Les Grandes Marches

August 18th, 2010 by admin

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: http://ganggreennbm.blogspot.com/


Leave Everything

August 18th, 2010 by admin

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.

We Share Our Mother’s Health

August 4th, 2010 by admin

Located next to the Capitol Building on the National Mall, The Hubert H. Humphry Building was designed by Marcel Breuer in 1975 and houses the headquarters of the US Department of Health and Human Services.  This excellent example of brutalism employs both pre-cast and cast-in place concrete to create a richly textured exterior with many sloping planes that pleasingly interact with the angled light.  Le Corbusier, the father of brutalism, is famous for saying: “Architecture is the learned game, correct and magnificent, of forms assembled in the light.”  One can see this philosophy at play in this building, where high contrast shadows add depth and interest to the building facade.





Crystal Castle

July 13th, 2010 by admin

At $830 per square foot, this LEED-Gold office tower designed by Helmut Jahn is the second most expensive piece of commercial real estate ever to be sold in Washington DC.  Located at 1999 K Street, the building may seem underwhelming at a distance.  However the uniquely expressed curtain wall is a cleanly detailed system that delivers a completely original experience.  Each curtain panel is buttressed by a vertical fin of glass projecting from the flat surface of the building.  The functional directive of the fins is to provide wind-load support, but their sculptural quality is what makes them so exciting.  From a vantage point on the adjacent sidewalk, the fins create a mosaic effect of angular geometric transparency.   The result is very subtle, and likely missed by the majority of passers by.  But it is exactly this understated simplicity that leads to a profoundly graceful power.  The close-up photos of the wall are worth clicking on.  The lobby at night is also a vivid space.







Tectonic Botany

July 13th, 2010 by admin

The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum at the US National Arboretum on New York Avenue in North East DC  houses an impressive collection of specimens, some over 350 years old.   Almost any tree can be made into a bonsai and there are wide variety of species on display.   These miniaturized plants represent a profound control of the human hand over nature and they are surprisingly robust for their delicate size.  Many of the trees do require meticulous care from time to time, but generally they live outdoors fully among the elements.   Beyond the Bonsai exhibit, the huge arboretum offers a great deal of natural and landscaped beauty and makes for a terrific bike ride.





Kit of Parts

June 18th, 2010 by admin

The DC office of law firm Jones Day has been open since 1946, but they recently hired Pritzker Pirize winning architect Sir Richard Rogers to design an environmentally friendly state of the art addition to their historic Acacia Building. The two buildings are linked by an atrium space with a dramatic exposed steel structure rising through the center.  The skeletal yellow frame engages and supports multiple systems of circulation between several floors connecting the old building to the addition.  An elevator, stairs, and several bridges hang off the construction delicately, with all fastenings and constructed technologies revealed to the public.  The stark technological minimalism and “kit of parts” approach to architecture is Rogers’ signature style and can be seen typified in the famous Centre du Pompidou in Paris.






Soft Stone

June 16th, 2010 by admin

The Katzen Art Center at American University is a serene and fluid arrangement of plastic forms rendered in stone.  The orbital sweeping lines carry your eye around the building’s side, inviting exploration.  The sunken sculpture garden is partially hidden from view but contains several treasures.  The building houses academic, performing art, and fine art spaces and was designed by Boston based firm Einhorn Yaffee Prescott.






June 16th, 2010 by admin

“Fashion is architecture.  It is a matter of proportion.”  -Coco Channel

The Mary Basket collection of contemporary Japanese fashion was recently on display at the Textile Museum on S street.  Pieces by Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto were presented as groundbreaking examples of avant garde design from the 1970s and early 1980s.   By innovating new formal abilities of cloth through structural pleating as well as focusing on abstract silhouettes that are at times incongruous with the human shape, monochromatic color pallets, asymmetry, and graphics, these designers effectively set the stage for the postmodern movement in fashion.





FDA Campus

April 5th, 2010 by admin

The nearly completed headquarters of the US Food and Drug Administration is located in White Oak, Maryland, near the the edge of Washington, DC.  This 9000 employee office and laboratory campus has been under construction for almost a decade and is one of the largest government construction projects in history.  The FDA regulates companies that make up fully a quarter of the US economy, making the size of the institution more understandable.  Under the guidance of Rod Henderer and Douglas Palladino at RTKL Associates (in a joint venture with Kling Stubbins), this facility exhibits some of the most sophisticated and timeless modern architecture currently being built in the greater District area.

Full disclosure:  The author of The Straight Torquer worked on this project.






March 22nd, 2010 by admin

The mythic history of the Finnish people is on display right now a the Finish Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue.  Viewing this exhibition is a wonderful excuse to visit one of the finest examples of modern architecture in Washington DC.  The soaring central space is punctuated by massive copper colored forms that appear to be floating in space.  For views of the exterior, please see this post:


From speaking with the cultural ambassador I learned among other things that the Finnish hero figure is known not for his might on the battlefield, but rather for his graceful diction and storytelling prowess.  His symbolic power object is a musical instrument made from the jaw bone of a fish.





Concrete Texture

March 15th, 2010 by admin

These three buildings on 15th street at M compliment one another nicely.




After Postmodernism

January 25th, 2010 by admin

Today The Straight Torquer presents a guest post from friend and fellow blogger A.J. Aronstein of Theoretically So.  He has some cogent thoughts about Architecture’s role in divining a way forward through the floating debris of post-modern critique.  I am encouraged by the optimism that aethsetitians could play a role in guiding the creation of political and social philosophy.  What do you think of his assertion that art and architecture can show us a future of harmony in a globalized world?  What would such a future look like?


