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The basic infrastructure of a city is part of what makes it go. But functional structures like bridges, train stations, bus shelters and telephone poles also shape what a city looks and feels like from an aesthetic perspective. Architect, urban planner and Washington Post columnist Roger Lewis joins us in studio to explore how functional infrastructure can also be beautiful architecture — and how the combination of those elements contributes to the identity of a city.
- Roger Lewis Architect; Columnist, "Shaping the City," Washington Post; and Professor Emeritus of Architecture, University of Maryland College Park
Roger Lewis Cartoons About Infrastructure###
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. The infrastructure in a city like Washington is vital to making the city go -- the bridges we cross, the lamppost that light our streets, the canopies that cover our Metro escalators. But many of the District's functional structures are also a big part of the city's aesthetic identity.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd while few people would dispute the notion that something like the Arlington Memorial Bridge helps to define the face of Washington, D.C., some of the other pieces of our infrastructure here contribute to the beauty of the city in less obvious ways. Joining us to explore both the celebrated and the overlooked pieces of our system of public works is Roger Lewis. Roger is an architect and the "Shaping the City" columnist for The Washington Post. He's also professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. Welcome back, Roger.
MR. ROGER LEWISThank you once again.
NNAMDIYou, too, can be welcome back to this conversation by calling 800-433-8850. It's an ongoing conversation we have with Roger Lewis about architecture and design. 800-433-8850. Have you noticed the infrastructure in the city? Are there pieces of it in the Washington region or around the world that you find particularly beautiful, a stunning bridge, a dam, a bus stop? What are they, and why do you like them or not? 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIMuseums, concert halls, skyscrapers, soaring cathedrals, these are the kinds of urban structures that typically get a lot of attention for their architectural beauty, Roger. But you say the bus shelters, traffic signals and lamp posts around them, the working pieces of a city's infrastructure, often contribute just as much to the face of a city. How important to you is it for there to be a vision for the aesthetics of this kind of infrastructure? And what would you say is a good example of something in Washington that's both functional and beautiful? Maybe we can start with the Memorial Bridge.
LEWISWell, the Memorial Bridge, of course, is iconic. It's probably been in more films than Tom Cruise...
NNAMDIThat's saying something.
LEWIS...along with the FBI Building, which is not one of the more attractive things. Well, I think the first thing we should let everybody know is infrastructure includes an awful lot of things that we often don't event think about from sidewalks to bridges to...
NNAMDIAirports, train stations, subway stops, bus shelters, telephone poles, lampposts, call boxes, dams, aqueducts, rest stops, Metro station openings, elevator canopies, power stations, traffic signals, highways, streets, sidewalks, directional signs.
LEWISYes. And a few meters from where we're sitting, there's some radio towers that's...
NNAMDIYou're exactly right. This is true.
LEWIS...actually part of the cityscape and...
NNAMDIAnd have been that for a long time.
LEWISExactly, exactly. We'd love to think that they might be as beautiful as the Eiffel Tower, which, by the way, after it was built in Paris, a lot of people wanted to tear it down. Well, this is a vast subject, and I think that in your opening, you said something that I think is really the key observation or principle which is that things -- elements of the infrastructure which we know are here to serve us to provide utilitarian service and work and be technically and functionally useful also can be beautiful.
LEWISAnd that means that there has to be a commitment on the part of the public and on the part of public agencies, a vision that says, you know, we really ought to worry about how these things look, the aesthetics, as well as the functional dimensions. And that -- I think that's what often missing.
NNAMDIWell, I'll go back to what you wrote a few years ago in a 2009 column. Traditionally, American leaders preoccupied mostly with budgets and re-election are different. They tend to reflect the attitudes of an essentially pragmatic electorate. Americans care much more about how things work than how they look. Thus, architecture is usually near the bottom of the list of concerns and priorities. You go on to say most policymakers are content to rely on bureaucrats to take care of design.
LEWISStill the case. It's still true. I think maybe less true in Washington than some other American cities but I -- it's very hard for me not to make comparisons between Washington and places -- other places in the world. In Europe, for example, where everything is thought about. The design of things are thought about very -- I think more rigorously than we think of them here.
LEWISI think the -- again, perhaps the more recent best example of how something -- a huge investment in infrastructure, billions of dollars have been spent on the Silver Line extending the Metro toward Dulles. They've ran through -- instead of going underground in Tysons, as you know, they've gone above ground with a concrete structure that is anything but beautiful. You know, and it was bad enough that they didn't go underground.
