Friday, January 01, 2010

L'Enfant Terrible by Andrew Cocke

DC Mud is pleased to announce it’s new architecture column, “L’Enfant Terrible” by Andrew Cocke. Though he left his urban heart in Manhattan years ago, Andrew is a Washington native, returning in 2007 after living and working in New York, San Francisco, Berlin, Shanghai and Hong Kong. He studied architecture and planning at Virginia and Yale, is LEED accredited, and teaches architecture at the Catholic University of America. He started his practice, HERE design in 2006 which specializes in high performance sustainable design.

Washington has been the best supporting actor in many Hollywood movies, but none more wonderfully campy than the 1976 B-movie classic, Logan’s Run. Set in an domed utopia bearing more than a passing resemblance to Crystal City, the movie depicts a 23rd-century society that deals with that quaint 1970s obsession of overpopulation by “renewing” (vaporizing) anyone over thirty.

Late in the movie when Logan and his love interest escape bleary-eyed from their subterranean city and stumble on the ruins of the Lincoln Memorial, gazing on Lincoln’s chiseled visage Logan haltingly intones, “That must be what it looks like to grow. . . old.”

He might just as easily have been talking about all of Washington. Washington IS old. All that limestone, marble, and granite is calculated to make our young democracy seem both aged and ageless. If you want the constant churn of glass, steel, and concrete capitalism, the New York is your capitol.

But look around Washington today, away from the hallowed halls and stately buildings, and you’ll find a growing resistance to the cult of the old; new buildings, parks, and streets that rival anything strutting down the architectural runways of New York. After years of epidemic drug violence and bureaucratic ineptitude, Washington has been transformed by tireless neighborhood groups, business owners, civic leaders, progressive politicians and some very smart designers—transformed into a city where design matters. Even developers, who historically deserve much of the blame for Washington’s bad buildings and reputation as an architectural backwater, have made great strides toward architectural excellence.

Having grown up in the Washington area, I had written off DC years ago and have spent most of my career learning from “better” cities—cities like New York, San Francisco, Berlin, even Hong Kong and Shanghai. I was largely unaware of the District’s transformation until returning in 2007, the same year the District was named the most walkable city in the nation. (New York ranked 10th).

In spite of the recession, the stalled developments across the city, and Metro’s chronic troubles, Washington continues to improve. But we have a long way still to go! Every bad building, every concession to Washington’s fiscal and aesthetic conservatism is a missed opportunity that will remain on the books for decades.

L’Enfant Terrible is not merely an unruly child, but the embarrassingly candid, often impolite, sometimes sage, but always insightful, guileless naif. In Logan’s domed utopia, I would have been vaporized long ago, but given the pace of development, all Washingtonians feel like kids again; adventuring in a city that grows newer, younger, and more interesting by the day.


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