by Zach Mortice
If I peek my head, furtively, meerkat-like, over my cube at AIA national headquarters in Washington, I can catch a glimpse of the Robert Mill’s Washington Monument and William Thornton’s Octagon building architecture museum. In some ways, it’s a representative view of Washington: a monument and a museum, both very old and laden with history. Washington has traditionally resisted Modernism, and architecture here is often broad and historical. Perhaps the city’s best know contemporary Modernist buildings are Smithsonian museums—I.M. Pei’s East Building of the National Gallery of Art, Gyo Obata’s National Air and Space Museum, and Gordon Bunshaft’s Hirshhorn Museum. They were all built in the 1970s.
Certainly, there are exceptions to this. The Shakespeare Theater Company’s Sidney Harman Hall is one. The National Museum of the American Indian is establishing itself as well-loved addition to the National Mall—a building that succinctly telegraphs its function and purpose with grace from hundreds of yards away. The new Foster and Partners courtyard at the National Portrait Gallery is amazing, but its success largely rests with how it interacts with a 170-year-old building. My story about Suman Sorg’s new condos took me into a neighborhood where contemporary Modernism is crowding out traditional forms.
But, by and large, the city is still waiting for a sharp, brash contemporary icon that demands attention to come along—what Gehry’s addition to the Corcoran should have been—what the Moshe Safdie National Health Museum could be.
And if such a building doesn’t come along soon enough, the reasons might be discerned in Washington’s history as a rigidly planned endeavor. Few cities (with the exceptions of Oscar Niemeyer’s city-block-scaled masterwork of Brasilia or the Modern fantasia of Columbus, Ind.) can say that like Washington. They were scripted and zoned before they even existed. Here, the severe height restrictions keep the skyscrapers in the suburbs, and every other block is part of a protected historic district. But you know what does work really well in this situation? Sumptuous and grand Neo-Classical restorations. And here they are. Governmental clients aren’t typically interested in adventurous designs either, though Thom Mayne, FAIA, is proving it can be done.
So it’s not a surprise that the places in Washington that are seeing the most growth in contemporary architecture are places where gentrification has been pushing organic demographic changes for years. Washingtonians aren’t afraid of Modernism, they’re just often not given the option.
Especially in the context of the recent museum building boom, other less culturally favored cities have been given this option. Denver has had two important museum openings since 2006, one by Daniel Libeskind, AIA. Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA, built her first building in the United States in Cincinnati. Minneapolis stands out for its 2005 addition to the Walker Art Center and the renovation of the Guthrie Theater.
Is this a matter of such cities “reaching beyond their contexts” to bring home architecture they’re not expected to “deserve”? If so, does Washington have to do the same? Then what about your town?