LEWISThat's already the first mistake done presumably in the name of economic prudence. I'm not sure that's -- I'm convinced by that argument. But they -- it could have been designed to be better looking. And, by the way, to make things look beautiful doesn't necessarily mean throwing money at it. I would suggest that with no more concrete than they've used out there, they could have designed a somewhat more elegant viaduct.
NNAMDIWell, let's go back to the Memorial Bridge for a second because it's more than 80 years old. On a typical weekday, some 55,000 cars drive over it, and all that traffic is taking, well, a toll. With all that in mind, what would you say to the argument that it's more important for a structure like that to be built -- to be used rather than to be beautiful, or is that a false choice?
LEWISThat's a false choice. That -- I mean that's really -- the most important point we can make here is that there's no conflict. There's no incompatibility in my opinion between designing something that works and that's functional and something that's beautiful. I mean, that's architecture. That's what we architects believe that we should be doing anyway, design a house or an office building.
LEWISThere's no reason why a bridge can not be designed that is both reasonably economic that works. That's durable. It doesn't fall apart, and it's good to look at. And I think that we've done that. I mean, before the show, we were talking about the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. I was just there. This bridge, a project done in the 1930s, remains one of the most beautiful pieces of infrastructure on the planet. It's something -- it's iconic, but it works certainly. I mean it gets an awful lot of people across that golden gate.
NNAMDIWell, here's Thomas in Bethesda, Md., who has a comment on Memorial Bridge. Thomas, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
THOMASYes. Thank you for taking my call. Have to do with bridges. The Memorial Bridge of all the bridges that cross the Potomac is the only one in my opinion that has any aesthetic appeal at all. And I'm used to cities that take great pride in the architectural beauty of the bridges across rivers. The TR Bridge is an atrocity. The 14th Street Bridge is a mess. Even the Key Bridge is strictly utilitarian. Is there any hope for at some point somebody coming up with an idea to make those bridges as visually attractive as Memorial Bridge?
NNAMDIWhat do you say, Roger?
LEWISWell, I agree with him. I mean I think that the bridges -- most of the bridges in Washington across the Potomac are pretty forgettable, and they're not -- they've been engineered. You know, I think that -- I don't want to malign civil engineers, but if you just -- if you turn a competent civil engineer loose, the chances that you're going to get a beautiful piece of infrastructure are not extremely high.
LEWISOn the other hand, there have been some really talented aesthetically creative civil engineers who've done wonderful bridges. And I think that the -- there's no -- the Key Bridge I think it has some oomph to it aesthetically with that series of arches sort of leaping across the river and the very high arches as opposed to the flat arches of the Memorial Bridge, but no question about 14th Street and other bridges like that.
LEWISThey're absolutely purely utilitarian. They have no visual memory. If you ask me to try and describe the 14th Street Bridge, I would have trouble doing it. I think that there have been, though, there's a long history of bridge building, of course, going back to the Romans, and it's not like we don't know how to do it, or that we haven't done it before. You just have to decide that it's worth doing and have somebody worrying about it.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call as we discuss the aesthetics of infrastructure with Roger Lewis. How do you think infrastructure like the designs of Metro rail stops have contributed to the aesthetic identity of the Washington region? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com.
NNAMDIRoger, a single standing building or a monument can define a specific space, but citywide infrastructure can define both the look and feel of every block of an urban area or at least wide swaths of neighborhoods. What kinds of factors are typically considered when making decisions about a city's plan for what its, oh, street signs or its traffic signals are going to look like?
LEWISAgain, I would say that in the United States many of the, if you will, the furniture that we see deployed in streetscapes has been acquired over time without much consideration of what it really looks like. I mean when you go down a street in Washington, you know, you don't have to leave the city, there are many, many streets here where you look at the telephone poles, the overhead wires, the condition of the sidewalks, if there is a sidewalk -- there are a lot of neighborhoods where they don't want to have sidewalks -- the elements that are deployed in the streetscape are in the sidewalk itself.
LEWISThe signalization, the signage, I've written several times about the pathetic direction and navigation -- and location signage in the city. All of these things if you think about how they've gotten there have been done piecemeal. They're not -- they have not been introduced into the cityscape, into the street space in some systematic and aesthetically informed way. So what we end up with here and I think this is true of most cities in the United States is a kind of smorgasbord of elements. And the alternative to that, of course, would be to actually have a kind of master plan.
