Archive for the ‘Washington DC’ Category

Alexa Meade at the National Portrait Gallery

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

Alexa Meade is an artist based in Washington DC. Her increasingly well known work consists of painting real life spaces and figures as if to look as though they were inside an oil painting and then photograping the scene. A kind of trompe l’oeil occurs when viewing her photographs. It is hard to believe that the vivid lines and colors have not been drawn over the image, that everything represented is actually the tones and dimensions the camera is picking up as “reality.” One is reminded of rotoscopy (waking life), where the real blends with the drawing blends with the real. Most of Meade’s work is in the closeup and the detailed contours of undulating clothing and skin are remarkably well rendered.  Integrating perspective and distance into the work would be a lovely exploration. I tried to imbue my photographs with this sensibility.

The architectural space inside the Kogod Courtyard at the National Gallery is lovely and you can see more photos of it in this post, including a night shot.

Mcmillan Sand Filtration Plant

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

I have posted once before about the Mcmillan Reservoir Sand Filtration Plant here, but I had to take all my photos from behind the outer fence. Last weekend I had the opportunity to gain access to the site and to explore the amazing industrial ruins. The place has an incredible scale, stretching across several blocks of the city. There is nowhere else but the National Mall where one can experience such a large swath of unbuilt land within the District. Built in 1905, this vast machine acted as the city’s water filtration system until 1986 when it was replaced by the nearby chemical treatment plant. The DC government purchased the site from the Federal government in 1987 for $9.3 million with the intention of developing it, but it has sat dormant ever since and the lack of maintenance is sorely showing. The city finally seems ready to act and they have hired a design team whose schematic concepts for the site can be seen here: Envision Mcmillan. There is also a great deal of resistance to these plans from local community groups including Friends of Mcmillan and Our Mcmillan. These groups say that the current plan favors high-rise construction over green space and that the design does not respect the historical character of the site. I would argue that new construction on the site in general is a positive thing. Currently it is only enjoyed by squirrels and birds and the lack of maintenance is destroying the historically significant and aesthetically pleasing buildings. On the other hand, it would be a great tragedy to simply demolish all existing conditions and erect new buildings with no memory. It would also be a shame to lose the expansive character of the current green space, and I would hope that as much of the open field could be as undisturbed as possible. The structures themselves are proportionally pleasing cylindrical forms that were originally built for a utilitarian engineering purposes, and because of that, they appear to be “modern” in a way that other buildings of that time period appear dated. These buildings should be re-purposed and incorporated into a contemporary design scheme, which would be sustainable since less new construction would be needed.


Steven Holl speaks at the Swiss Embassy

Friday, May 18th, 2012

Last night renowned architect Steven Holl presented his work during a catered reception at the Swiss embassy residency. He designed the building itself, which is a serene minimalist composition of translucent forms and voids. The building does well what Holl is known for: creating softly glowing spaces.


Play It Forward

Saturday, April 14th, 2012


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Play It Forward is an interactive, motion-sensing installation that I designed and fabricated with Hiroshi Jacobs and Jonathan Grinham. The piece activates play and human motion by automatically donating a small amount of money each time someone plays with it. The project was intended to suggest a new kind of temporary urbanism that uses design and technology to affect social change. Inspired by the geometry of movement, Play It Forward was designed and constructed using advanced parametric and digital fabrication methods. Strategically located sensors on the piece identify activity and respond with visual feedback. Passersby interact with the installation by playing a simple game with the sensors and LED lighting, and by playing donate to charity. A digital read-out shows the amount of money that has been donated through play, and using the latest in mobile web technology players are encouraged to spread the word about their experience with their social networks. RTKL Associates, Inc. generously provided a stipend which has been donated to the charity KaBOOM! through Play It Forward gameplay. KaBOOM! fights childhood obesity by building playgrounds in needy neighborhoods and advocating nutrition and physical fitness.

Consistent with the idea of play, the form of the installation is meant to suggest motion, but it is also a discretized geometry that is constructed as a series of economically optimized units. This rationalization not only produces a heightened expression of curvature by marking deviation from the original surface, but also speaks to the ability of computational optimization to navigate between sketch and performance.

The Play It Forward installation integrates several technologies which work together to provide a fun charitable experience. The project was designed, from concept to construction automation, using computer programming and geometry based mathematics. CNC machines were used in the fabrication of the physical artifact. Physical-digital interaction was accomplished through the use of an Arduino microcontroller, a series of photoelectric sensors, and LED lighting. As the game is played, the microcontroller transmits game data via processing to an internet data hosting website called Pachube, which in turn is accessed by a custom-developed website that displayed statistics about the most-recent game. Players access the website on their smart phones by scanning an individualized QR code that is displayed on an Apple iPad near the installation. Although none of the individual technologies used in the installation is particularly new or ground-breaking, it brings parametric design, digital fabrication, interactive sensor-driven technology, web-enabled data hosting, social networking, and charitable donation together in a unique a way to affect social change.


