Architectural Precedent Capitol Hill

Don't Let Them Fool You . . .

Contrary to what you might hear, boxy buildings are okay. Even relatively big ones. What is not okay, however, is anti-box propaganda founded upon misrepresentation. There was a time, we are told, that there were no boxy buildings, that buildings were neither massive nor unarticulated, and that in order to have new buildings be good urban neighbors, they need to acknowledge this pre-box precedent. Living in a world of make believe, these Tinkerbells of design (to include architects, Design Review Boards, developers, and concerned citizens) spread their anti-box fairy dust, hoping to achieve the kinder, gentler architecture which existed before big, boxy (i.e. modern) buildings desecrated Neverland.  The fact is many (most?) of Capitol Hill's best heritage buildings are boxes, with barely a change in massing or material, and elevations that remain remarkably the same from one corner to another. These best buildings are in fact, about as boxy as a box can be. Despite ample, recent built examples to the contrary, the Tinkerbells continue to believe that the modulation of a building’s mass, both horizontally and vertically, and composing it of as many distinct materials and colors as possible, leads to good design. This has not worked, and it is definitely not precedent-based. What this modulation and material mayhem is, is design by check-list. As long as each box is checked, the final result seems to be irrelevant. What is lost in this paint-by-numbers approach is the detail -- literally. For it was (and is) in the details of a window opening or in a material transition that human scale and texture of our heritage (and modern) buildings was achieved. In was (and is) those elements of a building that can be held in one's hand, that can be understood at eye level while passing by, that add scale and 'humanity'. Not design approaches that, due to their grand gestures, can only be comprehended from across the street or down the block. While it is true that color, material differentiation, and expressive massing can add interest to a building, it is no substitute for the richness added by detail and craft. In fact, I would be more than happy to see buildings such as the one below (designed by pb elemental, on 12th Ave and John) that have some nice detail and are volumetrically and materially expressive. But let's stick to basics first before we venture into more adventurous design, and have a look at a range of Capitol Hill boxes.

[caption id="attachment_1343" align="alignnone" width="700" caption="12th Avenue and John Street"][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_1309" align="alignnone" width="700" caption="Broadway and John"][/caption]

Above, one of the few heritage buildings on Broadway that is of suitable scale for the street's importance to the neighborhood, and a fine, anonymous urban building. The terracotta surrounded residential entrance is on John, and is the only part of the building that strongly asserts itself against the predominantly brick exterior.  The ground floor and top floor are expressed by only contiguous lines of terracotta. There are, I believe, only two types of windows, and for all intents and purposes, one material and one mass. Small medallions are located at floor lines of the third, fourth, and fifth floors to add a little sparkle. The building's John and Broadway corner is unapologetically non-celebratory, nicely matching the rest of the building.

[caption id="attachment_1307" align="alignnone" width="700" caption="Belmont and E Howell"][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_1306" align="alignnone" width="700" caption="Belmont and E Howell Entry"][/caption]

Exhibiting greater boxiness, as well as greater size, than the Broadway and John building, The Granada at Belmont and E Howell is among the largest apartments on Capitol Hill and reminds me of similar apartment buildings in other large American cities. It is a time tested typology. And though I would not want an entire neighborhood of them, its very restrain adds to its grandeur, making it a robust urban building. Sadly, though, I need not have that concern; for, based on current zoning it is too large for our neighborhood in height (per zoning), and its unarticulated breadth is relentlessly long (per design guidelines). As above, the base and top are distinguished only by lines of terracotta, while the upper floor windows (of only two sizes) have an terracotta header, and those at the ground floor have a keystone set within a brick jack arch. The entrance is perhaps a bit diminutive given the building's heft, but there is no denying that it handsome and well executed -- a result of concentrating resources to where they had the greatest impact. Note the fine lamps. This building is indeed a big, flat -- yet classy -- box.

[caption id="attachment_1311" align="alignnone" width="700" caption="Bellevue between Pike and Pine"][/caption]

A favorite medium sized apartment building tucked mid-block on Bellevue, along the Pike-Pine Corridor. While at first glance it appears to be little different from the above two examples, this building employs a slightly different design strategy. Here, the windows are of uniform size and placement, and the middle floors have no distinguishing elements. Whatsoever.  Instead, the architect decided to focus efforts on a luxurious base and sumptuous roof parapet. As in the previous examples, the facade is essentially dead flat (but none the worse because of it) save for some slightly projecting trim at the second and third floor lines (why distract from the gorgeous base?). A carefully selected brick color nicely completes the material palette, and a well detailed canopy marks the building's entrance. One of the better examples on the Hill for the much coveted 'base-middle-top' design approach. And a box to its bones.

