Washington Post architecture critic Ben Forgey drove and walked around downtown Washington giving his opinions about the best and worst of the city’s buildings for Washingtonian. Unlike too many architects, many of his comments focused on the interaction between buildings and the people around them:
The Federal Triangle is a planning mistake of huge dimension because it lines the southern half of the “nation’s main street” with institutional buildings, federal buildings. When these buildings were built, it was against the law to put stores in them. And so for tourists on the Mall, it acts as a wall separating them from downtown: “Wow, look at those columns. Where should we go?” And they don’t come this way.
[The FBI building] is a street-killing building; it takes up an entire block. Yet there were supposed to be stores on the avenue. J. Edgar Hoover nixed them and said, “No stores in my building.”
Forgey criticizes other pedestrian-unfriendly structures, like Rosslyn’s walkways that keep pedestrians above the streets:
It was an idealistic notion that was a total failure in practical terms. It just turned out to be not very pleasant to walk above the cars. The planners reduced the ground level to a strange “no place” zone with odd little stores. My favorite over there is the church with the gas station underneath it.
Arlington (other than Rosslyn) gets high marks for its smart development around Metro, and Bethesda (“they did it pretty well”) wins over Silver Spring (“awkward”), something I definitely agree with. Forgey has especially harsh words for the security barriers that closed Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House and the fenced-off grounds of the Capitol.
When he gets to the controversial MLK Library, though, Forgey’s reverence for great architects of the past trumps the human consideration. He loves the reading rooms with big, open windows from the inside, but dismisses criticism (including the interviewer’s opinion of it as “an ugly combination of steel, brick, and glass”), because “the modernist aesthetic of the architect, Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, isn’t for everyone, but he developed it very rigorously, and he was without question one of the great architects of the 20th century.”
So what if Mies was “rigorous” and a “great architect”? We should decide about buildings based on whether they work, not whether architects study the creator in school. Forgey says, about the reading rooms, “it’s about inside/outside.” If something is nice on the inside (many disagree), but forbidding on the outside, does that make its outside any more street-killing than the FBI building or the rest of the Federal Triangle?