Everyone has an opinion on architecture, what’s yours?
By Spencer Lepler
I have lived in the DC Metro area for the past 4 years, and it wasn’t until this past sunday that I made my first trip to what I affectionally call “the forgotten quarter”, South West. I had worked in South East for a year and driven on South Capitol street before, but I never had a reason to head into the mostly residential and not very tourist focused southwest water district. I was pleasantly surprised when I went to pick a friend up from the Tiber Island Community on 4th and N Streets SW (pictured) and suddenly found myself transported out of the three DC’s I had known into a completely new and, although foreign, wonderful town.
For me, DC has always spanned three different cities. It is a city of brick townhouses where both the wealthy and poor live, sometimes on the same block, a city of glass and steel towers that would love to scrape the sky, but are hamstrung by the width of their avenues, and a city of concrete and stone neo-classical monuments and buildings always evoking the grandeur of our government. What I found on the other side of M street blew me away. This was a thoroughly “Modern” city, direct from the drawings of Le Corbusier, and unlike most other urban renewal projects of the 1960s which tore out low rise housing to put in tower blocks, this development seemed to be not only working, but thriving.
The Tiber Island community is not unique in the DC area, there are mid-century mid-rise towers all over the district and Northern Virginia, but none that seem to create a sense of a neighborhood. Many of these tower blocks are objects in a field, they are surrounded by their parking lots and fountains manicured lawns. They They avoid the strategy that makes Tiber Island so successfull architeturally, they eschew changes in scale so that the towers will not become part of the city fabric. This is where the TIber Island community strength lies, in its embrace of the urban mode: its lack of available above grade parking and density of development.
The Tiber Island community did not feel alien and cold because it was architecturally planned to have multiple levels of scale. First there are the tall towers situated on a series of paired columns. These tall blocks are such a start contrast to the rest of the city’s housing forms that they could be off putting, but the glass lobbies are inviting. The second level, which is one of the things that definetly makes the whole community work is the low rise townhouses. These provide an infill between the towers both vertically and horizontally. They help brdige the scale between the human and the Modernist. Lastly, and probably most important is the trees, they soften the modernist hard angles and provide shade in a way that street engaged buildings would have. I find it interesting that my read of the neighborhood is so influenced by the tall tree canopy which has grown in over the past 40 years, but which was not originally a part of the architectural vision. The area that works the least for me is the plaza between the towers. This concrete paved courtyard is devoid of plants and and changes in scale, and ironically is probably the most “architecturally pure” and consistent with the original architectural vision.
Too often I fall into the trap of criticizing all urban renewal projects as being failed mistakes. Most of them were, but it is the exception that proves the rule. Tiber Island is that exception and as a case study it shows how Urban Renewal could have changed the American City. But instead of Tower communities of multiple scales and urban density, we ended up with disparate High Rise Tower and Low Rise projects all based around automobile transportation. The space that this required prevented the urban mesh that makes Tiber Island successful.
Spencer Lepler is an architectural designer nearing the end of the architecture licensing process. He has lived in the DC metro area since 2005. He posts on a semi-regular basis to his blog – selophane.com. In addition to blogging he is currently engaged in pursuing freelance design work.