Oehme van Sweden, Designing the Cultural Landscape

May 3, 2012

Where would our social calendars be without weather dates? A little thing like a history-making-earthquake-and-hurricane combination wasn’t about to shake up D.C. schedules…at least not too much. When the ground shook the district, Virginia and Maryland in August right before Hurricane Irene attacked the East Coast, several things had to be rescheduled, including the dedication of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s memorial on the National Mall. But in true Washingtonian fashion, the city simply shrugged, sent workers to deal with the boo-boos on the Washington Monument and the National Cathedral, and carried on with plans to dedicate the new civil rights site.

The long-awaited event was originally planned for Aug. 28, which was the 48th anniversary of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. President Obama was scheduled to speak and the country was eager to see the finished product – a massive undertaking of fundraising and design nearly three decades in the making.

Luckily, as the hurricane flooded the streets and toppled trees on that crucial date, another vital anniversary was waiting around the corner as a backup date for the dedication. Oct. 16 marked the Million Man March, held in 1995 on the National Mall to gather the country’s black men in a show of collective voice. Since the memorial is the first one on the mall representing someone of color, choosing a Civil Rights-specific date was crucial.

Standing proudly at the ceremony on Oct. 16 was landscape architect Sheila Brady. A principal at Oehme van Sweden, Brady was a key element in choosing the oaks, pines, magnolias and cherries that surround the newly-dedicated monument. Though many projects are clamoring for the mark of an Oehme van Sweden architect, Brady says she’s the lucky one.

“It’s been a great honor,” she says. “It’s about five years now that we’ve been working on it. The crowd is so inspired and thrilled.” When ROMA, a design group based out of San Francisco, won the competition for the MLK Memorial site, Oehme van Sweden was asked to implement the ideas for the landscape. Brady came on as a director during the development stage. “So we took ROMA’s ideas and visions, respected and honored them, and designed a plan that was fitting for the memorial,” says Brady.

The 30-foot-tall granite statue of Dr. King is imposing and serious. Arms crossed and holding a purposeful look on his face, MLK appears to be waiting for the next step. Those standing before it instantly have a sense of duty: to continue working toward total equality, justice and peace. Just in case the mission isn’t clear enough, King’s most famous quotes are inscribed around him. “There’s so much emotion and honor there and it’s inspiring,” says Brady. “The rest of the mall structures are presidents and war memorials so this is a whole new message for people who visit D.C.”

Though born in New York, Brady has been a Washingtonian for most of her life, tapped well into the socially-conscious heartbeat of the capitol city. Her family set up house inside the beltway in Bethesda when she was 13. Interested in art and design early on in her life, Brady attended and graduated from George Washington University and the Corcoran School of Art and Design. Having developed an interest in traditional architecture, she started to attend exhibits and showcases. That was how she found the work of Dan Kiley. “I was fascinated with this group of plants that he assembled,” she says. “That was the first time I heard the term ‘landscape architect.’” That was the day the tide turned on Brady’s future. “Right there, I was sold. I went into landscaping and I haven’t looked back since.” With her new thirst for natural design, Brady went on to Harvard for a masters in design and eventually found her way to Oehme van Sweden.

At the time, the well-respected D.C. firm had been around for 15 years, founded by Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden. For anyone familiar with the art of landscape design, both men are well-known as pioneers of the “New American Garden” style of landscape architecture. Rather than confining the foliage to structured shapes and precise spots, the “New American Garden” is meant to showcase the natural form of the plant, allowing it to grow slightly wild and choose its own path. But rather than acting as an antithesis to more orderly designs, the look is meant to act as a compliment; soft edges against the hard.

Now, after 25 years with the firm and securing a spot as a design principal, Brady has an impressive portfolio of her own. But despite the pedigree, she’s hard-pressed to come up with any favorites in her distinguished career.

“They’ve all been such great projects, from start to finish,” she says. After a few moments of reflection, she admits that the 40-acre botanical garden in Roth, New York was a priceless lesson in serenity and public service for her. “We had this chance to educate the public on literally thousands of different plants,” she says. “That was really special for me.” She’s also partial to memorials, like the MLK project and the World War II structure, another collaboration with ROMA. “You’re on this sacred ground of the monument’s core,” she says. “It’s a reminder that you’re working in orchestration with memory. It was an experience of a lifetime.”