NNAMDII was about to say how important is consistency in this regard with citywide infrastructure? Should it matter that every street sign you capital letters or that they're all green or that telephone poles maintain a consistent look throughout the area?
LEWISI think my answer to that -- and there may be some urban designers and landscape architects who feel differently -- I don't think an entire city has to be homogenously furnished, if I can use that adjective, that verbiage. Excuse me. I think that what might make sense would be to treat neighborhoods. I mean they give -- what the -- what you can do is give identity to an area, to a neighborhood or a community within a larger urban context.
LEWISAnd I think that one of the things we could do here -- I could imagine in Washington, for example, that in Capitol Hill, where you're already have a certain set of architectural traditions, mostly 19th century, palaces don't all look alike. There are different materials and different colors, and yet there's something that kind of holds it all together as -- the same is true of Georgetown.
LEWISI think that there could be some consistencies within these kinds of areas that help identify them, help people recognize them. But what's done, let's say, in Columbia Heights, doesn't necessarily have to be the same thing that's done in far Southwest or (unintelligible).
NNAMDIBut there should be some consistency in Columbia Heights. You've written in the past that rulers in European countries have a paid a great deal of attention to architecture but that American leaders have only done so in spurts largely because, as I said before, we tend to care more about how something work than how it looks. What's the difference between how European leaders tend to approach infrastructure?
LEWISWell, I think that there's a -- I think the biggest difference is cultural, that is that in Europe, I think Europeans, whether it's -- this is north and south. I included most -- many of the European cultures this way -- I think there's just more design consciousness in Europe. I think there is, of course, a much longer history to work with.
LEWISBut I think that whether you're talking about Finland or France or Italy or Germany, I think people are -- I think people, the population, the people who vote for the decision makers are more concerned than we tend to be in America about how their public environment looks, not just their private environment, but their public environment looks. And that -- I think that's what accounts for or explains the higher level of consciousness, if you will, about design and about the aesthetics of the public realm. I just think it's -- I think that's where it starts.
NNAMDIHere is Thomas in Alexandria, Va. Thomas, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
THOMASOh, hi. Yeah, I just wanted to differ a little with the earlier caller who was talking about the bridges in D.C. because I think that the Taft Bridge over Rock Creek is just a fantastic piece of work. I mean, it's really a beautiful bridge, and it functions very well. And I understand it's a Roman arch, so it's actually just held in place by the weight of the pieces.
NNAMDIWell, see if you agree with Jackie in Woodley Park, Thomas. Jackie writes, "I live in Woodley Park, a few blocks north of the Taft Bridge, the stretch of Connecticut Avenue that soars above Rock Creek Park. I was running underneath it recently on a Saturday morning, and it occurred to me that this bridge is one of the most underrated things built in the entire city." Would you say you agree with that, Thomas?
THOMASYeah. I would agree with it. I think, you know, it's -- it is really one of the most beautiful urban bridges that I've seen. I've lived in a lot of cites and...
THOMAS...you know, it's, you know, really striking.
NNAMDII'll read a little more of what Jackie has to say and see what Roger thinks. Jackie writes, "I love the Dumbarton Bridge, too, the so-called Buffalo Bridge just a little bit further south. But the Taft Bridge literally towers over one of the prettiest parts of the entire city. It has the beautiful arches. It blends in perfectly with the green space. And it has amazing views of the park from above. Everyone one in Washington should make a point of checking it out at sunrise or sunset." Roger.
LEWISYes. And, I mean, I, many times, have driven across the Q Street Bridges. I mean, I think what's happened is the park bridges, the bridges that have spanned the park, there has been a conscious effort to design them and to make them as beautiful as possible. There's just no question that there are a number of unique bridges in this city. I think that -- what we're up against is, of course, the Potomac River bridges are the ones that are seen the most. We see them -- you see them from airplanes.
LEWISYou see them -- that's why there's this -- been this focus on Memorial Bridge. These are the most conspicuous bridges. But I completely agree with Thomas and anyone else listening that there are some fine examples of bridges in this area. And the ones over the park in particular because it's part of the park environment have been designed with particular attention to the aesthetics.
