Friday, October 14, 2005

ARCHITECTURE: A City of Facades

Good morning. Finally the work week has ended and I now have a little more time to spend blogging today. But not too much time however. I'll be starting the process of moving things out of my kitchen and bathroom which will be renovated next week. I'll be moving into temporary exile in the Palisades. So if you see me on the D6 or M4 bus, say hello. My Internet access, however, will be limited. But I'll be back at it around Halloween.

1.) ONE OF THE WATERGATE'S office buildings was sold to a Los Angeles-based real estate company for $86 million earlier this week. You can read details of the sale from The Washington Post's article on Trizec Properties Inc.'s sale to BentleyForbes LLC here.

The office building in question is 2600 Virginia Ave. NW, the one facing the old Howard Johnson's ... the Watergate office building of Watergate fame. Unlike the graceful curving co-ops fronting the Potomac River, New Hampshire Avenue and Benito Juarez's statue, the building BentleyForbes just purchased is perhaps the least-interesting architecturally, at least its exterior. It's the interior that is important and BentleyForbes' president, David W. Cobb, tells the Post's Dana Hedgpeth that there will be some updates: "We're going to update the elevators, spruce it up. We're going to try to keep more of the original aesthetics but update it and make it a little bit nicer."

For such an interesting building, I hope a nice balance of new and old can be achieved. Washington's track record in gutting buildings in favor of renovating interior spaces has not been all that great -- or has been totally awesome -- depending on your outlook on preservation. Look at two examples on 15th Street NW between the White House and McPherson Square. The guts of the old Bowen Building (part of the Kaempfer Co.'s portfolio, which is part of Vornado) were ripped out and rebuilt anew, its facade is the only thing that remains original. Down the block, the Woodward Building will meet the same fate. This Post article gives an interesting look into the unique time machine that is the Woodward Building. But SJG Properties has other plans. The bikini shop must go.

Granted, modern office space is necessary to make buildings profitable. Everything historic can't endure. This quote regarding the Bowen Building from the Washington Business Journal says quite a lot:
"D.C.'s running out of developable space," said Richard Naing, senior vice president for the private markets group of CB Richard Ellis. "That's the beauty of this project because you can make it whatever you want."
Mr. Naing is quite right. Washington is running out of downtown commercial space. But aren't there just a few too many Ann Taylor Lofts in the world? Just because you "can make it whatever you want" shouldn't mean that a good old rehabbed building should be filled with default examples of glorified mediocrity. Do something that's interesting and forward-thinking, don't do something that's standard, just to maximize an already guarenteed profit. (If Morris Cafritz, the pioneer of modern K Street, were still living, I'm curious what he would think of today's office environment in D.C.)

The artform of ripping out interiors is something that Washington does quite well. Remember, the majority of the White House residence is only 50-some years old. During the Truman administration, the original 1792 residence was in such bad shape after decades of abuse and renovation that it had to be gutted and rebuilt with a steel skeleton (at right). So I would discourage you to view think that the spirit of Abraham Lincoln is strolling the halls of the building pondering the Emancipation Proclamation. Abe's ghost was kicked out, but probably wasn't afforded temporary quarters at Blair House during the executive mansion's rehabbing.

Then I suggest you look at JonesLangLaSalle's 2000 Pennsylvania Avenue complex (warning, annoying Flash animation). It has the awfully quaint set of rowhouses on its I Street front. Those houses are the symbol for the massive shopping complex that sits behind it. According to its online promotion, it's "Where the Neighborhood Shops." That slogan is just slightly offensive, because these days the neighborhood's residents consist of Nassau County undergrads at George Washington University and International Monetary Fund/World Bank daytime office workers. And I have never seen anyone dribble a basketball down I Street on their way to Bertucci's while talking on their cellphone, as the Flash animation might imply. Perhaps I'm just slightly bias because the center rowhouse in the graphic once belonged to my family. It's where Grandpa Grass and my great uncle, both deceased, lived in the last century. My great aunt grew up a few rowhouses down the block closer to 21st Street NW.

