Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Envisioning the Visio and Murano

Q and A with Suman Sorg   
by Beth Herman

Seeking to venerate but modernize Washington D.C.'s classic row house archetype, and drawing from the surrounding urban U Street corridor neighborhood, Suman Sorg of Sorg Architects created the 19-unit Visio and Murano, 2109 10th Street NW. Studying historic preservation at Cornell University, though a modernist at heart, Sorg's work is often a confluence of the two, with compatibility a word she uses to define her efforts in the contextual realm. The Visio and Murano has won six awards, including two AIA awards for Architectural Excellence and one for Washington Residential Design. DCMud spoke with Sorg about the project.

DCMud: What was the design impetus behind the Visio and Murano?

Sorg: The idea was to build so-called stick buildings that are not steel or concrete but wood, and to redefine the concept of infill row housing. When we built the Visio, we used mezzanines -- or internal stairs -- in each apartment so you could get extra space and still build a building out of wood frame, though the exterior is brick and glass.We had really tall ceilings -- 11 to 18 feet high -- each one has a double-height living room. We used English basements to create extra square footage at street level.

DCMud: How did the neighborhood's vernacular manifest in the design?

Sorg: We wanted to make these buildings compatible with the adjacent church. There's an alley between the church and Visio and Murano, but they almost form a street line. My idea was to look at what's important in the church, which is a turret, and how to add that kind of verticality to the facade of Visio. I wanted to work with the church's material which is red brick -- traditional Washington. We used that but in a modern application. I was also thinking about the industrial character of the area. You look at the Visio's front stair through bent steel - almost sculpture, and then the windows have steel mullions. The brick is sharply cut; it's not antiqued at all. These are some industrial features in the design.

DCMud: In what ways does the design emulate more doctrinal area architecture?

Sorg: In D.C. we have what's called the traditional bay house which allows you to project into public space by four feet. I was interested in incorporating that concept, but in a modern way. I wanted a modern vocabulary -- one that's Washington's own vocabulary rather than an imported one -- as well as taking advantage of what zoning allowed so we could have maximum square footage inside.

DCMud: Can you elaborate on the concept of imported, or as some have called it borrowed, architecture?

Sorg: I believe we've been importing architecture from Europe since the very beginning, and lately importing architects themselves. Washington's own architecture can develop in its neighborhoods rather than downtown where there's more commission scrutiny. We should look at what's traditional to D.C. and then reinterpret it.

DCMud: There is a prodigious use of glass in these buildings, and they are not towers, so with that how was privacy executed in the Visio and Murano?

Sorg: There's a general trend right now -- a shift from post modern to modern. Because the shift was so quick, people went back to early modernism -- the 20s and 30s. In residential architecture, however, people don't want to live in a glass box. They do want a sense of privacy and warmth.

When there are large amounts of glass in residential architecture, proportion is important. Again people don't want to live in glass boxes, so we broke it into smaller panes. We used zero sightline windows so the ones that do open don't look different from the rest of the glass. We also set the glass back behind balconies for shade. Hardwoods were used in the interior, including wood stairs. We followed LEED Silver requirements and used some natural materials, low-E windows and Energy Star appliances, though did not pursue certification.

DCMud: You work extensively internationally, as well as in D.C. Does the Visio and Murano reflect anything you have done before?

Sorg: I did a similar housing project in Kuwait in 2005. Following the war, the U.S. was given a piece of property by the king on which to build a new embassy. We did the housing in the embassy compound. It's somewhat the same in its proportion and materials, including glass and shading.

I've also been working in historic neighborhoods for a long time. The Visio and Murano are the evolution of townhouses that we did in Georgetown and particularly in Ledroit Park, south of Howard University, where we built 14 brand new infill townhouses. While you couldn't tell them apart from other historic townhouses in the neighborhood, it taught me about proportion and management of materials in these historic buildings. It became a foundation for the Visio and Murano's modern interpretation.

DCMud: Speaking of interpretation, is there a place in the District that calls to you?

Sorg: I like buildings that are unassuming -- beautiful, quiet buildings or spaces where, when you walk or bike around the city, they do not scream for your attention. One of these is the Decatur Terrace Steps and Fountain (sometimes referred to as D.C.'s Spanish Steps) between 22nd Street and Decatur Place. The large trees that surround it make for a perpetually shaded resting spot to listen to the bubbling fountain and enjoy a respite from the busy city.


Anonymous said...

now if only they would do something with the church next door, which they own and have sitting there, vacant and rotting, year after year, telling the city that its not vacant and that it will be developed any time. I think even DCMud has written several times that they are near development, but their plans have been a farce designed to avoid paying blighted property taxes.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Horrible Horrible firm. Im ashamed that you even profiled them. Not a good neightbor at all

Anonymous said...

I might of asked the architect what's with all the arbitrary cuts in the facade. I know they're supposed to look cool, but they end up looking dumb. Too bad since the building dosen't look cheap to build.

Anonymous said...

It isn't a 19 unit building. They are 2 distinct buildings at 2 addresses. The Visio is 7 units and the Murano is 12 units. The Visio won the awards. The Visio was completed nearly 2 years prior to the Murano. Perhaps DC Mud should have investigated Sorg's dodging of tax laws on the vacant church and the city's inability to enforce tax laws properly.

Anonymous said...

I find it very interesting that every 15-20 years or so we feel the need to go on a modernist binge. Architects go all contemporary on us and, with a few notable exceptions, leave us with buildings and public spaces we spend the next 50 years trying to fix. There's a reason why we keep returning to tried and true traditional architecture--because its timeless, livable, and attractive. Why can't we learn that modernism should only be applied under special circumstances (museums and other public buildings) under the most skilled architectural hands and leave everything else well alone.

Anonymous said...

To the "anonymous" critic: DCMud knew all about this. The genesis of Visio and Murano elements and awards was consolidated for space purposes and implicit in the story. Sounds as though someone is a bit too literal, and a little too angry about something, like a missed opportunity perhaps?

Anonymous said...

In one man’s opinion, Suman Sorg is a far more creative architect than e.g. Colbert or Bonstra and I wish she built more in DC. As to her allegedly avoiding taxes, she does not need my defense (we know each other very superficially) but I do want to address the leeches here. She creates, - you masturbate. She contributes to the GNP of this country, - you steal. She created a business which supports a few dozen families, you do not even know (nor do you care) how it feels to work even one real eight hour long day. And even if she outsmarts the DC “government” - more power to her. She creates, - they steal.

megatalkshows on May 16, 2013, 5:51:00 AM said...

It isn't a 19 unit building. She contributes to the GNP of this country, - you steal. She created a business which supports a few dozen families, you do not even know (nor do you care) how it feels to work even one real eight hour long day.Read Latest Columns

Watch Latest Talk Shows OnlineThe normal client happens to be quite at ease with it. Horrible Horrible firm. Im ashamed that you even profiled them. Not a good neightbor at all.

Post a Comment

Commercial ads will be deleted, so don't even think about it.


DCmud - The Urban Real Estate Digest of Washington DC Copyright © 2008 Black Brown Pop Template by Ipiet's Blogger Template