NNAMDIThomas, thank you very much for your call. We're going to talk -- take a short break. I'm going to ask those of you who have called to please stay on the line. There are some very interesting calls that I'd like to get to. Darren, Scott, Pat, Judd, all, stay on the line. 800-433-8850 is the number to call. When we come back, we'll be continuing this conversation with Roger Lewis about shaping the city infrastructure and aesthetics. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about city infrastructure with Roger Lewis. He is an architect and the "Shaping the City" columnist for The Washington Post. He is professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. And if you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call at 800-433-8850. You can also send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or simply join the conversation at our website, firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIWould you be more open to the construction of infrastructure in your neighborhood if it was pleasant to look at? Why or why not? I'd like to go directly to the phones because we talked about engineers earlier, and Darren in Washington, D.C., I think, is one such. Darren, (sic) you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GARRENKojo, thanks for taking my call. It's actually Garren with a G.
GARRENI wanted to point out one quick point in defense of our civil engineers in that Santiago Calatrava, of course, is a phenomenal architect and designer that was trained as an engineer and whose bridges I find absolutely stunning. So my question is really, does -- do these sort of projects have more to do with the city and who's funding them than, you know, the sort of a form-function debate that the conversation has been leaning toward to this point? Thanks again.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Roger.
LEWISWell, I've -- that's -- I'm delighted to talk about Santiago Calatrava. I wrote a long article about Calatrava's work in the September issue of Architect Magazine. And I -- he and I got together last summer in St. Petersburg, Russia, when he was opening an exhibit at the Hermitage.
NNAMDIIn other words -- well, hold on. Hold that thought for a second, you too, Darren, because -- oh, the other caller who wanted to talk about Calatrava dropped off. So go ahead, Roger.
LEWISWell, Calatrava, of course, as you correctly point out, Garren, he studied structural engineering in Zurich in Switzerland after leaving Spain. He also studied architecture. He's a painter. He's a very talented guy. His work is done all over the world. He's -- the work is very well-known. I think most people have probably seen images at one point of bridges which involve cable stake technology, that is to say, some kind of a mask projecting high up into the air with cables radiating from that supporting the bridges.
LEWISThere have been -- I can't imagine how many there have been now. It's a lot. They are iconic. They are very recognizable. He's been imitated. They are not the most cost-effective spans. I mean, he admitted that when I talked to him in Russia. On the other hand, he -- you know, they have all -- almost all his work has been commissioned by public entities, governments, local or national governments, probably because people wanted to buy a Calatrava.
LEWISIt's -- you know, it's a piece that people recognize, and we're willing to spend that extra money to have that kind of structure. I think I would only say that I don't think you have to have Santiago Calatrava as your engineer and designer to make a beautiful bridge or a beautiful piece of infrastructure. But he's been very successful at developing this very recognizable style of design.
NNAMDIDarren, thank you very much for your call. There are few public infrastructure projects that have as big a footprint in this region as Metro. How would you say the design of the typical Metro station has contributed to the aesthetic identity of the Washington region as a whole?
LEWISWell, I think it's a major -- I think it's a major contributor to Washington's identity. The stations, in particular, the underground stations with the coffered vaults, I think, as probably most listeners know, WMATA wants to make a few changes in these stations. And it's a real challenge.
LEWISHow do you improve the environment in terms of serving the riders, particularly with respect to lighting and signage and a few other things? It'd be nice if all the elevators and escalators worked. I mean, there are some functional and technical glitches in the system that need to be ironed out, but I think...
NNAMDIBut what would you say that the architect, Harry Weese, got right in the original design?
LEWISWell, I think the structure, I think the actual -- I think the structure itself, the great vaults that span overhead in the stations are the signature component of the Metro system. We're -- I think we could lose the multicolored orange and seat cushions, and I think we could lose the brown stripe on the sides of the cars which I think are going to get -- go away.
LEWISI mean, there's some things that, from my point of view, just looking at it as a designer, I wouldn't mind changing it, and I don't think it would compromise the fundamental quality, the fundamental aesthetic value of the system. I think that's where WMATA's headed.
NNAMDIWell, how about the makeover? Metro released plans for a prototype at the Bethesda station that would include stainless steel, brighter lights and glass. What do you make of that plan?
LEWISAgain, it all depends on how it's designed. I think I have no problem with introducing some different elements, a few materials other than the ones they have now. The -- you know, really, the devil and god are in the details, and I think we'll have to wait and see what they come up with. The only thing I've seen is the one rendering that The Washington Post published which wasn't particularly inspiring. But I suspect that won't be the final design. But I think...
NNAMDIWhat are the biggest things you would change about the look of our Metro's rail stations, if you could?