Don't get me wrong, it is nice to have the city's streetscape preserved. But in one way, the ripping out of Washington's interior spaces is quite representative of our city: We care more about the facades -- our public face -- than care about the substance of what is inside. In a city and metropolitan area that has a sizable modern population of outsiders, it's easier to perform an architectural vivisection on a building's history when you don't have roots here. This is happening to many rowhouses in Columbia Heights, because it is considerably easier to live with a nice Corian-topped kitchen counter than contend with sagging wooden floors and a hissing century-old radiator. (It also helps your property values.) You couldn't have modern Washington, without having modern office space. It's just too bad that we can't have a better balance.

I hope to follow the plans of how Bentley Forbes proceeds with its renovations. There are so many opportunities to rejuvenate such a cool retro space like the Watergate. My favorite example is out at National Airport, where the original 1941 Art Deco/Streamlined Moderne terminal has been spruced up, which connects today's Terminal A and Terminal B. But the terminal is more of a deserted museum. Wouldn't it be cool if you could board a plane from an Art Deco lobby? At least it's open to the public. That space should see life again.

-- Aerial view of the Watergate from Flickr's Esthr.
-- Image of the gutted White House from the Truman Library
-- Image of historic Terminal A from the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority via the U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

UPDATE: Thursday Thursday

Good morning. Sorry I haven't been blogging the past few days. I blame the work crews in the apartment next door, which woke me up before 7 a.m. yesterday. All this caused shockwaves through the rest of the day, highlighted by me taking the wrong train to work and not realizing it until my 100 percent underground train commute went above ground at Arlington Cemetery on the Blue Line. I'll be getting back on track later today.

In the meantime, pick up today's Weekend Pass in Express and read my dining and bar write-ups. On pg. E22 and E23 you'll find items on the influence of Jenna Bush on bar popularity in NW Washington; a new bar on H Street NE; and the debut of Zengo, Placido Domingo's new restaurant on Seventh Street NW in Gallery Place. Or download the pdf here.

Monday, October 10, 2005

DAILY MUSELI: Metal Snakes and Tomatillo Chicken

Good morning. You know something's wrong when you wake up, stare across your bedroom in the relative darkness and you see a long metal-coiled snake pushing up through the floor, toppling over your shoe rack and making an unearthly noise at 7:30 a.m. Groggy, you look over at the tubular intruder and hear some mumbling from the outside hallway: "... Where is it?!"

The electrical and plumbing renovations that were supposed to start next week Monday in my apartment got an early start ... by mistake. Downstairs, they had fed some sort of tube through the wrong pre-drilled hole and up it popped through my floor. When I informed the work crew working in the apartment next door, a work man came in and pushed it back down through, ramming it back to the nether regions of my building with his work boot.

1.) THROWING TOGETHER RANDOM INGREDIENTS, and disregarding any sort of recipe, I created a new dish that I'm calling Tomatillo chicken. I cook by instinct, and in my continuning effort to use up as much of my Sambal Oelek Ground Chili Paste before I must evacuate my apartment for renovations next weekend, I created a dish that had a good balance of heat, spice and sweetness. Next time, I'll probably serve with rice.

Here's what you do.
- Take some chicken breasts that may be sitting around in your freezer
- Dump a tomatillo-based salsa of your choice on top of the chicken in a glass casserole dish
- Put one to two generous spoonfuls of Sambal Oelek Ground Fresh Chili Paste
- Coat the chicken in the tomatillo-chili paste mess, plus add some Parmesan cheese on top
- Dump in a bunch of chopped raw onions and yellow peppers, along with some washed fresh spinach
- Cover in aluminum foil and bake at 350 degrees for a reasonable time until you aren't at a risk to contact harmful bacteria from undercooked chicken (maybe 30-40 minutes)

Voila! Serve with spinach salad and some asparagus and you shouldn't be disappointed.

2.) BLASTED CRICKET. I'm not sure if the cricket that has been chirping in my apartment toward the late evening yesterday was let in through the construction. I checked all the screens on my windows and they all seem fine, but yet, there's a cricket somewhere in my apartment.

