Judging Buildings


These rowhomes are near the O Street Mansion that hipchick wrote about last week. I was struck by the contrast. To me, it seems the house on the right is 100 times cooler. I just can’t understand how the one on the left was designed. Any insights? Do you like the contrast?

11 Comment

  • I would say that both designs are of their time. Obviously the one on the left was trying to be a bit more suburban (i.e. parkings space/garage). I just don’t think it looks good period much less in juxtaposition to the other and in that environment.

    I wouldn’t want to be quoted because I can’t be sure, but it looks like the 1980’s and frankly is there much in residential architecture that was good from the 1980’s?

  • The modern part used to house an international consulting business (if I’m thinking of the correct house). The guy that ran it was an old professor of mine. For some reason, I think the two are connected. I could be totally wrong though.

  • i think they’re both quite nice. quality construction. the one on the left reminds me of “Five” (the nightclub)

  • At least the new one has the good taste to be more diminutive

  • In my experience contemporary is hugely unsuccessful in District row houses. You’ll get an occasional “not bad” or even, rarely, a “nice.” But most of the contemporary makeovers leave me cold.

    I think the arch of the windows is elegant, and at least they’re using muted colors instead of garish ones. But it’s completely uninterested in engaging the street. There are no windows to open, no balconies to stand on; Just a concrete ledge where you can wait for someone to answer the doorbell. Even the birds can go to hell. And no plants, please — that space is reserved for the Eurosled!

  • I like them both. I think they did a pretty good job of squeezing that new guy in there. Like the potted plant they added to porch and driveway.

    On thing I hate is that hedge in front of the older place. Those hedges always grow over the side walk and get in the way. I also find them ugly.

  • @Mark And again I have to ask, What is this business with engaging the street? Why, simply because I live in the city, is this an obligation? I just don’t get it. What does that even mean? Porches like the ones common in Petworth? (that aren’t as common over here on the Hill) Stoops like in Baltimore? What? I don’t understand this concept of “engaging the street” that seems to continually come up. As I said on yesterday’s “Judging Buildings” – I have a big patio and sometimes, just because I’m out there, doesn’t mean that I wish to engage with anyone – I moved to where I live precisely because there wasn’t that much foot traffic past my house and I’m quite a few blocks from restaurants/bars/metro station etc. Please explain this concept to me. (And do not say that if you don’t want to “engage the street” move to the suburbs. There are plenty of reasons to want to live in the city, that don’t require constant interaction.)

  • Nichole, I’m not an architect, but my reading of the term is that you “engage the street” by providing a set of human-scale features through which people may meaningfully interact with the building, or its occupants. For a contrasting example of not providing these features, check out the Empire State Plaza in Albany, NY (http://www.kunstler.com/eyesore_200305.html)

    People don’t have to actually come interact with you via these features, but their presence has a humanizing effect on passersby. More importantly, though, your patio, like the stoops of Baltimore or the beautiful porches in Petworth, engages your street by inviting you out of your house; because a street in which the residents are out of doors engaging each other is enormously better; it fosters a sense of community, which in turn rolls back the sense of the street as a good spot to speed, or litter, spray paint, or pee, because nobody will see or care.

    Engaging the street is a good idea everywhere, but it becomes very important in cities because the population densities are so much higher. Houses are closer to the street and harder to avoid. Pedestrian traffic is higher and people see things at a walking pace, rather than a driving one.

    In yesterday’s post (http://www.princeofpetworth.com/2009/03/judging-buildings-37/#comments), the small balconies and popouts do engage the street, but they can’t overcome the depressing vision of a wall of blank, monochrome garage doors. The message to a person on this sidewalk is to keep moving; no pedestrian is welcome, and there isn’t even a visible entrance to anyone not driving a car. The occupants of these houses will come and go in hermetically sealed vehicles, and your only chance to see them may be as you dodge their cars crossing the sidewalk. The design makes it difficult to imagine even having a conversation with one of your neighbors as you come and go.

    An earlier post (http://www.princeofpetworth.com/2009/03/judging-building/#comments) also provides a garage as the most prominent street-level feature, with upper floor horizontal and vertical elements literally separating you from the building, which seems to be hunching its shoulders and turning its back to the sidewalk.

    By contrast, the building on the right very successfully engages the street, in spite of its monster hedge. It has four(!) apparently functional balconies, all the windows open, even including those in the bay that edges out toward the sidewalk.

    Sorry for the very long post, which I wrote partly because I needed to think the term through for myself. but I hope this makes sense.

  • I totally agree on the blech factor of 80’s era design, but I’ll bet that house is sweet from inside with that window.

    Nichole’s post made me laugh, but in an urban environment, I like the idea of “engaging the street”. We’ve casually tossed around the idea in Bloomingdale about having “nights out” where people sit out on their steps and porches, to encourage interaction and presence to deter crime.

  • Thank you! I seriously didn’t understand what people around here were implying with the term. Now that I do, I like that my patio can “engage the street” even when I don’t feel like it.

    Don’t get me wrong – there are a lot of times that I dig sitting on my patio with my pooch and chatting with all my neighbors (often spurred on by the pup’s overzealous fondness for others of her species). But I’m a die hard introvert (in the real sense of the term; this doesn’t mean shy or socially awkward, but other people – though I love them – tire me the f*ck out) at my core and sometimes I just don’t feel like interacting (which is a huge factor accounting for why I love my car so much), so when I read some of the posts here, I wonder if I’m doing something “wrong” b/c I love city life, but don’t necessarily sit on my patio initiating conversation with every passerby.

    I have a lot of stories about my engagements with the neighbors via my old stoop in Baltimore, but those are for another time. They’re also why I keep my blinds closed here (our houses on the Hill aren’t set up off the street like in some other parts of town – so I’d prefer if I can limit the ways in which folks “interact” with me, if you get my meaning).

    Oh, and truth be told – I dig this place a lot. It’s super 80’s, but in a way I love.

    Thanks again for the explanation!

  • Mark – you’re right on. I’d love to see more architectural concepts infuse these discussions. I’m not an architect myself but I did study human geography and am married to a landscape architect. These people studied these things for a reason and have great insight in urban design. It continues to evolve and we’ve learned a lot since the 80s (and 50s for that matter.) A lot of great city architecture dates to eras before cars. A lot of great city architecture of our current age finds elegant ways to serve cars AND people. The more public awareness we can have of good urban design the better.

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