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Architecturally Creative Projects for West End Described by Leading Architect

Accompanying images can be viewed in the current issue PDF

By Anthony L. Harvey

Washington audiences have grown accustomed to bravura architectural presentations from the prize-winning North American architect Enrique Norten, of the 70-member Mexico City and New York firm known as Ten Arquitectos; the Tuesday evening, May 1st lecture and panel discussion at the National Building Museum was no exception. Billed as a moderated discussion between Norten and his Washington client, Eastbanc’s Anthony Lanier, the evening — one the museum’s lively and well-attended “Spotlight on Design” series — was primarily a virtuoso illustrated lecture on four projects underway in Mexico and the United States, together with two design efforts for projects in Washington’s West End.

The most fascinating of the Mexican projects discussed by Norten was that of a new city hall for Acapulco, described and illustrated as a set of handsome modernist buildings connected by gardens, both stacked and horizontal. Equipped with 9,576 solar panels, Acapulco’s new city hall is designed to be energy self-sufficient and comes complete with a water collection system that will supply all of the building’s water needs.

Among the other projects described was that of the first structure being built as part of Ten Arquitectos’ master plan for New Jersey’s Rutgers University. This building and site will house the Livingston Campus, the university’s graduate business school, and is designed to be neither neo-Gothic nor neo-anything, characterized by Norten as the usual designs of northeastern university campuses. Rather, in Norten’s wry and understated words, it is designed to be the “most contemporary” of new American college campuses. Especially interesting was Norten’s explication of the site plan and his description of how the modes of circulation within the overall university interact — the shuttle bus routes between campuses together with gates and pedestrian, bicycle, and other vehicular pathways.

The evening’s main event, however, was the discussion of the architectural designs for two new, mixed-use buildings in the West End section of northwest Washington. The first of these is a residential, commercial, and West End branch library building fronting on L Street between 23rd and 24th Streets NW. Heralded by successive mayoral administrations as an example of an ideal public/private partnership between private investors and city assets, this project leverages the city-owned real estate (and its air rights) presently housing the branch library building  facing 24th at L Streets and the now-vacated MPD Special Operations building at 23rd and L Streets. The site also encompasses a surface parking lot behind the MPD building acquired by the project developer Eastbanc. (For more information, see “Major West End Re-Development Project Designs Unveiled,” InTowner, May 2011, PDF page 1; available in our website’s Current & Back Issues Archive.)

Norten displayed PowerPoint slides of the dramatically attractive and quite novel design for the new structure — a design that has received high praise from design review and zoning agencies that have examined the proposal. After noting the challenges of designing new structures in Washington — which range from building code and zoning constrictions to the numerous agency and community review requirements for new construction — Norten identified the design elements and design objectives of the new L Street structure. These include the creation of corners for tangential views of the residential components; fragmenting the scale of the building; mixing the projection of terraces, some facing each other; and wrapping all of this together to pull back from the property line, consequently increasing the amount of green space on the site. For the library, Norten articulated his objectives as those of creating spaces that are playful, dynamic, and transparent. A corner café and street-level retail complete this project.

The 23rd and M Streets project will comprise a two-level ground floor fire station, replacing the present antiquated station, together with a third floor squash court and athletic center topped by several levels of residential apartments. Norten projected several slides of massing studies illustrating the architectural firm’s objectives of stacking three identifiable structures into a coherent and unified whole.

A short panel discussion moderated by the museum’s Senior Vice President and Curator Martin Moeller completed this engaging, nearly two-hour evening program.