3.) CONGRATS PRESTON! A former co-worker just got hired to be CNN's political editor, according to a report on FishbowlDC. Mark Preston will be leaving the Senate beat at Roll Call to take over John Mercurio's old job. Mercurio left for the Hotline.
>> "Roll Call's Preston to CNN" [FishbowlDC]

Sunday, October 09, 2005

WEEKEND UPDATE: Death and Destruction

"Bonaparte visiting the plague victims of Jaffa" by Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835)

Good morning. There seems to be a mixed bag of news regarding one's increased likelihood of premature death, or general destruction due to natural or manmade disasters.

1.) THE SITUATION IN NORTHERN PAKISTAN seems to be deteriorating. News reports say that more than 20,000 people have died in the massive earthquake there. That number seems like it could increase as more remote areas are surveyed.

>>"Quake toll tops 20,000 in stricken Pakistan, India" [Reuters]

2.) IT LOOKS LIKE I AM AT AN INCREASED RISK of becoming obese or develop skin cancer because of my late-night blogging (that's my reading of the study). The Washington Post reports that a lack of sleep can increase one's risk for a variety of ailments or damaging conditions.
After several studies found that people who work at night appear unusually prone to breast and colon cancer, researchers investigating the possible explanation for this association found exposure to light at night reduces levels of the hormone melatonin. Melatonin is believed to protect against cancer by affecting levels of other hormones, such as estrogen.
So I guess I should be working in the dark, but then I guess that'll put strain on my eyes. Nobody can win. C'est la vie.

>>"Scientists Finding Out What Losing Sleep Does to a Body" [The Washington Post]

3.) SO THERE'S GOING TO BE A PANDEMIC, or maybe not. The New York Times has a pretty interesting analysis of the real, perceived and unknown risks of an avian flu pandemic. To boil it all down, there is still much that we don't know about avian flu, how it spreads and the likelihood of it mutating to a human-transmissible form.
Some scientists suspect that if H5N1 has not caused a pandemic by now, then it will not, because it must be incapable of making the needed changes. But others say there is no way to tell what the virus will do as time goes on. And they point out that no one knows how long it took for the 1918 virus to develop the properties that led to a pandemic.

There's another interesting comparison to make between a potential upcoming outbreak and the 1918 flu pandemic. Instead of having "farm boys getting their first contact with city folks" on crowded transport ships bringing World War I soldiers back from Europe, we now live in a society with increased interactions. So does that mean that people who live in isolated McMansions in the exurbs will be at increased risk for a pandemic than those who ride the subway everyday? I'm not a scientist, but I think a safety in numbers immunity would be an interesting factor to analyze in a possible upcoming pandemic.

>>"Danger of Flu Pandemic Is Clear, if Not Present" [The New York Times]

4.) NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF HAS A GREAT PIECE in Sunday's New York Times about how before the destruction of New Orleans, we were "witnessing the slow, ruthless dismantling of the nation's urban infrastructure." New Orleans, while a great city of jazz, cuisine and culture, is perhaps a city that should be better known for its engineering. The network of levees and pumps is (or should I say was?) a modern marvel. But like so many other grand pieces of infrastructure around the nation, we are seeing the nation's slow decay because of neglect. Granted, economic factors are shifting employment centers away from cities to the suburbs, but cities still serve as nerve centers. But if you let a region's structural foundation wash away, there could be greater consequences.
This represents more than a loss of nerve. It is an outgrowth of the campaign against "big government" that helped propel Ronald Reagan to the presidency 25 years ago. And it was fueled by uglier motives, including a latent fear of cities, a myth of the city as a breeding ground for immorality.
America's 20th century greatness was built on the backs of its great cities. Look at Chicago's great rail yards, Detroit's factories, New York City's bridges and tunnels, Los Angeles' freeways. These impressive feats of engineering paved the way for our success as a nation. It would be a shame if this success implodes in the coming decades because of a lack of will or foresight to maintain or improve it. The disaster in New Orleans highlights this in many ways.

>>"How New Orleans Sank" [The New York Times]