“Visions of Home: Architects’ Explorations of Dwelling and Community”

The most subversive schemes set forth in “Visions of Home: Architects’ Explorations of Dwelling and Community” crash through the front doors of the archetypal American abode, setting off the burglar alarm and tracking dirt over the carpet as they examine contemporary clichés about community and that mythical place where the heart is. The best schemes, however, pay close heed to how people actually like to live. The National Building Museum show, the biennial by the American Institute of Architects’ Washington chapter, calls on local architects to devise new ideas about shelter and domestic life. These fall into two approximate categories: The duller designs in “Visions of Home” are for people who don’t want to live near other people, while the show’s standouts tend to be for people who do—or in any case, will.

Several firms have developed fascinating, well-defined schemes that advocate an extroverted attitude toward urban life, striving to achieve critical density while preserving territory. The partners of ARCHsoft, for instance, present an elaborate plan for mixed-use development—apartments, lofts, stores, sidewalks, and a streetcar—to fill in the tangle where Rock Creek Parkway meets the Whitehurst Freeway, and on down to E Street. It does, after all, seem intuitive to connect Georgetown to downtown. Architect Maurice Walters produces an exquisite plan for housing next to the Southeast Federal Center along the Anacostia River, so as not to repeat the Little Bucharest superblocks in the adjacent quadrant. Walters makes smooth transitions among a variety of housing scales and profiles: Town houses, walk-ups, and midrise apartment complexes surround intimate public spaces intriguingly shaped by the buildings’ masses.

Taking a disparate view of urban engagement is the ad-hoc group KILL Architects, whose installation is darkly amusing, if not very constructive. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? juxtaposes a series of stern warnings—“NO LOITERING DO NOT BLOCK DRIVEWAY BEWARE OF DOG”—around the old saw “HOME SWEET HOME.” It indicts the defensiveness that “diverse” neighborhoods engender, and calls to mind those city blocks where the smells of stir-fry, cherry pie, and samosas issue onto the same sidewalk from iron-barred windows. Though the accompanying text suggests that other architects start solving housing problems rather than talking about them, the injunction applies to KILL as well.

Several housing prototypes resolve social malaise more directly. The team of Thomas Johnson, Gary Martinez, Jane Nelson, and Hamilton O’Dunne train simple technologies on the most intractable cases of homelessness. For people who sleep on grates in subzero weather, Thomas et al. have created the “urban survival shelter.” It’s a vented shell, a souped-up tent that fits neatly over a Metrorail exhaust vent, built of materials that modulate heat and water vapor through inner linings while fending off rain and snow. For the suddenly homeless, i.e. the victims of catastrophe, Rippeteau Architects introduces Land Lifeboat, a lightweight, foam-and-fiberglass module that holds a family of 12 when parked—on the lawn of their just-leveled home—by a Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane helicopter (don’t miss the installation). The design lab of Catholic University goes a step further with a compact, portable residence incorporating advanced passive and active support systems—wind generators and photovoltaics. These provisional structures rate among the more ingenious in the show for their raw utility.

But what about buildings that have outlived their functionality? Generations of architects have neglected time as the fourth dimension in design. Barnes Vanze & Associates Architects hilariously confronts the problem of obsolescent buildings, specifically RFK Stadium. In its ambitious re-use scheme, Barnes Vanze would retrofit the stadium with retail on the first level, apartments above, and penthouses on top. With its riverside location, the structure could rival the Watergate, and there’d be room for a big farm on the field.

One danger of theoretical design is that architects are often moved to supply mawkish text along with their images. Jonathan Ward, for one, is a far better designer than poet (“fire burns/dust flies/flower ajar open pane frames/the world beyond. wall contains self/within….”). In his Housing Through the Wall, Ward wedges single-room-occupancy units beside luxury pads in one huge, screaming, porous building whose pell-mell planes he likens to jazz.

Margaret Robb Shook Cooper professes faith in collective living with an odd, axoid arrangement of circular volumes cantilevered diagonally into space like antennae. Cooper programs her pretermodern dwellings with Utopian amenities and plastic boundaries—curtains and the like—so that private spaces convert readily to shared forums. The principal, Wrightian form assumes the fractal topology of a tree (trunk, branch, stem) to form a system that would theoretically sustain itself.

Right beside these homes for everyone, the exhibit includes several for no one: A number of the projects in “Visions of Home” suffer from contemporary architecture’s worst pretensions. On no particular site, architect Ward Bucher presents a ho-hum house with a cylindrical volume at one end that “counteracts the outward centrifugal forces of society with inward, centripetal traffic flows.” Bucher’s “vortex of circulation leads to the center of family activities”—a family room and a library. One imagines a family trapped inside this twister, constantly beset by insidious headaches. Most architects tame those swirling forces with geometries a little more orthogonal and a little less disorienting.

Equally uninviting is a design by Arthur Cotton Moore Associates, which emphatically celebrates its liberation from “major social, community considerations” in designing a vacation house on Cape Cod. The flapping forms are reminiscent of Moore’s pavilion for Rizik’s, and might work on lower Connecticut Avenue, but they look entirely mannerist and miscarried (not to mention dubiously sited) on the lip of the rocky seashore. Everything about Moore’s object-building is irritating, from the wimpy mullions defining a frontal glass wall to the cursive script dancing across the plans and renderings.

Any phoniness in the show is, thankfully, offset by a few teams content to articulate the simple, poetic pleasures of home. The Alexandria firm HOH Inc., for example, surveys the eclectic gardens of Capitol Hill, front yards that grow into proud “mini-showplaces,” and fashions a photo installation upon a replica of a 19th-century crazy quilt. Other designers return gracefully to vernacular styles, craft, and strong contextual themes.

Such virtues are articulated by portions of the text that accompanies “Visions,” from which a spontaneous discourse on the role of domestic architecture emerges. Architect James L. Palmer, for instance, describes a simple addition for a house: “No matter how our culture evolves…we will still understand our lives and the world around us with the same senses, feelings, hopes, and dreams….” In the same vein, Howard University’s tableau states the design school’s philosophy that “[t]he built environment must reflect and reinforce the positive values of man’s existence.” May the show’s other contributors take note.

Particularly Greenwell Goetz Architects, which nearly discredits its otherwise fine scheme for converting old grain silos into housing. The firm’s grave brief claims that “[a]n architecture that creates facades of order, therefore painting a glossy picture of reality, is an architecture of deceit.” It also cribs some lines from the theories of the superhip firm Coop Himmelblau: “repelling…wet, dry, and throbbing…architecture must blaze.” Perhaps. But in the middle of the night, your house should be the place where you can grope safely through the dark to get a drink of water, then find your way back to bed.