As for the MLK memorial, she says the selected trees and plants were chosen to create a lasting, year-round impact. For instance: “the American Elm variety we chose is called the Princeton Elm and it’s resistant to Dutch Elm disease,” she says. “So that’s kind of symbolic of the memorial’s message. And the ground plane is this wonderful evergreen. So it’s going to be beautiful and strong in all types of weather and conditions.” Overall, the memorial’s green design was concocted to inspire reactions from generations to come. Brady says the plants, the statue and the general design of the memorial are all a testament to things in life that simply won’t be shaken by adversity. “It’s made to endure millions of visitors. It all works together to become a unified, beautiful site.” [gallery ids="100355,110047" nav="thumbs"]

R2L:Architects

February 8, 2012

Founded in 2010, R2L:Architects is among the area’s newest architectural firms. And while the firm is a surefire up-and-comer, its founders have a wide array of experience in the Washington area. Architects and principals Sacha Rosen, Tom Lenar and Lee Rubenstein sat down with the paper to discuss the nature of architecture in Washington, the challenges of historic preservation, hidden architectural gems of our city, and much more.

What kind of projects are you currently working on?

SR: A variety, with a current focus on apartment buildings. 30 units at 14th and Florida NW, 250 units in Mount Vernon Triangle, 280 units in Penn Quarter. And some smaller projects: a townhouse conversion to six units on North Capitol Street, an adaptive reuse of a historic landmark office building across from the Verizon Center and a 21-unit building on Capitol Hill. A 200-unit project in Ballston is in the works.

TL: We’ve also done some corporate interiors projects that were recently completed—including one for Public Properties, who just moved in to Georgetown. We’ve recently been in discussions with some local restaurants and a new office building downtown may be on the horizon.

When you work with a client, how do you merge with their aesthetic? Do you ever try to shift their taste in your direction?

SR: Yes, when they have bad taste. It’s sort of a civic duty sometimes. But we don’t have a singular vision of the world and we work hard to realize the client’s vision – after all, it’s their money, their home or business, and they usually have to live with the final product. It’s the quality of the overall project that matters most to us, rather than the specific style. If the final product is pleasing to the client, the architect and the public, then it’s probably a success.

LR: Successful designs often result from a collaborative process, rather than a predetermined aesthetic agenda. Most clients do have some sort of general concept in mind at the outset, but they’re also seeking our input, whether it’s on aesthetics and materials, or on more pragmatic issues of space allocation and site use. It’s not always a matter of shifting tastes, but vetting possibilities with the client and then implementing the ones that represent the right fit.

Do you approach the design process differently between large buildings and smaller projects, like a house or interior renovation? Or is the process effectively the same?

LR: The smallest of design efforts, such as a residential interior renovation, may only involve a handful of people: the owner, the contractor and a handful of installers. Larger buildings in urban settings tend to involve an extensive cast of characters- community groups, local review boards, neighboring property owners, specialty consultants and the like. In one case you’re working with a string quartet. In the other, you’re conducting a full orchestra.

SR: Larger projects evolve more over the longer duration of the design process. That gives you the opportunity to try some different ideas and pick the best ones. Smaller projects require you to make the major decisions quickly.

TL: It’s more by the client’s needs and their relationship with the project than by the project’s size. We designed an addition to one single family home for a client who was very objective – they had lived there for over 20 years, were looking to move on and needed to maximize the home’s value. On another residential addition, the client was concerned more about how livable the home was for their family. With some more space, they could see themselves living there forever and every decision was very personal to them because of the permanence of their relationship with their home.

On larger projects, clients differ on an organizational level. We have some great relationships with developers who have relatively small offices. They often come to us with a project site and ask us to envision what it could be. It’s fantastic. We get to be involved in just about every aspect of the project. The client we’re working with on 450 K Street develops, owns and manages a large residential portfolio. They bring a lot of sophistication to the table. They’re very organized, they continuously update their market research and study their competition, and they have a strategy for competing with them. The design process is efficient since most of the development program is already in place, and we can spend that much more time focusing on designing the building.

Do you focus much on sustainable and environmentally friendly design?

LR: A large residential building in an urban setting represents a significant use and concentration of resources. But if done correctly, in concert with sound regional planning, it can also lead to increased efficiencies that benefit the environment in the long run – fewer cars on the roads each day, fewer individual lawns to fertilize and mow, less development of undisturbed greenfield sites. It all adds up… Sustainability is now a focus of the broader design and construction industry, whether driven by the demands of a resource-conscious market, the desires of eco-savvy clients, or the requirements of new green building regulations adopted by local jurisdictions.

SR: Designing sustainably is like designing to accommodate gravity – there’s no alternative, is there? That’s something that makes me proud of our profession… architects and the building industry as a whole have made great strides in the past few years towards a much more environmentally sensitive approach to everything we do. Let’s hope it pays off before the National Mall floods.

TL: Essentially, sustainable design is nothing more than good, responsible design. In the big picture we’re addressing the issues which affect personal health, environmental health and resource efficiency. What’s been great to see is that within just the past five years, everyone has developed a more sophisticated understanding of what makes a building sustainable. It wasn’t long ago that perceptions were that a building had to have solar panels or a green roof to be considered “green.” A lot of our efforts are in optimizing technical things that improve air quality and increase energy efficiency but are otherwise unseen by most people. We still like solar panels and green roofs, too.

