BETTER TOGETHER

In many areas throughout Washington DC, mixed use/commercial zoning districts are adjacent to residential districts, creating large disparities in scale at their borderline, often between one side of the street and another, or between a corner and the rest of the block.

Following on my previous post regarding design strategies for pop-up additions to traditional row houses, I would like to share some early images of a new project on the boards that is, to say the least, the Mother of all Pop-Ups. It happens to be in a mixed use district, which allows much larger buildings than the single family traditional row dwellings that currently existing along that block. With that in mind, we are approaching the design our our 12 unit building as a prototype that could potentially be repeated down the block, or at least a portion of it, creating a larger scale version of the rhythm that exists along traditional blocks of row dwellings throughout the city.

 The Mother of All Pop-Ups

The Mother of All Pop-Ups

 Better Together

Better Together

While our proposed building by itself towers over its neighbors, when repeated as module it becomes a playful reinterpretation of the smaller traditional blocks or row dwellings surrounding it, and can act as an effective bridge between the scale of the row dwellings and that of nearby commercial buildings.

As we all know, many traditional row house blocks were designed as repeating modules, and were often built as blocks at one time, not individual buildings, resulting in beautiful rhythmic streets.

Of course, designing prototypes that work well as a larger group and allow for the creation of more (much needed) dwelling units without sticking out like a sore thumb sounds great from a planning stand point, but given that each row dwelling is owned by a different family, it is not the most realistic approach. But who knows? Hopefully at least one of the neighboring buildings will go up for sale one of these days…

EMBRACING THE POP-UP

Let’s face it: pop-ups are going to continue to be built all over DC, whether we like them or not. Entire streets are being disfigured, both by clumsy top story additions and by the insensitive removal of traditional brick row homes in order to replace them with new, boxy buildings that stick out (an up) like eyesores, don’t respect scale or context, but most definitely maximize FAR.

How can we help property owners and developers build better designed, better integrated, more sensitive pop-ups? Whether row houses are torn down or not, rising about adjacent roof lines is a certainly a tricky design proposition. My default position has often been to try to make it as invisible (or at least discreet) as possible. Then I came across this:

 An end of row pop-up original to the building that is anything but discrete… If you look closely you will notice that the same basic facade marches down the block, sans crown.

An end of row pop-up original to the building that is anything but discrete… If you look closely you will notice that the same basic facade marches down the block, sans crown.

There many examples of glorious upper stories throughout Washington, that could very well serve as inspiration for tackling this difficult design challenge. Mansard roofs are often employed, along with dormers of various shapes, to cap traditional row homes. I am not advocating that we suddenly start adding traditional looking mansard roofs to row buildings, but rather that we consider pop-ups a design opportunity instead of a faux-pas. After all, zoning regulations allow them, and they will continue to be built (at least outside Historic Districts).

Some of our recent projects attempt to embrace the pop-up as a project type, transforming them into an opportunity to integrate buildings of various scales into existing blocks of row houses. Instead of shying away from visibility, our goal with these projects is to provide architectural design solutions that coexist without having to insult or apologize, that respect their context and try to maintain their integrity simultaneously. After all, good architecture is not style or time specific. Can pop-ups be designed in such a way that they become positive additions to traditional city streets? This is no easy task…

Here are some examples of how we are trying to strike a balance between old vs. new, short vs. tall(er).

  In this four unit condominium building we added two stories, roof decks on two levels, and maximized FAR. Traditional pediments march down the traditional brick row, as do front porches. In our project the front porch proportions were maintained but it is reinterpreted as a bay window. The slight angle of the Mansard roof is allowed to continue, instead of being eliminated as is often done. Railings are kept light handed, materials consistent with the color of materials already on the block.

In this four unit condominium building we added two stories, roof decks on two levels, and maximized FAR. Traditional pediments march down the traditional brick row, as do front porches. In our project the front porch proportions were maintained but it is reinterpreted as a bay window. The slight angle of the Mansard roof is allowed to continue, instead of being eliminated as is often done. Railings are kept light handed, materials consistent with the color of materials already on the block.

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  In this five unit condominium building we added two stories and a penthouse, terraces/ roof decks on three levels, and requires BZA relief from FAR limits. Our building bridges scales between a residential and a mixed-use district. The massing is broken down, creating a dialogue with the residential structures along the street.

