“All Power to the Pack Rats” reads the headline of an article recently published online by Jacobin Magazine. Musician Ian Svenonius’s argument is unsettling: Is the fetish for living without possessions, for clean, uncluttered and physically untethered lives a calculated plot to make us dependent on corporations such as Google, Amazon and Apple? Is the love of minimalist design merely the aesthetic manifestation of an economy in which we cast off “outdated” material things in favor of an umbilical connection to a handful of corporations that store and deliver knowledge, music, culture and, when needed, groceries?
Minimalism does smell a little foul these days, ever more commercial, devoted to luxury rather than simplicity, a fantasy of the globalized everywhere. It is the design ethos of a world in which you bounce around a grid of generic places, which all feel familiar because they all have the same stores, the same brands and the same basic design. If you want to look at how this fantasy manifests itself architecturally, visit CityCenterDC, the massive, 10-acre mixed-use development that has arisen on the site of the old convention center south of New York Avenue between Ninth and 11th streets NW.
In the current vernacular: It has come online.
Six of the planned eight buildings for this site are now open, luxury retail is moving in, the fountains (most of them, anyway) are running, and people are beginning to discover its new public spaces, including a triangular park on the west side, and two intersecting pedestrian alleys that connect to a pleasant rectangular plaza between Ninth and 10th streets.
No one can possibly complain about all the good things this development does. For years, these blocks have been a desolate parking lot, sometimes used as a hub for low-cost bus lines. For even longer than that, the old convention center, demolished in 2004, occupied this space with oppressive stolidity, and closed off parts of 10th and I streets NW. It’s good to have those streets back.
It was a long saga, too, to get anything built here at all. At one point there were plans for a new main branch of the city library system, and a music museum. But cultural uses fell by the wayside. Then financing and construction were delayed by the 2008 financial collapse, and it took a controversial infusion of funds from Qatar to jump-start the project. Conservative commentators fretted that Qatari money would mean sharia law in the middle of Washington, but no worries: Booze will flow at its restaurants and if you’re lucky enough to own or rent an apartment here, you are free to indulge all the legal vices.
The master planning, led by the London-based Foster + Partners, has led to one feature that is decidedly un-Washington in all the right ways. The central public plaza functions more like an effective public square than most other urban spaces in Washington: In its widening-out from a narrower pedestrian passage, it mimics some of the organically evolved public squares in Europe, a linear space that has become what one historian and critic calls “a psychological parking place.” In his 2010 book “Great Public Squares,” architect Bob Gatje enumerated features that contribute to making successful urban squares, and the small plaza at CityCenter self-consciously but effectively has many of them: a sense of enclosure, good proportions, and the feeling of being an outdoor room, bounded but not claustrophobic.
The real test, however, will be what happens here, whether an authentic sense of city life evolves in these spaces. Will they always feel manicured, programmed and under surveillance? Does that matter? It depends on one’s definition of urbanity and authenticity. Today, we tend to think of urban success in rather rudimentary terms: Is the space active, full of people, well-lighted and safe? Architecturally, CityCenterDC and its public spaces are carefully defined to be successful on those terms.
Indeed, one might think of this architecture as a design echo of the controversial “broken windows” theory of policing, the idea that a vigorous response to petty crime and surface disorder — broken windows, graffiti and other nuisances — creates a deeper sense of safety that permeates throughout the community with supposedly salutary effects the crime rate. Minimalism, such as Foster + Partners offers in the four, immaculately designed glass boxes it has contributed to the site, is defined by the ostentatious blankness of its surfaces, its panes of glass, its lack of anything that isn’t intentionally put there by the designers and architects. It isn’t without visual energy or interest — it’s not a barren-grid style minimalism — but it feels a bit like every building is wearing its best white dress, confident that there are no urban hazards in sight, no grit, nothing that might soil its perfection.
The perfection of these buildings — which carries through to the interior condominium spaces that feel like high-end hotel rooms, designed for elegant transience — stands in strange contrast to the surroundings. To the south of CityCenterDC on H Street, a boarded-up brick building — currently held by the Secret Service — looks like a derelict frat house. It is a hostile urban presence, secure behind a fence, with no explanation why its windows have been covered over. It isn’t even trying to be a good citizen. (The Secret Service didn’t respond to questions about the use or future of the building.)
And yet CityCenterDC, its toff new neighbor to the north, almost makes it feel quaint, a relic of old Washington still waiting to be scrubbed and repurposed. And which party would you rather go to? The wine-and-cheese affair around the swimming pool at CityCenterDC, elevated above the bustle of Washington, or the Animal House beer-bong party at the Secret Service? We know they know how to party.
Another unfortunate detail is the triangular park on the west end of the site designed by Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, the same firm that landscaped the courtyard space to complement the glass canopy designed by Foster + Partners for the Old Patent Office Building. It is a good thing that there is a park here, but anyone who has spent time at the Patent Office — home to the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum — will recognize all the same moves and gestures. They seem to have run out of ideas, and if the new fountains at CityCenter are as balky as the ones at the Smithsonian, they’ll be a major liability. Or maybe, like everyone else they simply have a brand, and are distributing it far and wide.
There is a difference between nice and real. CityCenter is nice, and nice is certainly better than nasty. The blank-slate development of the site — and there are two more buildings, including a hotel designed by the blue-chip firm Herzog & de Meuron still in the works — meant that there was nothing here to preserve, or respond to. And one is thankful that the architects didn’t do what so many D.C. architects do: Load up the space with a fake nod to local style, brick veneer and glib, meaningless references to the Victorian bays and classicism that define so much of Washington’s built environment.
But it doesn’t feel real, it doesn’t feel like the sort of place you might go to be alone with your thoughts, read a book or people-watch. It is a space for eating, drinking and shopping and — if you live there — escaping rather than engaging the real city (which is miles away). This is a flaneur-free zone. But that’s the point: This architecture isn’t about being lost in urban space, it’s about being lost between urban spaces, always on the fly, connected only to systems, not places.
Here is the ideal way to experience it: Wait until its restaurants open, then make a date with several rich acquaintances from the World Bank. Arrive early, have a glass of wine, put in your ear buds, turn up the music, and dissolve into the solipsistic beauty of feeling disconnected, happy and numb, lost in a time and space. Notice how everything twinkles, how beautiful everyone is, how the world bustles in the background. Isn’t it nice? Isn’t it just like . . . Tokyo? London? New York?
What does it matter? You’ll be there next week.