LEWISWell, I think with the underground stations, I think the lighting is very problematic, and I should disclose that I, at one point, was hired as a consultant to WMATA, helped them rethink some of the lighting. There's some serious lighting illumination problems. There just places where you not only can't see, it's dark and not necessarily safe. But even reading some of the signage is very challenging for a lot of people, and I think the signage needs to be rethought. But I think the basic architecture of the stations is going to remain unchanged and should remain unchanged.
NNAMDIOK. Back to the telephones. Here is Anne in Rockville, Md. Hi, Anne. Your turn.
ANNEHello. I hope you can hear me. I'm going to try to get to where it's quiet. But my point is that a lot of the infrastructure projects are bid out without an aesthetic piece into the specifications. Then I'm wondering how the low bid and impacts (unintelligible)...
NNAMDIOK. You're breaking up, Anne. But I got enough of your question to be able to pass it on to Roger. Anne wants to know how the process of bidding in which low bids tend to win affect infrastructure design.
LEWISProbably not as much as Anne might think because, generally, when projects go out for bid, they've already been designed. Usually, a team of designers, engineers and architects, hopefully landscape architects, have produced a set of drawings and specifications that tell the contractors what it is they have to build. And so usually, that's all spelled out before bidding is done.
LEWISI think there's -- there are probably a few exceptions where there's a -- where they do what are called turnkey projects or design-build bidding, but that's exceptional. I think most public -- most infrastructures is designed before it goes to bid.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. What would you change about the design of Metrorail stops if you could? Give us a call or send email to email@example.com. Anne, thank you for your call. We move on now to Robbie in Southwest, Washington. Hi, Robbie.
ROBBIEHi, Kojo. Thank you. I'm a long-time listener, first-time caller. I had a question for Professor Lewis. There are some of us who live here in Southwest, D.C. who are trying to encourage development that -- in a manner that is respectful of some of the important architecture, specifically the I.M. Pei building down here. And I was wondering if he had any suggestions or was willing to do an article about these efforts.
LEWISWell, I know the Southwest, D.C. area fairly well. You've got a new arena stage complex there. The whole Southwest waterfront is about to change radically, radically. I think the I.M. Pei buildings you're talking about, which I believe are at between 4th and 6th Street and -- plus some other buildings that were built in Southwest during the urban renewal period, not by Pei but by some other distinguished architects, my understanding is most of those buildings are going to remain just as they are.
LEWISThey may need some retrofitting, but I think they're going to be preserved. I do think they've done a fairly good thing, too, when they opened up 4th Street, when they brought 4th Street through to M Street. And that whole area has certainly been revitalized when I think back to what it was 10 years ago. So I think, Robbie, I'm hoping they save the I.M. Pei buildings. He did those very early in his career. I think when we first moved to Washington in 1968, they were -- '67, they were relatively new buildings then.
NNAMDIAnd if there's going to be significant change in those buildings, Robbie, I'm pretty sure that Roger Lewis will write about it at some point. Thank you very much for your call. On now to Belle in Silver Spring, Md. Belle, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BELLEThank you, Kojo. I just wanted to make two observations about the importance, both from a psychological perspective and an economic perspective, of the aesthetics of our environment. I think that most people as they're walking around, busy with their days on their cellphones, walking down the street, don't consciously notice the street signs, the sidewalks, the telephone polls, all these infrastructures, things that you're talking about.
BELLEBut I think that even though we're not focusing on them in general in our busy days, that we do, in fact, subconsciously absorb the tone of our environment. And I think -- to the extent that choices are made, as your guest said, without necessarily throwing lots of money at it, but whether a curve in a design or a particular color can make an impact in the overall environment, I think that just as a person feels differently when they put on t-shirt and sweat pants and walk outside in their sneakers.
BELLEOr if they dress a little more nicely and their posture is better as a result of the fact that they feel good within themselves, I think that the environment affects us also psychologically as the city and surrounding areas. And my second point is for those who want to say well, let's just be practical, that this has huge economic impact, both in terms of tourism and just in terms of the local economy for a city that is thought of as being beautiful.
BELLEWhen I go to travel with my husband, I think, well, it's a beautiful place that we would like to go and see. And as much as the D.C. area is, in fact, quite a tourist destination, I think that it would be more so the more people perceive it as a place of beauty.
NNAMDII think that's one of the points that Roger was making earlier about Washington being slightly different from some other cities in that regard.
LEWISAlthough I think she makes a good point. I mean, Washington, for all the things that we've talked about as being maybe slightly deficient, it still has a tremendous amount to offer. I mean, the -- when you look at all the parks, the public spaces in the city, the greenery, the vegetation, I mean, there's a lot going for Washington.
