While touring the Lansburgh Apartments in Penn Quarter for my column this week, I came across a strange architectural feature: A single twisting pole in the middle of the lobby, which seems cartoonish in a building with an elegant historic facade on the 8th Street side (the Lansburgh extends all the way through the block to 7th Street, with ground floor businesses including Jaleo and Austin Grill). Fittingly, building manager Kevin Wilsey calls it the Aladdin Pole. And as part of a comprehensive building renovation, it’s on the way out: The building’s owner and architect, Graham Gund, says he didn’t know what he was thinking when he designed the lobby in the late 1980s anyway.
With apologies to Gund, the pole fits the cheesy aesthetic of the rest of the non-historic part of the building, which I named among the worst of downtown not long ago (although another of his buildings, the National Association of Realtors headquarters, is one of the best). Here’s what former Post architecture critic Ben Forgey had to say of the 7th Street facade of the building soon after it went up:
On the east the exuberant look is all Gund’s. Typical of his mature practice — Gund went into business for himself shortly after receiving his degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1969 — the facade is richly articulated and ornamented in quasi-historical styles. True to tradition, the building has a base, a middle and a top. True to Gund’s likable brand of urbanism, its horizontal mass is broken up into six very different vertical parts, and is modulated by bays, balconies and niches. With its staccato rhythms of patterned bricks, varied window shapes, lively silhouettes and multiple entrances, it makes a vivid impression.
There’s something about it, though, that rankles. One particular detail, repeated many times, disturbs the overall image — the metal panels under the bay windows look junky. I suspect it is the context. The material is perfectly unexceptionable, and yet next to all of this fancy brickwork manages to appear insubstantial. Painted a recessive beige, the panels look more like temporary plywood sheets waiting for replacement. More important, there’s a cartoony quality to the roof line, made of six surprising parapets, each like a cutout of a Queen Anne residential detail blown up to billboard size. Humor clearly has a place in urban architecture, but as deployed here it seems arbitrary, swollen, excessively cute.
Wilsey took the criticism in stride, noting that everyone acknowledged the building was of its time.