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Travis Price was all set to leave town.
An architect who’d been designing homes in Washington for more than 20 years, Price had, in 2002, finally designed his own dream home: a glassy box hovering over a wooded slope of Rock Creek Park in Forest Hills. But, according to the arcana of D.C. planning, his plans first had to be submitted for review to the notoriously stodgy Commission of Fine Arts—headed by then-chair Carter Brown, the legendary director of the National Gallery of Art.
“I thought, If I [don’t] get this through, I’m packing up; I’m leaving town,” Price says.
But, as he writes in his new book, The Archaeology of Tomorrow: Architecture and the Spirit of Place, that wouldn’t become necessary: When Price’s docket number was called, Brown looked at the design for a few seconds and announced, “I think we all concur there’s nothing to be discussed. This is brilliant. Passed.”
So was saved one of the biggest names in Washington architecture—certainly one of the biggest names in the too-cozy world of Washington modernist architecture. Price has gone on to write a book that isn’t a memoir but a manifesto for an architectural philosophy. It’s meant to be more intellectually substantial than the “hip hotels and vacation homes” books that dominate architectural publishing, Price says.
Price’s philosophy boils down to what he calls the three lenses of design—“stillness,” “movement,” and “nature”—which relate to the three dominant architectural trends of the late 20th century: postmodern, deconstructionist, and green, respectively. In the book, Price calls for an approach that distills the three schools into a harmonious, cohesive design process.
“This book is…a bible for that thesis of work,” he says.
Very few bibles, though, come this lavishly illustrated. A 200-plus-page hardbound volume that would look quite sharp on a Noguchi coffee table, Archaeology of Tomorrow intersperses Price’s monograph with profiles of some of the dozens of his projects. They range from a grand new library for Price’s alma mater, St. John’s College in Annapolis, to a remodel of an accounting firm’s office in a small, rural Maryland town, to Price’s own home—one of several he’s designed in the wooded nooks of Northwest Washington. His designs all feature breathtaking modern lines built with an eye toward the environment.
When it comes to green architecture, few have stronger credentials than Price. He came to Washington to work on alternative energy policy in the Carter administration after building a controversial wind machine on New York’s Lower East Side. He went on to design the Chattanooga, Tenn., offices of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a million-square-foot complex renowned for its energy efficiency.
But green isn’t everything, Price makes clear. He’s sharply critical of architects who cloak otherwise wasteful and inefficient designs in eco-friendly garb—lumber-guzzling log cabins, for instance—as well as well-meaning greenies who turn out boring, derivative structures.
Price’s most acid words, though, are reserved for the obstructionist likes of advisory neighborhood commissions and planning review boards. “We’ve all gotten so far into each other’s business that we’ve lost all common sense,” he says. “It hurts us modernists in town. It kills our spirits.”
Writing the book, however, has been inspiring, Price says. He’s embarking on a lecture tour outlining his “lenses of design,” while maintaining his thriving architectural practice out of a Georgetown row house. Current projects range in scale from a footbridge in Ireland to a complete rethinking of the National Geographic Society’s downtown campus.
“My philosophy has become crystal-clear,” Price says. “And now its a philosophy that’s flourishing in Washington, which I’m happy about.”
Price discusses and signs copies of his work at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 5, at the National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW. $20. (202) 272-2448.