LEWISI thought about it a lot yesterday when I tried to drive over to Capitol Hill, and I saw 8,462 buses up lining the streets. And, by the way, that's something else infrastructure-wise. There have been serious talks about what to do with buses, all these buses that come here, particularly in the spring and the fall. It would be nice if we had some place to park them and got people out of the buses instead of having these buses trying to get around in some of the narrow streets of the city.
LEWISBut anyway, I -- Belle, I certainly share your observations about -- there's no question in my mind that people are at least subconsciously aware of the kind of environment they inhabit. I think part of our problem, again, is to elevate the consciousness to the point where it might actually influence decision making about the investment in infrastructure. We have a long way to go still on that, I think.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. We move on now to Justin in Greenbelt, Md. Justin, your turn.
JUSTINHi. I'm living, well, in Greenbelt. We're right next to the BW Parkway. And having lived here four years ago, I've grown to really appreciate the concrete and stone facade bridges that's at the BW Parkway, particularly the one that's right in our community. And they have a beautiful mid-century aesthetic to them. And unfortunately, about a year and a half ago, the bridge that's right in our community right next to it was devastated by a lot of graffiti vandalism.
JUSTINAnd it didn't seem like anybody was actually trying to do anything about it to clean it up. And over the last year and a half, I've tried to make phone calls to see -- to get that cleaned up. And it -- what I found is that there's a quagmire of federal, state, county and even local issues or, I guess, jurisdictional issues regarding the maintenance of that bridge. And to this day, it still hasn't been cleaned up because I don't think anybody even knows whose job it is to do it.
NNAMDIWell, allow me to have -- go ahead. Allow me to have Roger respond to that because, of course, there's a difference between what our caller characterizes as graffiti vandalism and what others may consider graffiti art. But go ahead, please.
LEWISWell, Justin's raising a very important point that we haven't talked about, which is the issue of maintenance. You know, after you've created the infrastructure...
LEWIS...you then have to take care of it, and, of course, that, among other things, does require figuring out who owns it and who is responsible for that. And I think it's a good point to make that we have an obligation, once we've created these things, to take care of them and also to take care of them after they, you know, they've outlived their usefulness. For example, you know, we've talked on this show about things like the Dupont Underground area that -- where the trolley stations now no longer -- they're just sitting there. It's piece of infrastructure that we need to find a use for.
NNAMDISitting there since, what, 1962 except for a brief resurfacing, if you will, to use a term.
LEWISSure. And the same is true of the McMillan Reservoir. It's another part of a once-upon-a-time structure, of an infrastructure system awaiting redevelopment. And I think that -- you know, we could do a whole show about what do you do with obsolete infrastructure.
NNAMDIOh, we're getting to that next as -- after we take a short break, as a matter of fact. Justin, thank you very much for your call. We'll take that break now. And when we come back, if you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. The number is 800-433-8850. Which pieces of obsolete infrastructure in Washington would you most like to see repurposed for other uses? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're having a conversation with Roger Lewis about infrastructure and aesthetics. Roger Lewis is an architect. He is the "Shaping the City" columnist for The Washington Post and professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland, College Park. Roger, it's important to note that infrastructure has a natural life cycle, and for a lot of these projects, it ultimately gets to a point where they're past their use and you have to move on.
NNAMDISome cities have famously taken obsolete infrastructure and repurposed it, like New York did when it converted and abandoned freight railway on Manhattan's West Side into the High Line Park. But you wrote in the past that when it comes to using obsolete infrastructure, the District, pardon the pun, has been on the wrong track. Why?
LEWISOh, I think a lot of it has to do with funding, money and probably, to some extent, competition among potential users. For example, one can argue that schools, a network of school buildings, is part of a city's or community's infrastructure, and I think there are that -- we know that there are a bunch of -- there are more school buildings sitting around, public school buildings, than are needed by the current school system, what to do with them, and we have not necessarily figured out the most expedient way to deal with that.
LEWISI know that there are probably competing interests and competing potential users. I'm not sure we've -- the city has figured out -- has a protocol that's -- that they can point to that says, OK, here's a surplus building, or here's something that we're -- we no longer need. Here's what we can do to put it back to work. There's -- it seems to be always an ad hoc process.
NNAMDIA developer comes along. What are -- I guess I want to be a little more specific here. It's my understanding that developers are eyeing the old Uline Arena over there in Northeast. Would you consider an abandoned stadium to be obsolete infrastructure?
