I’ve been watching a building go up. The empty lots in and around the King Street Metro are gradually filling in, as they should. The new kid in the neighborhood is just up the hill and west of the Crate and Barrel outlet. The steel frame went up this summer and I feared, having seen plenty of new buildings go up in Old Town, that this was its zenith. It would be all downhill once the bricks started hanging from the frame, trailing strips of play-doh expansion joints, and reach its nadir when various chunks of precast would no doubt be applied to assure meaning and legibility. Ah, yes, a pediment! That must be the entrance.
Frankly, the bar is so low for contemporary architecture in Old Town that the adjacent Crate and Barrel ranks as one of the best of its era. So I was pleasantly surprised to see a thoughtful and elegant brick skin, and more pleased still to see the street façade clad in crisp silvery metal panels. Here, it seemed, was a building that had some sense of its time and its construction method, maintained respect for its urban and material situation, but managed to avoid the sycophantic contextualism on display just east on both King and Prince Streets.
Then, at the end of last week, came the little fin just above and spanning about half the length of the windows on the metal panel façade. Exterior sun-shading, perhaps? Uh, no. This is the north façade. Besides, even if this were the south side these anorexic fins would be incapable of providing anything more than a shifting strip of shade on the glass. Now, there’s nothing wrong with an overhang on the north side. In a Tidewater climate such an element can provide that most generous and elusive gift: protection for an open window in the rain. But for that one would expect a) an operable window below and b) a fin with enough reach to do the job. As I stared at the façade I realized I was running out of benefit-of-a-doubt excuses.
It seems that this new building has inadvertently fallen into a particularly insidious form of Alexandria contextualism: attaching elements that pretend to do something significant, but instead do nothing at all. Shutters nailed to the wall, cupolas unable to breathe, blind dormers, and now dysfunctional sun-shading. Like the proverbial 13th chime of the clock, these elements erode the integrity not only of themselves, but of all that came before. When exterior sun-shading, the most elegant, truly architectural strategy for fine-tuning a building to its environment, is deployed as a motif then we’ve undermined our own legitimacy in environmental leadership: it’s just decoration.
Well, now I’ve done it. I’ve just stepped into the truth and beauty argument, and I can hear the epithets: You functionalist! You decorator! Don’t you know ornament is a crime! Well, your mother is a minimalist! Using history the way a drunk uses a lamppost—for support rather than illumination—architects have been treading the culturally constructed integrity high-wire for centuries. Loos, Sullivan, Kahn have tried to parse the difference between decoration and ornament, satisfying me, for one, but somehow the public never read the Cliff notes. The hardcore functionalists ask if an element doesn’t “do” anything then why use it. Well, that all depends on what the definition of “do” does, to paraphrase our former President.
Ornament is born of construction—the adoration of the joint, in Louis Kahn’s memorable words—while decoration strives to conceal it. The degree to which some of us can stomach decoration varies widely, like tolerance to really sugary food. It’s deception that is impossible to digest. The architects of this otherwise perfectly admirable building, the kind Alexandria should encourage, acted either out of cynicism or ignorance in reducing exterior shading to a motif. And I don’t know which one is worse.