Data Materialized

Saturday, October 1st, 2011

As a creative experiment in temporary urbanism and digital innovation, the 24-hour City Project explored the intersection of data, arts, and technology within the built environment. The project aimed to demonstrate how technology, imagination, and innovation can envision our future cities.

On June 5th, three interdisciplinary teams,  installed exhibitions at the National Building Museum that were meant to encourage a vision of the built environment that is more engaging, relevant to our lives, and accessible to all.

The three teams were led by Elissa Goetschius, Eric Gunderson, and myself, Kashuo Bennett, with much help from FabLabDC,  iStrategy Labs and A Wider Circle, as well as Virginia Tech and RTKL.

My team’s entry, titled “Data Materialized,” won first place in the competition. Here’s a video about the event:

24 Hour City Project from Russell Brothers on Vimeo.

This installation demonstrates how numerical data can be used to drive the shape of geometric form and then be converted into tangible material objects through the use of computer controlled fabrication technology. The form of the undulating physical structure represents higher educational achievement in the District in plan. You can see the number of bachelor’s degrees spike near Capitol Hill and decline east of the Anacostia River. By projecting colored maps of other statistical data sets onto the structure from above (like crime and median income), relationships emerge between data and social demographics. The digitally fabricated surface was manufactured using a laser cutter and has 717 unique pieces (and 4,302 rivets!).

Here is a video of the  fabrication process:


Tenleytown-Friendship Library

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

In a second example of modern library design in Washington this week, we are presented with this striking building on Wisconsin ave, near American University. Similar to the strategy employed on the Shaw library, the angled steel fins along the south and east side of the building are aligned to block direct sunlight while allowing views to the outside. Their color is evocative of terracotta and contrasts nicely with the crisp blue sky.





Shaw Library

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

The recently completed Shaw Library located at 7th and Rhode Island Avenue  NW was designed by architecture firm Davis Brody Bond Aedas. The building features several innovative technologies to improve sustainability performance. The south facade of the building is glass, but an outboard layer of perforated metal blocks direct sunlight to minimize solar gain in the summer months, while still allowing views to the outside. The north wall of the building is made from translucent insulated panels that have excellent thermal properties while also letting in diffuse light so that there is less load on the electrical systems for lighting, and furthermore less load on the air conditioning system to account for the heat from those lights. The sculptural design is exciting to me as well, with a soaring projected fin and many nicely articulated minimalist details.







Unites States Institute of Peace

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

This brand new building designed by architect Moshe Safdie was just completed at the far west end of the National Mall. The bold design features a swooping translucent roof form that covers an interior atrium connecting stone office masses. Safdie walks a fine line between a pure modern minimalism and a post-modern iconic formalism. The roof structure is technologically elegant, but if viewed in plan it purposely evokes the image of the dove of peace.








World Health Organization

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

The interplay between these two volumes….so satisfying.







The American Stage

Monday, December 20th, 2010

The new Arena Stage just opened this fall in South West DC after a major 30 month, $135 million renovation designed by Canadian architect Bing Thom.  The dramatic curved glass form with a floating cloud-like roof encloses the original theater building and adds about 100,000 sf to the program of the Mead Center for American Theater.






Les Grandes Marches

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

In our second of a three part exploration of brutalism, we examine one of the most elegantly understated buildings in the district.   The offices of The Department of Housing and Urban Development was designed by Marcel Breuer and was completed in 1968.  This pre-cast concrete facade houses one of the most important institutions of our forthcoming era.  With the rapid increase in global urbanization, sophisticated and robust planning initiatives must be deployed  if we are to meet the needs of the growing urban population.

Even though HUD here in DC doesn’t necessarily operate on an international level with these kinds of urban problems, it will become more and more important to be aware of these challenges in coming decades.  The figures are staggering, especially in developing countries.   Within just 30 years, cities in developing countries will triple their entire urban built-up area, generating the same amount of urban area as the entire world had cumulatively generated by the year 2000–much of it will be in the form of over crowded slums.   In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, slum dwellers make up 72 percent of the urban population, totaling more than 166 million people in 2001.  Their numbers are expected to increase to more than 325 million by 2020, more than the current population of the United States of America.





In other news, Virginia Tech Architecture professor and National Building Museum curator Susan Piedmont Palladino gave a lecture on brutalism a few weeks ago and used a few Straight Torquer photographs.  She blogs about architecture and sustainability at:


Leave Everything

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

The McMillan Reservoir Filtration Plant was built in 1905.  At the time it was constructed it utilized an innovative sand filtration technology that replaced toxic chemicals for treating water. It operated continuously for 80 years.  This  abandoned facility in North West DC is an eerie and mysterious landscape.  The wide fields are dotted with crop-circle-esque patterning of manhole covers extending the mechanical construct out into the at first seemingly empty grass plains.  It is truly a vast machine.







One is reminded of the French modern architect Le Corbusier’s study of the early industrial grain silos of North America in his seminal book: Towards a New Architecture.  It them he saw utility, simplicity, material efficiency, and exciting structural form.