LEWISWell, it probably is obsolete given its original purpose.
LEWISSo the question is what do you do with it now? And I think that -- I mean, the thing about the High Line in New York -- let me interject this -- the High Line in New York was clearly something that wasn't going to be put to some new functional purpose. It became essentially an ornamental fixture of the city. It's a place where that -- it's a wonderful promenade.
LEWISI mean, that's what it is. Whereas a school building that's no longer needed can, in fact, become something else. It can become another school. A public school, a normal public school, could become a charter school, or a school could become an apartment building or...
NNAMDII went to one such on Capitol Hill...
NNAMDI...recently, an old public school that's now an apartment building.
LEWISOr an office building. I mean, I -- in cities all over the country, the old warehouses are becoming repurposed as office buildings and restaurants and destinations with things having nothing to do with their original purpose. I think the -- I think what's -- the problem in Washington is we don't have a process that takes care of these projects or these properties that need to be repurposed. Again, the Dupont Underground is a good example. That has sat -- that structure, that underground structure has sat empty for I don't know how many years, but the city...
NNAMDIAnd it was a bad idea, I guess, when they decided to open it up to have restaurants down there 'cause...
LEWISWell, it didn't work. I mean, who knows what would work today? But the one thing I'm sure of, there are some people who, I think, admirably, are trying to get -- put life back into it. But the city has basically taken the position that they, you know, they just want the private sector to come along and figure out what to do with it.
NNAMDIIndeed, the GSA recently accepted a $19.5 million bid from a developer who wants to convert the old art deco Georgetown West Heating Plant into luxury condos. What do you make of that idea?
LEWISWell, I haven't seen the details of that. It's a -- it might be the right -- it might be the only alternative. I don't know for sure, but it certainly has been happening quite a bit in other cities -- that is, buildings of that ilk becoming high-end condos, which -- and that's -- one of the things we're not solving, speaking of condos and apartments, is creating much affordable housing. You would think that the city might have figured out a way to help convert some of the stuff into housing.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is James on Capitol Hill in Washington. James, your turn.
JAMESRegarding the obsolete infrastructure, it feels this thing is more of a development property, but I think it's an infrastructure, as a Reservation 13 property over along the banks of the Anacostia. I guess my question is...
NNAMDIWhere D.C. General Hospital used to be?
JAMESYeah, where the D.C. General Hospital is, you know, to my mind, what could be a world-class waterfront park and redeveloped property if done right and done holistically. You talked about ad hoc nature of project sometimes. It seems to me that what was a shining opportunity is evolving back into sort of ad hoc, you know, everyone puts their pet project there again. And how do we -- what do you make of that property? How can it be put back on the map of something that's done in a holistic manner that treats infrastructure like that properly?
NNAMDIWell, the city has an office on planning, Roger.
LEWISYeah. And there -- again, I'm not an expert on this. My understanding, though, is that there have been holistic or comprehensive plans developed for Reservation 13 for that area. And I know the Office of Planning likewise is very concerned about that and has -- is -- if not doing a plan, it's certainly fostering that kind of planning. I'm not up to date on that. That's something I haven't looked at.
LEWISBut I agree with your sentiment and your observation that these -- all of these places need to be planned very comprehensively and very holistically. And, you know, the worst thing can be done is to start chopping them up and having kind of fragmentary balkanization development where you just take the path of least resistance, which is too often what they do.
NNAMDIWhich takes us to Lars in Fall Church, Va. Lars, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LARSYes. Thank you, Kojo. Mr. Lewis, I was just sort of curious in terms of, you know, we were talking earlier about bridges and more aesthetic construction. I think of Los Angeles and New York and mainly -- I forget -- was that Robert Moses and William Mulholland? And I was just curious, to what extent do you think it requires a very iconic political driver to get better aesthetics in the infrastructure?
NNAMDIOr at least for there some coordination and consistency.
LEWISWell, that's a very good question. I mean, I don't think it necessarily requires a kind of aesthetic czar to accomplish what you're talking about. But I think it does require leadership. I think there has to be a commitment on the -- and an effort expanded by people who are in positions of leadership. You mentioned Robert Moses.
LEWISI mean, you think about Baron Haussmann in Paris and, for that matter, Bo Shepard here in Washington, who some may remember came in and changed the -- completely realigned streets and changed the grades of streets and planted -- I forget how many gazillions trees. I mean, I think that a -- I think leadership is important. For example, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Sen. Moynihan was around, he was a voice.
