasonably accommodate both. Equally as important, the symbolism of the proposed relocation would provide a lift for the whole school.
Architectural education at UDC has its roots in a two-year vocational program at the old Washington Technical Institute, one of three institutions brought together to form the university 14 years ago. With the support of university President Rafael Cortada, who recently resigned, Pearson brought Mitchell on board three years ago for the express purpose of expanding the program into a fully professional, five-year department. A class of about 20 completed third-year studies in June; an incoming crop will increase department enrollment to about 100. Obvious space demands aside, the goal to obtain accreditation from the National Architectural Accrediting Board is behind the drive to upgrade department facilities.
The UDC department fills a special niche in architectural education -- it is geared to the needs of working students. Most current enrollees must hold jobs to make ends meet; some of those who have completed the initial, two-year program now work in local architectural offices while still pursuing their studies. The Architectural Research Institute, which Mitchell directs, is an imaginative outgrowth of this philosophy -- it gives students the option of working full time on projects such as design assistance for the city's homesteading program or a 50-bed facility for a nonprofit drug rehabilitation center.
Mitchell calls it a "win-win" situation. It may take an ARI student seven or eight years to fulfill obligations for a bachelor's degree, but it also provides that student with the three years of professional experience required before taking the architectural licensing examination. In the process, Mitchell says, the city government or nonprofit organization gets the benefit of design expertise not readily available on the open market. The fees earned by ARI pay student-worker salaries and buy advanced computer design equipment for the program.
This inventive, home-grown program has just the kind of energy much in need at the Carnegie building, which for more than a decade has been but a neglected downtown outpost. Although the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in the late '60s, after the city's central library had relocated a few blocks south in the elegant black box designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (now the Martin Luther King Library), the city around it was being decimated by the processes of public urban renewal and private capital flight. The city government itself, preparing for a still unrealized downtown campus, bulldozed four large blocks north of Mount Vernon Square; private enterprise cleared much of the terrain to the south.
But conditions are changing, as the new downtown moves north -- the Carnegie is now framed on its southern Eighth Street axis by the gleaming Techworld bridge. In all respects the building remains a worthy prize. Located in the middle of one of 15 major squares delineated in the L'Enfant plan, the Carnegie Library was conceived as a symbolic centerpiece. Designed by the New York firm of Ackerman and Ross and dedicated in 1903 (with President Theodore Roosevelt attending), it is far from the best of the "City Beautiful" exercises that proliferated in Washington for decades after the turn of the century. But the muscular arrangement of Ionic columns, arches, pediments, putti and so on that distinguish its main facade -- all richly fashioned in white Vermont marble -- fairly shout high-minded notions of civic virtue and pride.
These are precisely the ideas Mitchell and his colleagues would like to update and to recapture there in UDC's name. One of the concepts they have for the place is to convert it into a city center for the exchange of architectural and planning ideas -- the spacious central hall would seem ideal for exhibits and other manifestations of this purpose. Similarly, the departmental library could become a clearinghouse for information pertaining to Washington's architectural past, present and future. Nor can one discount the possibility that, by proximity alone, these motivated teachers and students might shed new light upon the vastly contentious issues of the long-delayed central campus.
Theirs is an exciting vision, and it deserves a thoughtful hearing.