You tend to specialize in working in historic contexts. What kinds of projects are you doing?

SR: We’re doing an adaptive reuse of a 1913 landmark office building in Penn Quarter – retail on the ground and basement levels and some unique “micro-loft” apartment units on the upper floors. Our design for a 30-unit apartment house on 14th Street, which is quite contemporary in character, was unanimously approved as appropriate to the Greater U Street Historic District by the Historic Preservation Review Board. We’re working now on a 250-unit apartment house in a different historic district and a major addition to a historic landmark downtown.

Tell me about how you became interested in working with historic sites and preservation.

TL: Working with historic sites and neighborhoods is inevitable if you do any significant amount of work in the District. One of the great things about old buildings—historically significant or not—is that a lot of them were built to be quite durable and often can be adapted to modern uses, giving them new life. For example, our office is in a building that’s more than 200 years old. Our understanding is that the ground floor has always been used as a commercial space in some way and we have the opportunity to continue that tradition.

SR: My first preservation project was the Presidential Palace in the Republic of Malta, built in 1530 by the Knights of St. John – including the design of a free-standing steel-and-glass elevator in a stone courtyard, the installation of internet wiring in the Parliamentary Council Chamber and replacement of petroleum-based roofing materials with an ancient clay system much more suited to the intense sunshine. That was a great education in both the theory and practice of preservation.

How does historical and cultural analysis of historic preservations work?

SR: I studied historiography in grad school – a critical approach to the way we perceive and record the passage of time. In that context, the preservation of historic buildings, districts and artifacts reveals a lot about our society and culture. How do we decide what’s worth saving? How does contemporary design acknowledge our own cultural milieu? And how will our work today be perceived and valued in the future?

In designing a house what do you enjoy the most? What do you have to struggle with other than financial constraints?

TL: Thinking about how people use the buildings we design, the communities that they are a part of and how they fit in to the city. Whether it’s where someone lives, works, or plays, the design process leads us to interact with people who cause us to re-evaluate our understanding of how places are used and evolve our theories on how we can help enhance people’s lives through better design.

LR: Working to understand the client, the site and the design issues at hand so that what we propose is at once effective and interesting. One of the more enjoyable things about residential design is getting to step back and think about how people live their lives- working, relaxing, cooking, exercising, sleeping, commuting, entertaining, etc. Should the house be geared to satisfy conventional expectations, or should it be retooled to offer something unique? The answer can vary from project to project.

SR: Balancing personal expression with resale value. On the one hand, a house can be a physical manifestation of an individual or a family character; on the other hand, it can express the universal principles of human life. There’s joy in reconciling the two in the design of a home … but not when the result is something bland enough to be acceptable to anyone.

What’s the fastest turn around, in designing from scratch with a house, from drawings to the client moving in?

SR: We’ve never been asked that by a client. If you’re in a hurry, there’s probably a house out there that you can modify quickly to suit your needs. Most people who go to the effort of commissioning a home from a good architect are willing to give the process the time it needs. A longer, more careful design phase leads to a more efficient, cost-effective and often faster construction phase, and a more satisfying result.

Name the five best buildings in the DC area you did not design.

LR: How about five of the more interesting buildings that you might not have visited, but warrant a look, regardless of your aesthetic preferences?

1. The atrium between the Smithsonian Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery
2. The Embassy of Finland on Massachusetts Avenue
3. The main reading room at the Library of Congress
4. The NOAA Satellite Facility in Suitland
5. The East Portico Columns at the National Arboretum

Where did you study, and who has influenced you as an architect?

LR: We have varying backgrounds. Tom studied business management at Penn State University before earning his Master’s in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania. Sacha was a graduate fellow in American History at the University of Michigan—and a carpenter—before his M. Arch. from the University of Oklahoma. I also have a Master’s in architecture from University of Pennsylvania. Prior to that, I studied art history at Hamilton College.

SR: Modern masters like Kahn and Wright; the English high-tech school of Grimshaw and Rodgers; contemporary Dutch radicals; and the rich tradition of local Washington architecture.

TL: I find it difficult to credit anyone in particular for influencing my thoughts about architecture. I draw a lot from modernism—we all do, actually. But we’re also very critical and understand that this movement created some problems, notably an aesthetic that is sometimes cold and polarizing and an urban planning approach that, while progressive in its day, is now seen as isolationist. I like to study those kinds of architectural problems, and find creative ways to solve them for how we live today and how we will live in the future. Most of what we know comes through observing how people interact with the built world, and every generation is different in how they do that. Although we have a lot of historic buildings here in Georgetown that date back to the 1700’s—like the one where we have our office—these buildings, which may seem permanent in some ways, are part of a living thing that is always changing and evolving. How we keep these buildings relevant is an important question to ask ourselves.