[caption id="attachment_1303" align="alignnone" width="700" caption="12th Avenue and Madison"][/caption]

A handsome edifice, indeed. The heritage portion of the Trace Lofts (the tan brick base) takes the above examples to a next logical stage: greater articulation of the facades (but wait, here's the crazy part), while maintaining material integrity and uniformity! Not prone to exuberance, the designers wanted something a little different, which is great. What is equally great is that they found it not going hog wild with garish colors and monstrous modulations, but with subtle detail and nuance of the overall design approach. Major structural elements are expressed as bays, with a secondary reading afforded by a subdivision of said bays into three more sub-bays. The cornice is more pronounced than in the previous examples, and there is a pre-cursor to the structural bay/ infill approach occurring on the ground floor, and advanced in the next two examples. Why not change materials you ask, why not a more pronounced modulation? Because it was not needed.  And by keeping the material the same, the changes stay calm and quiet -- not screaming, not annoying. And kudos to the architects (Johnson Architects, I believe) of the top floor addition. It is black, it steps back, and it disappears allowing the real focus of our attention -- the original building -- to remain at center stage. And just look at that corner. What confidence!

[caption id="attachment_1301" align="alignnone" width="700" caption="Union and 11th"][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_1310" align="alignnone" width="700" caption="Union and 10th Avenue"][/caption]

A street of buildings built like the two above would be just fine with me. A robust, concrete frame, with brick infill and large windows (almost always a winning approach) mark these two buildings as a transitional typology; one that was based on based on a rationalized constructional process optimized for an industrial economy. All bays of the buildings are essentially identical. This repetition works, though, because there is an understandable progression from the largest elements (the bays), their subsequent division and expression into individual floors (not two floors pretending to be one), to the texture within each bay; a texture created by a clearly expressing the structure verses the infill. The windows and their structure introducing yet another scale, and one arrives at a clearly understandable intermixing of materials, scales, and textures. It gets my heart racing.

At Olive and Summit we have a building, the Biltmore, which defies easy categorization, so I won't try. Suffice it to say, there is quite a bit going on here: funky corner, hyper active parapet, bay windows, and some major changes in massing. Yet despite these potential identity rending moves, it still reads as one building. What's wrong with that? It is one big building, and it is just fine that it is not trying to look like two (or more) buildings. The stepping back of the mass, of course, helps to mitigate its size; yet notice, the materials and details do not change. The stepping back was enough, and I suspect that all of the visual gymnastics of the terra-cotta, bay windows, and crenulations weren't for the purpose of making a large building to  appear to be two or three smaller buildings at all (wink, wink), but merely an architect’s eclectic vision of a single building. No remorsefulness here. And probably, no design review board, either.

[caption id="attachment_1304" align="alignnone" width="700" caption="Trace Lofts"][/caption]

Fast forward to current development. The (new) Trace Lofts is a good example of an understanding of the precedent set by the previous examples. The massing is simple, and where it steps back from the street, it does it in a bold way that creates a pleasant space for an adjacent restaurant to utilize (not a private, gated courtyard). A clear, structural frame orders both the ground floors, as well as the upper, and huge windows (with nice, shinny aluminum frames) continue the breakdown of scale while contrasting with the dark grey metal panels. Because they are floor to ceiling, the windows require guardrails, whose finish matches that of the windows and adds more (perhaps,too much?) visual interest. And finally, the metal siding. Hurray for actually designing the metal siding's profile, instead of taking it off the shelf. The bold horizontal lines succeed at reducing the buildings mass, and their strong profile adds shadow lines to the metal siding. And hey, since building codes require the building's base to be made of concrete (for fire issues), why just not leave it be? Good choice. Johnson Architects.

[caption id="attachment_1300" align="alignnone" width="700" caption="The Pearl"][/caption]

Although not as well executed as their commendable Agnes Street Lofts (nor with the same budget I would imagine), Weinstein A/U's Pearl Apartments advance some of the strategies of Agnes and is worth a look, none the less. With the frenzy surrounding modulating facades, and a typical solution being bay windows, the strategy here is relatively novel and definitely worth supporting: subtractive bay expression. Subtractive bays you say? Yes, in so much that the mass of the building remains intact, but smaller voids are introduced between them, creating bays. Although not employed by the historic examples noted above, it is of the same lineage: it relies on (dimensionally) smaller expressions to achieve its ends of breaking down mass. Similar (superficially, at least), to the rusticated base on the Granada Apartments, above, where recessed bricks add a subtle dimensionality.  The integrity of the building is maintained, while (many) smaller scaled interventions add (a great deal of) texture. A nice progression from large to small, and a very modern approach. Let's see some more -- subtraction!