In this five unit condominium building we added two stories and a penthouse, terraces/ roof decks on three levels, and requires BZA relief from FAR limits. Our building bridges scales between a residential and a mixed-use district. The massing is broken down, creating a dialogue with the residential structures along the street.

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  In this two unit property, a sleek third story and roof deck access penthouse are added onto a traditional brick row house that is repeated down the block. A Mansard roof and dormers delicately lift the building up with minimum disruption to the facade.

In this two unit property, a sleek third story and roof deck access penthouse are added onto a traditional brick row house that is repeated down the block. A Mansard roof and dormers delicately lift the building up with minimum disruption to the facade.

 On one of the few blocks in Columbia Heights where Mansard roofs have survived, we propose enlarging the building while maintaining the its general massing. FAR are maximized in this three unit building through the use of a bay window and a discrete 4th story addition. A Mansard roof and dormer morph to become a cantilevered bay window, creating a ying/yang relationship between the various building elements.

On one of the few blocks in Columbia Heights where Mansard roofs have survived, we propose enlarging the building while maintaining the its general massing. FAR are maximized in this three unit building through the use of a bay window and a discrete 4th story addition. A Mansard roof and dormer morph to become a cantilevered bay window, creating a ying/yang relationship between the various building elements.

  In this 3 unit building a glass volume wraps around an existing semi-detached row house, and reveals itself on the front facade through a bay window addition. 1.5 stories and a roof deck were added.

In this 3 unit building a glass volume wraps around an existing semi-detached row house, and reveals itself on the front facade through a bay window addition. 1.5 stories and a roof deck were added.

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  Finally, in this most typical of DC row house blocks, a new five unit condominium co-exists with traditional row houses while accommodating an additional story and roof deck. Alterations to the facade, such as larger openings and a bay window help to integrate old and new. A spiral stair to the new roof deck is celebrated, becoming a crowning element in the new facade composition.

Finally, in this most typical of DC row house blocks, a new five unit condominium co-exists with traditional row houses while accommodating an additional story and roof deck. Alterations to the facade, such as larger openings and a bay window help to integrate old and new. A spiral stair to the new roof deck is celebrated, becoming a crowning element in the new facade composition.

The Value of Absurdity

I just returned from a few days in Italy, and a business meeting near Venice brought the opportunity to hop in to Venice proper for a few hours. Even though I have visited Italy many times since my studies abroad there 22 years ago, I had revisited Venice. During my studies abroad in Italy, I got to know the wondrous city on water fairly well, having returned many times to see its many surreal faces: sunny and unbelievably crowded, flooded and damp, even snowy. 

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Visiting Venice always brings to my mind Italo Calvino's "Invisible Cities," a mind/eye opening must read for architecture students. In the book, Calvino describes a series of impossibly absurd cities, and after reading several of these descriptions, one arrives at the conclusion that many of these stories actually describe real cities, and many presumably Venice. Calvino isolates certain aspects of the cities, allowing readers to focus on just those, and their absurdity, to imagine fantastic places in which these aspects are ever-present. Venice feels very much like an Impossible City and, in many ways, it is, and it has, in fact, many Invisible Cities within it. It is absurd, and beautifully so, as a whole, and each of its many layers/narratives.

At the time I first visited Venice, I was also very interested in the parallels between architecture and poetry. My architecture thesis was ultimately about just that, and perhaps Venice (or Italo Calvino, or Fernando Pessoa) had something to do with it. Of particular interest to me was the mechanism of transposition or, to put in architectural terms, collage. Transposition in poetry collages different, often unrelated narratives, generating a third, unforeseen narrative: an invention. In poetry, the beauty of that new narrative, much like in Venice, lies in its subtle absurdity.  It is almost real, almost normal, but not quite. There are so many unique aspects to Venice's architecture as a result of its conditions, and they are not all obvious. Overall they contribute to its uniqueness and beauty. The canals are the main narrative, but there is so much more; there are so many layers to it, and so many inventions within it.

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Many architects' work is described as poetic, often without much of an explanation. In my view poetry in architecture comes from its ability to re-present reality to us in a slightly absurd, unexpected way, either through the collage of different realities or, like Calvino, by highlighting certain aspects of a building and forcing us to confront them in isolation, to the point that they take over the narrative. When done right, it is subtle yet self-evident to the discerning eye.

