Everyone has an opinion on architecture, what’s yours?
By Spencer Lepler
In light of the news that Monument Realty will be resuming the sale of condos at Potomac Place Tower on 4th street SW between G and I streets, I took a walk through the surrounding neighborhood of Capitol Park and was pleasantly surprised to find a tranquil garden community nestled within the increasingly busy Southwest Waterfront neighborhood.
This development of well maintained modern townhouses featuring lovely brickwork and handsome human scale proportions, designed by Architect Chloethiel Woodard Smith and Landscape Architect Dan Kiley and managed by two different community organizations, is unique amongst the massive urban renewal projects of the 1960s. While projects like Tiber Island created livable communities of Tower blocks with supplemental infill low rise buildings, this community is a sea of three story pedestrian friendly townhouses with super block towers on the perimeter. In addition, these townhouse condos are clustered around a series of well planted courtyards and open quadrangles that are only accessible by pedestrians and bicyclists. This combination of dense urban development along with a very pedestrian centric design makes this community feel much more like an organic neighborhood, like Capitol Hill or Georgetown, than any of the other modernist developments in southwest.
If not for the lack of commercial development, Capitol Park creates one of the most pedestrian friendly spaces in all of DC. While I was standing in one of the sheltered courtyards I was reminded of the urban pocket parks of Paris. In most of DC, the public green spaces are aligned with major avenues and transportation routes. In Paris there are also major parks along major axes, but there are countless pocket parks and courtyards that are nestled within the winding medieval streets. There, the minor parks are created by the medieval urban fabric resisting the overlaid Baroque city plan, while in DC Capitol Park is unique in that it creates minor green spaces by overlaying a modernist interpretation of a medieval neighborhood plan on a Baroque city. These parks provide a much different respite than at the Mall or any of the Squares or Circles…
The density of the building masses coupled with the mature plantings provided ample shade and a pleasant environment, even on a hot muggy August day. I was sheltered in a serene park setting, but the main community collectors streets and cars, as well as the rest of the city, were a few steps away. Even the sound of the Southeast Southwest Freeway next door to this development was muffled into a pleasing hum by the protective barrier of the surrounding buildings. There is something quite dramatic about being able to take a walk around an urban neighborhood and never once see or even hear a car.
Many new developments do include some form of pedestrian-only spaces in their interior courtyards, but most lie beyond card scanners and call boxes, protected from the hoi polloi and accessible only by the building residents. This in effect creates a walled garden outside of the public zone and limits the public green spaces to the avenues and circles which are shared by automobiles. In addition, many of these courtyards are still on the super block scale focused on providing all the community’s amenities in one large open space, as opposed to Capitol Park’s easily digestible and understandable human scale outside rooms, and as such they provide little adequate natural shading and climactic comfort. The recently built townhouse community on Capitol Square Place in Southwest does a commendable job of integrating minor parks into the development, but it relies very heavily on long axial vistas, which tie these spaces into the greater urban context instead of into the neighborhood. This is indirect contrast to the Capital Park’s structured limited views which tie each courtyard directly to the buildings adjacent to it, and not the greater city plan.
In a time when accidents in which pedestrians are critically injured by increasing vehicular traffic have become routine, I am left to wonder why more developers have not taken a cue from this 40 year old project. In our current disgust with urban renewal have we thrown the proverbial baby out with the bath water? I think there is something quite human about the medieval city which in the Capital Park development has been successfully exported to the modern city: specifically in the sheltered pedestrian focused spaces, short structured vistas, and winding circulation routes. Now that we have a better understanding of the issues that plagued medieval cities, such as public health, safety, and sanitation, we can plan neighborhoods that incorporate the medieval urban structure in a safe and healthy way. What if, instead of proposing a street engaged doughnut shaped buildings, like the proposals for the Hines School at Eastern Market and City Vista at Mountain Vernon Triangle, we focused on creating human scale residential buildings connected via pedestrian circulation routes with small green spaces open to the public. These new urban villages would help define each new project as a cohesive neighborhood within the greater urban fabric instead of an isolated fortress focused on keeping the city out.
Spencer Lepler is an architectural designer nearing the end of the architecture licensing process who has lived in Northern Virginia since 2005. He posts on here and on a semi-regular basis to his blog – selophane.com; he can also be found as a contributing writer on greatergreaterwashington.org. In addition to writing he has a design studio with fellow DC area designer Andrew Merlo – studioSML.com and is on the executive board of Dominion Stage. You can follow him on twitter @selophane and @studioSML.