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As September’s first school bell approaches, two neighboring jurisdictions are putting the finishes on remade high schools. Arlington’s Washington-Lee, just a few blocks from Ballston Metro, and Alexandria’s T.C. Williams, which is near the vague center of that amorphous city, follow (slightly) different fads in contemporary mega-building architecture. Neither approach successfully hides the structure’s awkward bulk.
Washington-Lee is predominantly brick, but with jutting glass-clad protrusions of the sort that have become all too common in downtown office buildings:
Although more horizontally oriented than most structures in the medium-rise Ballston commercial district, the ungainly new W-L is tall for a suburban school. It looks squashed into its site, jostling the curb on its tighter-fitting sides. Its glassy towers project upwards as if forced out when someone gave the building a hard squeeze.
Also mostly brick, T.C. Williams takes the postmodern historicist approach, presenting an almost-symmetrical face to King Street:
The building’s backside is blank except for a series of loading docks—-they must be planning to sell tractor-loads of Pepsi and Cheetos—-and looks like the equivalent aspect of Wal-Mart. But the more prominent exteriors use quasi-classical detailing, including columns, pilasters, peaked rooflets, and a rounded, semi-detached entrance pavilion on the incredibly long facade that runs roughly perpendicular to King Street.
It’s tempting to suggest that Arlington is trying to look all-business, while Alexandria hoped to create a building that more closely resembles the backwater neoclassical pile that impersonated T.C. in Remember the Titans. But Alexandria has long had a taste for “colonial” architecture that’s hopelessly outscale, like the hulking Old Town Holiday Inn that would probably shock a reanimated George Washington as much as the latest follies in Dubai.
If the new T.C. is way too big for the 18th century, the true expression of its late-20th-century aesthetic is yet to come. Once the city tears down the old building, a merely functional brick shed that opened in 1965, its land will used for the successor’s massive new parking garage.