Guest Post follows:


It might be jumping the gun to consider the twentieth anniversary of Fredric Jameson’s The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. But for members of any field of aesthetics—architecture, visual arts, music, literature—a reconsideration of Jameson’s seminal work may prove helpful to orienting ourselves to the evolving political and ethical concerns of our contemporary moment. I intend this commentary to be an opening up of Jameson’s chief concerns, and am especially interested in the proliferation of cross-disciplinary responses to several questions: Is postmodernism over? What are the stakes of establishing a new set of aesthetic practices that adequately addresses the concerns of postmodernism? And of course: Who cares?

Working within Jameson’s theoretical framework provides some possible answers, while presenting a new set of problems for our generation of professionals in fields of aesthetics.

Jameson describes postmodernism not as a set of aesthetic practices, but as a cultural product of history. It is the aesthetic mode appropriate to late capitalism. In a moment of unconstrained accumulation, financial capital replaces industrial capital: Credit Default Swaps and Toxic Assets replace Ford Model-T’s.  Here, it seems important to emphasize that Jameson sees himself as an heir to Theodor Adorno, operating within a Marxist framework that grapples with the implications of alienated labor for the human subject. The industrial capital of modernity introduced the working class to the idea of the fetishized commodity. Late capitalism takes another leap, further removing the human laborer from the product of one’s labor, which for Jameson leads to further disorienting of the subject.

For the visual arts, this produces an emphasis on the reproducibility of images for consumption in global markets rather than singularity or particularity of high art (in his essay, Warhol versus Van Gogh; or in a more exaggerated register Damien Hirst versus Picasso).  For literature, it means an evolution of forms of linguistic wordplay, improbable plots, and impossible coincidences that aim at aesthetic euphoria—rather than the moralizing or ethical lessons of “properly historical” novels in the realist tradition. The viewer or reader experiences a kind of ecstasy in this sensory overload. In the absence of calls to a responsibility to find deep meaning, we can luxuriate in the depthlessness of images that have no final significance.

In the case of architecture, Jameson turns to the Hotel Bonaventure in Los Angeles, applying his abstract idea of free-floating signifiers to physical experience in a built environment. The Bonaventure, he argues, rejects the urban fabric. The glass surfaces of the building push away (by reflecting) the surrounding environment, offering the promise of a self-contained city of shops, restaurants, entertainment facilities, and offices. The problem with the space is its disorientation of visitors. Within the cavernous lobby, it becomes impossible to find bearings—to create what Jameson refers to as a cognitive map of the space, by which individuals could establish a sense of where they fit into the context of the building. The Bonaventure mimics the experience of living in the postmodern moment, in which we cannot find ourselves within a context of cultural signifiers. Rather than lament the loss of our grounding in principles of morality or ethics, we revel in a kind of amniotic fluid—blissfully unable to conceive of ourselves as situated in a single position.

But is this still the case? Are we still reproducing a sense of placelessness in our art, literature, and buildings?

We live in a moment of hyper-capitalism, but the historical and economic context of Jameson’s book seems long gone. In this sense, we might already be post-postmodern (as unsatisfying as this term may be, let’s keep it for now). The structures of financial capital have been shaken to the core in the past three years. In a phrase borrowed from Slavoj Zizek (by way of The Matrix), the financial meltdown forced us to witness the “Desert of the Real.” Economic collapse aside, we inhabit the continually unfolding reality of the War on Terror, which has overturned our conceptions of everyday life in urban environments, altering the way we travel as individuals and exchange ideas, ideologies and capital as nations. At the time of Jameson’s writing (the fall of the Berlin Wall), the post-Cold War world seemed headed for unfettered globalization—where markets could indefinitely measure out steady growth.

We can’t afford the euphoria of placelessness anymore. There are underwear bombers and polar bears on drifting glaciers.

In response to a new contemporary moment, architectural praxis has found ethical roots in a combination of environmentalism and a reconsideration of the urban environment. In this way, architecture leads the way in the positive formulation of an aesthetic for the period after postmodernism.

In literary and visual art studies, contemporary critics focus on the human body and its relation to a hyper-technologized society. Professors asking, “What is posthumanism?” circulate the halls of humanities departments. But what if the moment after postmodernism offers a chance to engage in aesthetic practice that grows out of codes that depend on some sort of individual ethical and political responsibility? Or, some kind of accountability to create lived environments and aesthetic works that re-engage with the question of what it means to be a human subject in the first place?

The stakes? Postmodernity is often caricatured as a moment of moral relativism, quotation, citation, doublespeak, triple speak, nonsensicalness. If academics, practitioners of aesthetics, and professionals in architecture can push the ball forward, it will be through a revision of humanist principles based on the lessons of globalization and projects of identity politics. Art won’t save the world any time soon, but aesthetic practice can shape a politics of individuality grounded in the social world, and in work that attends to interactions in a globalized sociality.

Brilliant People Who Have Interesting Things To Say:

Giorgio Agamben. “What is the Contemporary?” in What is an Apparatus? Palo Alto: Stanford, 2009.

Marc Auge. Non-places: An Introduction to Supermodernity, second edition. London: Verso, 2008.

Patrick Hayden and Chamsy El-Ojeili, ed. Globalization and Utopia: Critical Essays. London: Palgrave, 2009.

Fredric Jameson. The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke, 1991.

Charles Jencks. Critical Modernism: Where is Post-modernism Going? London: Wiley, 2007.