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The plan for the District’s new communications center has dummy antennas lining up by the dozen.
In the Washington area, antennas not only transmit information, they also receive cacophonous feedback—usually in the form of carping from the neighbors. From the disputed radio antenna at the Benin Embassy to the contested cell-phone aerial on Old Dominion Road to the aborted telecommunications tower in Tenleytown, every time a transmitter threatens the skyline, local residents do their best to jam the process.
When it came time to design the Unified Communications Center (UCC)—a nerve center for emergency response that will be located on the east campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital in Anacostia—city officials had to face the possibility of even more static from the public. The project called for 32 antennas to be installed in a new building on a historic site.
Since 1990, St. Elizabeths has been on the list of National Historic Landmarks, along with such buildings as the White House and the U.S. Capitol. Landmark status, which is the highest level of protection given to historic properties, not only covers the existing buildings at St. Elizabeths but also extends to the campus’s panoramic views of the District—vistas that could be ruined by a mass deployment of rooftop antennas.
But rather than trying to cut back on the number of antennas or tuck them out of sight, the designers are trying another approach: Add even more antennas and display them prominently.
As a whole, the UCC is meant to be unobtrusive amid the existing Victorian and colonial-revival buildings of St. Elizabeths. Irena Savakova, an architect with the firm Daniel, Mann, Johnson, & Mendenhall and Holmes & Narver and the lead designer on the project, says she spent months studying the hospital to find architectural elements that would fit into the new building design. “We try to keep the elements of the campus that transcend time,” Savakova says, “such as scale, proportion, color, contrast, and type of material.”
So the UCC will be built of dark red brick, matching the color of the barn that is one of the oldest structures on the east campus. It will have a formalized courtyard, continuing a St. Elizabeths tradition. And its semi-detached child-care center will imitate the style of the numerous pavilions found around the grounds.
But none of the other buildings—many dating back to the 19th century—make extensive use of antennas.
After studying how aerials are used in other buildings around the country, Savakova decided to make the antennas a uniform 11-foot height and to place them at regular intervals along the UCC’s rooftop. By marching the antennas along the most prominent parapets in a precise pattern, Savakova hoped to create a vertical rhythm that would allude to the rows of columns that are common among other campus buildings.
The technological demands of the UCC, however, called for only 32 antennas—not enough to complete the desired motif. There would be too much space between them, ruining the colonnade-like effect.
Enter the dummy antennas.
By adding 24 faux aerials to the mix, Savakova had enough to fill in the gaps. The extra metallic rods will look like the real thing but have no more technological value than a tetherball post. Their only practical use is as place-holders: In the future, Savakova says, if the District wants to add extra antennas, it can simply replace some of the fakes with their functional brethren.
For all the historically minded architectural details, ultimately, it will be the antennas that are the UCC’s signature. “We also decided to use the antennas as an icon of what this building is all about,” says Savakova. To wit: She has drawn up a crescent-shaped brick wall to be sited near the building’s main entrance that will host a series of flagpoles and three functional antennas. Those three antennas will be among the most intricate ones in the collection: conical structures, reminiscent of shuttlecocks, set atop poles.
Savakova won’t be the first architect to use the antenna as an emblem. In the early ’60s, Robert Venturi capped the Guild House—an apartment building for the elderly in Philadelphia—with an outsized, nonfunctional television antenna. “The antenna, with its anodized gold surface, can be interpreted two ways: abstractly, as sculpture…and as a symbol of the aged, who spend so much time looking at T.V.,” wrote Venturi in his 1966 book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.
Critics interpreted Venturi’s golden antenna in a less flattering way—as a cynical reference to the couch-potato lifestyle typical of elderly Americans. Before long, the residents of the Guild House successfully lobbied to have the antenna torn down.
Though aware of the controversy surrounding Venturi’s seminal version of the dummy antenna, Savakova isn’t concerned about a backlash against her phonies. “Because the dummy antennas contribute to the overall uniformity of the building, most observers won’t even notice them,” she says. CP