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Back in March, Iowa Rep. Rod Blum tweeted a photo of cranes above the Southwest waterfront on Twitter and wrote: “Washington DC is booming. Tower cranes everywhere. Being built on the backs of US taxpayers. DC needs a recession.”
The second half of his tweet sparked outrage, understandably, but the first half is correct. D.C. is booming, and whole swaths of the city are being rebuilt before our eyes. Construction on this scale will have a lasting impact on the local economy, housing, transportation, and education. How it looks and feels may seem beside the point, but those factors matter, too: architecture and urban design fundamentally shape the character of a city.
Long viewed as an architectural stick in the mud, history-loving D.C. has suddenly vaulted ahead to shipping-container apartments and microunits, pop-ups and parklets. Seldom asked is whether they’re any good. Do the new additions to the city function well for all kinds of people? Do they lift the spirit and beguile the eye? These questions are at the front of my mind when I write for City Paper, but people other than architects and critics need to be asking (and answering) them, too.
Earlier this year, I was talking to my friend Neil Flanagan, a designer at the D.C. architecture firm Hickok Cole. We both enjoy going to lectures and panel discussions around town, but we found ourselves craving another kind of forum for talking about the city—something faster-paced, more interactive, less professional, and more social.
The answer came to us via London, where a debating society called Turncoats formed a couple of years ago. The idea behind Turncoats is for people to relax, slough off their more cautious professional selves, and engage in full-throated (yet respectful!), rapid-fire debate on a broad range of topics. Audience members are encouraged to speak up, Powerpoints are strictly forbidden, and alcohol is served liberally.
Neil and I teamed up with Braulio Agnese, of Dupont Underground fame, and soon Turncoats D.C. was born. We’ll also debate a range of topics, but they’ll all touch on the built environment (design, planning, land use, etc.) in some way. The first debate will be held on Wednesday, Aug. 24, at 7 p.m. at The Third Floor (above Slim’s Diner) in Petworth. There’s a terrific lineup of speakers, including Nooni Reatig (whose family design firm I wrote about in City Paper) and Brian Miller, the creative talent behind many of D.C.’s hottest restaurants. The proposition they’ll debate: “D.C. Wants Boring Architecture.”
You can buy tickets online for $5, and that includes a shot. If you can’t make it, check back here for a report on what went down.