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Ideas Wanted: New York Avenue

At the Washington Design Center

300 D St. SW to March 29

Mon-Fri 9 a.m.-5 p.m.,

Sat-Sun, noon-5 p.m.

New York Avenue, Route 50. To most, it’s a place you pass through to get to somewhere else. Not really a “Gateway to Washington.” Nor the site of any interesting tourist attractions. But while some see only a place to get gas before heading to Baltimore, a group of young architects has created several works to highlight the potential of this neglected corridor.

The Atelier Forum, formerly known as “young expressions,” was started four years ago as a way to provide an opportunity for young designers to publicly showcase their work. Most of the entrants either work at small architecture firms or are students at or recent graduates of area colleges.

New York Avenue was chosen as this year’s site because it has so many problems—but also so much potential. The Forum describes the corridor as “an urban, commercial, residential, political, multicultural axis, that welcomes thousands of commuters and visitors into Washington, D.C., every day.” Entrants were allowed to pick any site along the avenue from the White House to the Anacostia, but most examined the run-down section leading to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. As Koji Hirota explains in his entry, Addressing the Urban Voids, “This part of New York Avenue feels like a bastardized copy of Las Vegas, without any of the successful parts of that city.”

A lot of the work is text-heavy. Intellectual and theoretical, it demands a critical viewing, but too much of the text is inside baseball. Terms and ideas are not always made accessible to the layperson—odd, given that this is, in part, a student show. What could have been a wonderful opportunity to bridge the gap between expert and novice instead devolves into obscurantism.

Jamil Hamilton, an entrant who also helped to assemble the show, reluctantly agrees. “The descriptions were supposed to be 50 words or less,” he says, “but architects like to hear themselves talk. We call it ‘talkatecture.’ Too much

verbosity.”

Collectively, the text from the dozen entries does give readers an interesting history of Washington—from its founders’ original intent to its subsequent development to its current state. Architecture speaks volumes about D.C.’s powers that be, past and present. Much like the work of photojournalist Camilo José Vergara (now on display at the National Building Museum), which documents the changes of different “ghetto landscapes,” “Ideas Wanted” both raises and attempts to answer several key questions: Which areas have wasted away and which have been maintained? Where is money being allocated and where withheld? Which citizens are involved in the discussion?

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The three-part project by Chris Cho, William Drewer, Doug Jacobs, and Kelly Johnson begins with an arresting, colorful segment called Are We There Yet?, which playfully examines New York Avenue’s lackluster performance as grand entrance to the capital city. Unfortunately, its ’50s-style graphics do not carry through to the following two sections, which are conceptually provocative and more substantial designwise, but visually bereft. Connections, for instance, proposes a wide, bridgelike structure between the Convention Center and its as-yet-unbuilt addition. But the muted tones and straightforward presentation of the proposal provide too great a contrast to Are We There’s liveliness.

The Forum’s works are generally at least tacitly political because they challenge the status quo, but some are more overt in their protest. Clifton Fordham’s piece, a photo essay more on neighborhood decay than on urban design, takes Mount Vernon Square as a focal point to highlight D.C.’s political and economic dichotomies. A red triangle, with the words “Wound/Gap” printed repeatedly within it, pierces a dark background on which are presented photographs and text outlining histories, analyses, and solutions for the area’s problems.

Node addresses the lack of voice of many District residents and suggests the “Vocus” as a solution. The name blends the words “focus, vocal, and locus,” and is applied to a coliseumlike building by Eric Jenkins. The Vocus, a unique, oval structure that would occupy roughly the same amount of space as Dupont Circle, would serve as an open “speaker’s corner,” where citizens could have their say before the public.

Ideas range from the purely hypothetical to the plausible, but fortunately, none of the entrants allowed mundane constraints (funding, zoning laws, public acceptance) to limit their proposals. In fact, few entrants even constructed models, so most ideas exist solely on paper.

Gulliver, by Lance Hosey, is a design sketch of a hollow obelisk-shaped tower made of wooden slats. The four sides are raised but never fully meet. At night, a light would shine from inside through the four large gaps and between the small slats. Two obelisks would sit on different corners of the avenue, balancing out the Washington Monument and providing New York Avenue with a gateway marker.

The most striking piece by far is Urban Rooms, an installation by Susan Killen, Janine Gooler Callahan, and Katherine Stifel. Two sets of doors, connected like a three-part screen, make a walkway for viewers. The designers have painted various map symbols and landmark signs, such as that of the New York Avenue Car Wash, and posted photos over the doors’ distressed, chipped paint. But Rooms, too, suffers from a reliance on academic jargon. The term “constituent foci” is actually employed as a synonym for the work’s title. The designers proffer the idea that the city is already divided into rooms with natural barriers—the Hecht’s room, the Corcoran room, the HoJo room, for example.

Participants’ works are judged by those who view them. The winner of the “people’s choice” award receives a coffee-table design book at the closing-night symposium (March 29, 6:30-9:30 p.m.). That night a panel of academics, planners, and community members will also explore the roles of art and design in remedying existing problems. A copy of the city’s current plan for New York Avenue will be one focus of the discussion. With the plan still under development, the Forum members may find that some of their designs have a chance of becoming reality.CP