A Parisian Anacostia

Yesterday, Kojo Nnamdi hosted classical architect Nir Buras on his show, talking about (among other things) narrowing and urbanizing the Anacostia River so it more resembles the Seine‘s course through Paris.  Such a massive public works undertaking would be under the guise of a new iteration of the L’Enfant and MacMillan plans for the city.

Buras hit on a wide variety of topics – some of which I agree with, some I do not, and some that raise serious concerns about his ideas.   They include the interface between city and water, hydrology and flooding, the supposed superiority of classical design, and a desire to make everything revolve around Paris.

Thoughts on the various topics:

Urban Waterfronts

Buras is certainly correct in noting that DC’s waterfronts are woefully underutilized.  I know I’ve had those thoughts myself, and think there are many opportunities on the shores of the Anacostia to help the city engage the water that flows through it.  We see some good examples of this here and there within the region – Georgetown’s waterfront, Alexandria’s waterfront, and even the SW DC waterfront (something’s just fun about grabbing a beer at Cantina Marina).  Still, there’s a far greater opportunity that we’ve missed.  Given the pending redevelopment of Poplar Point, this condition is poised to change in the relatively near future.

The problem with Mr. Buras’ idea is that he’s promoting Paris as the ideal, when he admittedly notes the dimensions of the Anacostia are more similar to the Thames in London.  He specifically calls to narrow the river from ~1000 feet wide to ~500 feet wide.  Instead of making the urban design meet the natural conditions of the land (as L’Enfant did so well, siting the Capitol atop Jenkins Hill, keeping his grid within the relatively flat plain below the fall line, etc).  Similarly, he dismisses Amsterdam and Venice as problematic for engineering reasons.

Having the city meet the water is a great idea.  Re-creating Paris is a solution looking for a problem.

Transportation

Buras mentions the Anacostia serving as a barrier – and rightfully notes the barriers also imposed by both the SE/SW freeway and 295 – yet this major infrastructural idea gets little treatment from Buras compared to the idea of narrowing the river channel.  In my mind, removal of the freeway is a far more important decision, yet it’s not nearly the sexy idea.

Ecology and Hydrology

JD Hammond summed it up succinctly: “I do worry about flooding.”  So do I.  I’m no hydrologist, but some of Buras’ answer to astute questions from callers don’t leave me with a lot of confidence that he’s fully assessed the impacts of such a decision.  One points out the damage done to New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, particularly noting how man’s manipulation of the Mississippi River and various wetlands didn’t help that city – it hurt it.  Man’s engineering can’t replicate nature.  JD Hammond emphasizes this point as well, looking to Los Angeles and the concrete gutters that serve as rivers.

The other thing is that I can’t quite tell exactly where Mr. Buras proposes to narrow the river.  Presumably, he’s talking about the region between the confluence with the Potomac and the area around RFK Stadium – any further upstream, and the river is quickly surrounded by both the National Arboretum and the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens – trying to force the river into an urban condition amongst such natural parks is boneheaded.

Classical Architecture

Perhaps the most tedious bit of Buras’ talk was the rambling was his talk on the superiority of classical design.  For one, conflating classical aesthetics and architecture with good urban design is annoying.  I’ve got nothing against classical architecture, but I happen to rather like modern architecture as well.  I’m far more interested in good design, regardless of the style it fits into.   As it relates to the city, I’m more interested in how those buildings fit into and function within an urban environment.

Holistic Understanding

I find it curious that Buras talks of having a holistic understanding of architecture and urbanism, while the hydrology of his proposal shows a profound lack of any sort of holistic understanding of water systems and their intricate feedback mechanisms.

All in All…

Buras raises an intriguing idea.  I certainly support the idea of crafting a new vision for DC, guiding it as the city’s previous plans have done.  I appreciate the fact that Buras is focused on the city, not just the Federal elements (as some other plan proponents have done). I absolutely embrace the desire to have DC interface with her rivers and waterways in a far more productive and beneficial fashion.

However, the focus on classical design (to the point of exclusion, it seems, of all else) troubles me.  Likewise, the details of the plan that were the focus of the Kojo interview (narrowing the river by half) look to be an attempt to force Paris upon DC.  Also, the lack of concern over the hydrologic impacts is both troubling and a step in the wrong direction – as we embrace sustainability in terms of design, we should apply what we’ve learned about rivers and their ecosystems rather than just throw up something that looks good.

There needs to be more to a plan than just good-looking classical design elements.

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