The Pike + Rose development on Rockville Pike is a surprisingly experimental collection of buildings. It’s contemporary in style, but also filled with architectural ornament. The result upends the common architectural conceit that ornament cannot be “of our time.”
Pike + Rose is one of the region’s most ambitious attempts to retrofit an aging suburban place to become more urban. It gets far more headlines for its planning than for its architecture.
But although Pike + Rose isn’t flashy enough to find itself on the cover of Architect Magazine, it’s fascinating and instructive for what it tells us about how architecture can interact with urbanism.
Ornament doesn’t have to be historic-looking
In the world of architecture criticism, ornament is taboo. Buildings should be “of their time;” they must not rely on historic styles to look good. Since so much ornament is either historic or kitschy faux historic, the world of architecture has turned its nose up at it for decades.
But many laypeople prefer buildings with little flourishes, because, well, little flourishes are pretty and people like pretty things. Those flourishes are particularly important on urban buildings, where people walking along a sidewalk need human-scale things to look at.
Pike + Rose attempts to rectify that mismatch by providing the sort of small-scale ornamental flourishes that pedestrians crave, but using unabashedly contemporary styles and materials.
Mixed but instructive results
No doubt about it, Pike + Rose is an experiment with mixed results. Its designers tried a lot of things, and failed as often as they succeeded. But failure teaches as much as success, and future architects can learn much from what happened here.
The most successful attempts are those that fully embrace their modern manufacturing, using carefully-placed materials to create repeating abstract patterns of factory-produced detail. These are unmistakably both contemporary and ornamental, and look great.
The same effect thrives on fences and other urban accoutrements.
Less successful are the more literal decorations. These are individually beautiful, but on buildings they’re awkward and kitschy.
Least successful of all are the murals, particularly this cartoonish fake advertisement for a baking machinery factory that never existed:
Other murals are more honest about what they are, and thus aren’t so bad.
It’s easy for architects to retreat to glass boxes and pretend they’re bold, and it’s easy for laypeople to point at old buildings and say “do that,” but neither is a satisfying way to build modern cities.
The architects of Pike + Rose, WDG, deserve praise for pushing an envelope that needed to be pushed. Contemporary ornament can work, but it’s going to take talented designers willing to try controversial things to build on and refine these early results.
I hope this continues. Our cities will be more beautiful and more livable for it, even if it takes a while to figure it out.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.