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“I don’t know how they could have missed this opportunity,” says Julian Hunt as we walk to Thomas Circle. He’s referring to the 2006 renovation of Thomas Circle, which restored its central shape but, as one blog post put it, turned Thomas Circle into “merely a nice place to look at while passing through to other destinations.”
Hunt is not quite so kind.
“It looks like it was done by a 4-year-old,” he says. Thomas Circle is where a lot of the District’s jurisdictional problems are made evident. The center of the circle is a National Park Service concern, he says. NPS, Hunt says, considers the District a “backwater” of sorts—-Yosemite this ain’t.
NPS here, he says, tends toward historical preservation. “It looks like they just took an old plan,” he says of Thomas Circle. You’ve got a central park that you have to take your life into your hands to get to, and once you’re there, what? “Acres of concrete and misplaced signage,” Hunt says. “So much money for nothing.”
Later we walked around the circle. Hunt pointed out a couple of notable failures. The Washington Plaza Hotel, for one. It’s a “cheap copy” of a Marcel Breuer building, like HUD’s Robert Weaver building downtown. It’s “totally inappropriate” to the round form of the circle.
Down Massachusetts Avenue NW is the headquarters of the National Association of Home Builders, a “dopy, ugly building,” says Hunt. “They thought they could match brick,” he says, pointing to a seam where two different colors of brick come together. You can’t match bricks that come from different places, or even the same place at different times.
It’s not all fail for the NAHB building. The side closest to the circle is “not a disaster, but it’s a missed opportunity,” Hunt says. The front of the building echoes the circle’s shape, which addresses the odd corner problem. But the stretch of land in front of it is unusable. So that’s a minus.
Just down Mass is an interesting contrast in postmodernism. Hunt worked with Robert Venturi, the founder of the style, which Hunt says is now totally “debased.” You can see the worst kind of postmodernism, he says, in the Homewood Suites. But next to it is a building Hunt likes. Philip Esocoff‘s Post Massachussetts Avenue building, he says, is “quite good.” It uses interesting materials, it’s got rhythm, it doesn’t look like it takes its inspiration from Ballston.
One interesting point: Look above the windows on the Post Mass Ave building. Those dark lines above the lintels are expansion joints, which shows that the brick is a façade, not structural.