This post is adapted from a class project I completed recently
In the film Enemy of the State, two characters decide to rendezvous in Washington, D.C.’s Mount Vernon Square. However, instead of using Washington’s square, the filmmakers opted to shoot the scene in a square of the same name located in Baltimore. While I don’t know the actual reason for this decision, I think it could have been caused by the architectural form of the square.
While both are similar in size and share the presence of a church building, we will see that Baltimore’s square is much more clearly defined in space, and would certainly have made a more visually satisfying backdrop to an urban rendezvous. Before turning to the topic of how Mount Vernon Square could be improved, let’s take a look at a three dimensional analysis.
I will analyze the square and its surrounding blocks through two approaches: creating a three dimensional model of the buildings present that give the square its form, and a second model to show the negative spaces or voids.
Now let’s take a look at Baltimore’s Mount Vernon Square.
A variety of architectural styles itself does not prevent the creation of a unified urban fabric. However, when these styles speak in a different language in their dialogue with their neighbors and the street, the result can be an intelligible cacophony. This is the case for Mount Vernon Square, where as a result of the highly contrasting forms and styles, each building speaks as an individual. Let us take a walk around the square, examining the architecture of what we find.
This early 20th Century building (left) was built to serve as the central office for a labor union. The zero setback from the street creates a sharply defined street wall and understated architectural style. While this style of architecture works well in context with similar buildings, here it stands alone on a nearly empty block, facing blocks with quite different forms and architectural styles. Instead of “reading” as a contributor to a larger street or block, this building comes across as an awkward anachronism, a solitary reminder of a previous urban logic.
The Carnegie Library is designed in the Beaux-Arts style, echoing other monuments to City Beautiful Elsewhere in the city. However, it is a proud civic building without a civic use, as it has not housed the library since the 1960s.
Today the building is used as offices for cultural organizations and for special events. Like an old man all dressed up and nowhere to go, the building’s elegant architecture has been stripped of both visitors and its functional meaning.
The Washington Convention Center is probably the must-discussed building on the square. Its design was the result of a contentious public process. The original massing caused one member of the National Capital Planning Commission to characterize the design as a “battleship” plowing into Shaw, and in response to neighborhood concerns the design was modified to minimize the overwhelming height and size through both architectural techniques, sinking it into the ground, and including retail space at the street level. While the high perforated façade may create visual interest, the multiple indentations and projections do not clearly define the square. Instead of serving pedestrians and public space, the structure seems scaled to the tour buses and tractor trailers that deliver goods and visitors to the cavernous convention floor.
If Mount Vernon Square is underutilized, thanks in part to a poor sense of urban space, how might it be improved?
1. Improve the physical definition of square. At the core of it, Mount Vernon Square is not clearly defined as architectural space. While this is the most important flaw, it is potentially the most difficult to fix. New construction at the northwest corner should match the existing building in setback and scale, and serve to define the streets. New construction at the northeast corner, where today there is a small parking lot, should both define the streets and also clearly articulate reflect the overall square shape of the space, including a generous flat face facing the square. The small parks at the east and west sides should be re-designed to be better integrated with the central green space
2. Improve design to accommodate and encourage pedestrian use. Although located near heavily trafficked pedestrian destinations, the square does a poor job of serving their needs and attracting and retaining pedestrian users. 8th Street should be opened to automobile traffic, and changes made to the ground floor retail to make it more visible to passing pedestrians. The pathways and paved spaces around the library building could be re-designed to create a shaded plaza and convenient walkways reflecting current pedestrian patterns. The traffic pattern could even be evaluated to see if additional on-street parking could be allowed to create a buffer between the heavy flows of traffic and plaza.
3. Create programming to better utilize square space. Like some of the city’s other public spaces, the square could host public events, particularly at times when there is less commuter traffic on neighboring streets like weekends or evenings.
Here’s what kind of buildings could enhance the square.
The neglect of public open space is by no means limited to Mount Vernon Square. I have previously written about the widely varied fate of the city’s multitute of small triangle parks, which are split up between various city and federal agencies. There are two initiatives underway to improve the quality of public spaces in the city. The National Park Service has launched an effort to create a plan for the National Mall to enhance the visitor experience and plan for future growth. Another effort called CapitalSpace was recently announced to oversee all of the city’s parks and public open space. This long-overdue initiative is a joint project between the D.C. Office of Planning, D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation, National Park Service and National Capital Planning Commission, and together the groups hope to create an action agenda to “establish a coordinated, connected citywide system of parks” that serve all neighborhoods. I hope these two programs result in increased attention to the city’s many public spaces.