LEWISHe had tremendous effect through his leadership and his willingness to stand up and preach, really, and cheerlead maybe is the best word. He had -- he helped change thinking about parts of Washington, particularly Pennsylvania Avenue and the area around the White House. Yes. So I think what we need is not necessarily a monarch or a king or a dictator, but I think that leadership is critical.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Lars. We talk on this broadcast a lot about NIMBYism, people want certain infrastructure, who wants certain development, they just don't want it anywhere near where they live. To what degree do you think people can be more open to living near infrastructure when it's actually pleasant to look at? The New York Times published a piece a few years ago about how accomplished architects around the world have won a claim for everything from water treatment plants to waste management facilities.
LEWISWell, I think that answers the question implicitly. Although this episode last week in West, Texas, where there was a plant -- not a plant, but a storage facility for fertilizer...
NNAMDIOh, yeah. In the town of West, yes.
LEWIS...right next to a piece of infrastructure. I mean, it was a store -- a depot for a fertilizer blew up. And right next to it were two schools, an apartment -- that -- I mean, I think you have to be careful not to put things that are really truly dangerous and incompatible next to where people are living.
LEWISBut that being said, I think there is a lot of -- many, many examples around of where parts of infrastructure -- because they've been designed to be not only as good to look at but not necessarily noisy or producing pollution are perfectly good neighbors. So I think it's possible. There are things, though, that you don't want to be next to, so we have to be discriminating here.
NNAMDIOn now to Eric in Alexandria, Va. Eric, your turn.
ERICYes. Good afternoon. Professor Lewis had briefly touched on the Metro monstrosity currently going up at Tysons, where my wife and I work and have to look upon at every day. Is there something that can be done to mitigate this eyesore in the making?
LEWISWell, of course, the first thing that comes to mind is ivy. The refuge of a lot of us architects, you know, after we've built buildings is grow ivy on it. And I don't know that much can be done about what they've done out of Tysons Corner. It's -- it is what it is. And we'll get used to it just like people have gotten used to other things in our environment. I don't know that there's any kind of cosmetic treatment. I can't think of a cosmetic treatment short of ivy growing all over the concrete to deal with that structure.
NNAMDIEric, good luck to you and your wife with the future of that structure. Here is Jed in Arlington, Va., talking about how this might be paid for. Jed, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JEDYes. Hi, Kojo. Thanks. The answer earlier about how there is design on projects before they're put out to bid made me think of something. I'm sure Professor Lewis has been to or knows about Columbus, Ind., where the people who owned the major industry there, Cummins Engine Co., created a trust to pay for the architecture for all the public buildings in town on one condition: that they pick from a list of several distinguished architects in the world.
JEDWe couldn't do that for all buildings in Washington but maybe somebody could come up with the money to do something like that for -- especially important project.
NNAMDIThe condition being that they pick from some of the more distinguished architects in the world is what you said?
LEWISWell, that's certainly -- I know the Columbus, Ind., experience. And I think that, yes, they did produce a number of unique buildings. I don't know that it really was about infrastructure as much as it was about specific works of architecture, some of it is infrastructure. I mean, there was a fire station in schools and civic buildings. I do think that you stand a much better chance of getting something you can appreciate and enjoy and like visually when you select better architects.
LEWISObviously, one of the ways this is done is through design competitions. That's done much more frequently in Europe than we do here. But in Europe, most public work is done by competition, design competition. We could do more of that here, and we have had some successes doing it.
NNAMDIGot an email from Jessica, who says, "When I got back from a recent trip to Paris, I was surprised to find out just how many of the photos I had taken were of Metro entrances. Every time I was about to go underground to hop on the train, I found myself snapping a photo of the entrance to the station. I doubt that many people think the entrances to the underground rail in Washington are as beautiful.
NNAMDI"The ugly, black vertical Metro signs marking a stop just don't cut it for me. I grew up here, and I love D.C. enough to give it to other cities when they just flat out do things better than us."
LEWISWell, the Metro -- Paris Metro entrances -- I'm sorry, you can't beat that. I mean, that, you know, it's partly nostalgia. They are 19th-century structures. But anyway, I think we appreciate the observation.
NNAMDIAnd that's all the time we have. Roger Lewis is an architect. He's the "Shaping the City" columnist for The Washington Post and professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland. Roger, thank you so much for joining us.
LEWISThank you for having me again.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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