Practicing architecture in a highly regulated urban environment such  as Washington DC, can make one forget the importance of absurdity in architecture. We are expected to design buildings that fit in, don't offend, don't provoke, that are respectful, and certainly not daring, and are often criticized for not doing so. This is particularly the case when proposing interventions on existing buildings, combining old and new, or working in a Historic District. I tend to be somewhat fearless about doing major surgery on older buildings, and non-apologetic about proposing contemporary buildings in Historic contexts. A linear, singular narrative seems to be the only thing people comprehend, preferably one about a bi-gone era. Most of us know that simply regurgitating the past, and designing for crowd pleasing is not how good architecture, or good cities are made. Good architecture, good cities are complex, layered, and absurd, not linear, precious, or apologetic.

Venice is bold in its absurdity, in its refusal to simply be like other cities. Imagine if Venice had never existed and someone proposed building it today in one shot, what kind or censorship would they have encountered? Obviously, Venice, like other great European cities, emerged organically over centuries. Luckily, they were never subjected to an ANC or Historic Preservation review. No one tried to oppose building Venice say for safety reasons, or to preserve the marsh, or to claim the streets are too narrow. It would have never existed. The fact that Venice is a whole city, not just a building, makes its existence even more implausible. Yet it exists, in all its beautiful absurdity, at least for now. 

For better or for worse, Venice is now one of the most protected cities in the world, and one that it is virtually impossible to build anything new in. Its evolution has been halted, and it is now an object to be consumed by mass tourism. What would have happened if that were not the case? Would another layer of passageways/bridges have been built at a higher level, would the roofs have become connected between themselves providing more options for mobility? Where would the seeming absurdity have ended? Would it have ended at all? Would it be less or more memorable if it had continued to evolve?

Often people confuse beauty with appearance, hence the urge to freeze it in time, to mummify it. To me beauty has always been much more about substance, especially when it comes to architecture. By halting a city's natural evolution in order to preserve it, you can also kill its soul. Mummies are dead, after all. Venice has plenty of substance, and will forever be beautiful, but it will never be more beautiful than it is today. Luckily, there is still  plenty of room for growth and invention elsewhere.

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I'm glad I took the time to drop in, even if only for a short while. 

Building Blocks

In the process of adapting the design of a prototypical row house to different site conditions including topography, scale, zoning constraints and programmatic requirements, we have recently developed a series of row house typologies, some of which are illustrated here. 

 TYPE 1, 1A

TYPE 1, 1A

    TYPE 2, 2A

 

TYPE 2, 2A

 TYPE 3

TYPE 3

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Type 1 consists of single family row house dwellings with rear loading garages on a hilly site. In response to the rhythm of row houses on surrounding blocks, and as is common in traditional row house typologies, bay windows are employed as means to break down scale and animate the streetscape.  In Type 1 the bay window spans the height of the top two floors.

Given the length of this particular development, and the fact that the site topography along the row varies significantly from one end of to the other, a secondary type (1A) was developed, in which the bay window changes in elevation and encompasses the lower level and 1st floor, with an open balcony above. The end result is a playful rhythm along the length of the block that helps to animate the streescape while mitigating the changes in elevation between adjacent row houses.

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Type 2 is a variation of Type 1. In this case the garages are front loading. The desire for shared curb-cuts for garage access brought upon the need to mirror the row houses side by side, hence the variation.

As with Type 1, bay windows are employed. In order to avoid creating the appearance of double wide row houses given the mirroring, here the bay windows are differentiated in their massing (2 tall versus 1  w/ balcony), and the color of the siding material varies. Adjacent garage entrances are slipped from front to back with respect to each other, further breaking down the scale of the 2 row-house module and creating an interesting figure/ground effect that further dematerializes the module.

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Type 3 is a 2-family variation, in which a cellar level was added, raising the main floor about 4 feet above grade. This development consists of 2 row houses only, so the need for variety was lessened.

In response the two story scale along the street of this development and the typical covered entrances, the bay windows here have morphed into a larger element that  provides cover at the front door while creating balconies above. The main body of the buildings recede 3 feet back, allowing for the 2 story continuity along the street wall.