Local Commentary

Editorial: No Dystopian Architecture

The kind of grunge, renovated-warehouse look of the seven buildings going onto the 9.7-acre West End Gateway project was met with mixed reviews when it was first unveiled at the joint Falls Church City Council, Planning Commission and Economic Development Authority work session in City Hall Monday night.

The building designs looked collectively like kind of an inner city street gang and the public art potentially assembled around them we expect might resemble all the graffiti and body tattoos that they could be assumed to sport.

Of course, this presentation was not the final word. While some of the assembled Monday said they really like the look, no one was really willing to say they didn’t, but there was considerable polite deference to a generous appreciation of “to each his own when it comes to tastes in art.” Gradually, however, over the course of the meeting, some modest expressions of, shall we say, alternative options began to be expressed.

We hope that the public will use the brief window it now has to weigh in on this matter, including at a town hall tonight.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is time to junk postmodernism’s dystopian death throes nightmares. This architecture is one step up from scenes from a Mad Max movie. The idea is that it’s supposed to be “cool” to occupy formerly bombed out inner city tenements and warehouses.

It’s time for our art and culture, alike, to recover the notions informing the great Renaissance city builders, to celebrate the mix of industry and art dedicated to a better, more optimistic world, which is what, functionally, the West End Gateway project will represent in conjunction with its Virginia Tech and new George Mason High School neighbors.

In the late 19th century, with the invention of the elevator, came tall buildings for really the first time in history. There came fabulous architectural achievements, the powerhouses of the great American architect Louis Sullivan, called the “father of the skyscraper.” The great works of the art nouveau period prior to the Great War were integrated into the architecture, and after that horrid war came a morphing into a somewhat more muscular art deco style all the while preserving the uplifting notions of beauty and optimism.

It was only in the 1950s that great buildings were designed stripped of notions of beauty and art, and subsumed totally to box-like efficiency and maximized floor-to-area ratios. The rise of postmodernism more recently has sought to celebrate the decay of those boxes with the modes that are included in the current plans for the West End Gateway. (Apologies for the oversimplifications, the purists will eviscerate us).

We prefer a look reflective of a more optimistic time, a willful decision for embracing our future. As Bob Young has tried in his flower, Read and lily buildings in the City, an art nouveau revival better reflects a love of life, nature and peace.