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Better Good Than Original

Although baptized at the altar of Modernism, a Washington, DC, and New York City-based firm celebrates time-tested traditions in architecture and city-making.

By Kim A. O'Connell

In mid-September 2001, as Ground Zero still smoldered, the then-new firm of Franck Lohsen McCrery, Architects, developed the first comprehensive plan to rebuild the World Trade Center site. Called Liberty Square and conceived at the request of the Manhattan Institute, the plan called not for an in-your-face glass tower, but a collection of dignified buildings and monuments that harnessed the history and spirit of New York City.

The proposal, stated Myron Magnet of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal, "would go a long way to correcting what was wrong with the former World Trade Center." What was wrong with the Trade Center, traditionalists argue, is that like much of the Modernist architecture produced in the last three decades, its monolithic design was unconcerned with beauty and had little relationship to the city around it.

Having been raised on this ethic in architecture school and in their earlier firms, the principals of Franck Lohsen McCrery had come together out of a shared belief that city-making – and certainly city-rebuilding – was the realm of the traditionalist. Although Michael Franck, AIA, Arthur Lohsen, AIA, and James McCrery, AIA, met through a common association with Classical architect Allan Greenberg, they represent a wide range of design and planning experience in both Modernist and traditional environments.

Before co-founding the firm, Franck worked as a town planner and designer for Cooper Robertson + Associates and Duany Plater-Zyberk, among others, and earned his master of architecture degree at the University of Notre Dame. Lohsen had developed expertise in historic preservation and adaptive reuse with Einhorn Yaffee Prescott and earned his master's at the University of Maryland. McCrery spent the bulk of his career at Allan Greenberg and a period with Versaci-Neumann & Partners. But, perhaps most surprisingly, his commitment to the Classical came only after working for the deconstructivist firm Eisenman Architects while earning his master's at the Ohio State University. "Almost all traditionalists are former Modernists," McCrery says. "Unlike Modernists, however, traditionalists know that time is fleeting, but buildings are not."

A Higher Purpose
At a recent symposium sponsored by the Virginia Society AIA, provocatively titled "Classical Tradition vs. Modern Vision," McCrery participated in a collegial debate with Modernist architect Mark McInturff, FAIA. Although McInturff acknowledged a "rearguard" movement in favor of traditionalism, he threw down the gauntlet. "I think we've moved on from traditionalism," he said. "The Modernists have won. The battle is over." Responding to McInturff's salvo, McCrery simply quoted the iconic Modernist Mies van der Rohe: "It is better to be good than to be original."

Although McCrery acknowledged that most of the audience of architects had likely repudiated tradition or never been taught it in school, he noted that traditionalism was gaining favor throughout the design, planning and building communities. Having divorced themselves from history, McCrery noted, Modernists have no choice but to create anew, building "time capsules" that quickly become irrelevant and dated. Working within the long scope of architectural history, however, traditionalists have nearly infinite room to be inventive, he asserted, to create buildings that captured "not the spirit of the age, but whose spirit is of the ages."

This notion informs much of the firm's work. The un-built Liberty Square proposal, for example, sought to treat the Trade Center site as not just a banal collection of buildings, but as an architectural testament to the city. Solemn and spirited, the plan acknowledged the many layers of significance at the site, both because of the terrorist attacks and because of its anchor-like location in lower Manhattan, itself a vibrant symbol of American life. The firm designed a skyscraper and other office buildings, as well as a train station, all ordered in an improved lower Manhattan street grid. Instead of replicating the oppressive height of the twin towers – which critic Marshall Berman once likened to "slabs that looked like giant containers assembled to ship the old waterfront away" – Franck Lohsen McCrery offered up a plan for perhaps a dozen smaller skyscrapers that better complemented the magnificent collage of a great urban skyline. "We wanted to tie the city back together," Franck says. "We set the tone for the building of a great square but with New York-type architecture and provisions for fantastic sculpture."

A memorial at the center of this development would feature monumental statues designed by Scottish sculptor Alexander Stoddart. The sculptures, representing History and Memory, would stand on either side of a draped catafalque, with other monuments to police and firefighters located on the square. The two figures, Franck explains, place the tragedy in the larger context of the global human experience, while being subtly reminiscent of the twin towers. Their proposal eschews the current thinking about memorialization, which is now focus-grouped into acknowledging only the specific individuals involved in a particular event, like the names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial or the etched chairs of the Oklahoma City National Memorial. "The Iwo Jima Memorial was an abstraction," Lohsen says as an example of the ethic the firm sought to emulate at Liberty Square. "That's the higher purpose of a memorial, to allow people to attach themselves to it. We want to do work that's in the public realm, to contribute to the quality of life in our society." Last year, the firm unveiled its design for the proposed National Liberty Memorial, honoring the forgotten black soldiers and patriots of the American Revolution. In collaboration with sculptor David Newton, the firm designed an understated memorial with both freestanding figures and panels of relief sculpture, to be located near Constitution Gardens on the National Mall. Although the memorial has been debated and discarded and debated again for more than two decades, new legislation sponsored by Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd has rekindled the project. "It's not going to be just a hole in the ground," McCrery says. "Those black patriots deserve to be at this site, and they deserve to be honored like all great heroes – in the Classical tradition. Everything they did makes them deserving of a great and timeless memorial."

City Beautiful
It is no accident that Franck Lohsen McCrery's two offices were, until recently, located on two iconic metropolitan boulevards – Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, and Park Avenue in New York City. In late April, the firm's principals met in the crowded library of their downtown DC office, located just a block from the White House, as they prepared to move uptown to a traditional brick rowhouse in the district's eclectic Dupont Circle neighborhood. Both locations suit the firm. Whether designing in the public realm of the downtown avenue or the more private realm of the traditional neighborhood, urban and town planning form an important aspect of the architects' work.

One of the firm's most ambitious recent projects involved the master plan for the restoration of South Capitol Street, a neglected urban corridor leading from downtown Washington to some of the city's most blighted and neglected areas. Working as the urban design consultants to Parsons Brinkerhoff for the District of Columbia Department of Transportation, the firm made a series of proposals including a new bridge, an extended South Capitol Street terminating in a new civic space, and other circulation improvements.

The heart of the plan, which was submitted to Congress, was the firm's design for a new bascule bridge across the Anacostia River. Classically designed and mimicking the elegant arched bridges over the Potomac, the new span would replace an existing bridge to the Anacostia neighborhood, which has been plagued by crime and largely forgotten amid the widespread redevelopment seen elsewhere in the capital city. As a nod to Washington's City Beautiful-era grandeur and order, the bridge would be reoriented visually to align with views of the Washington Monument. The bridge terminates in a large traffic oval on one side, flanked by trees and fountains, and a classic L'Enfant-style circle on the other.

"We share in the abiding love for civil engineering that exists here in Washington, DC," says McCrery. "This work may not be architecture per se. But we consider an important part of our architectural role to be offering contributions of thought and expertise to the built environment, whether the projects get built or not."

To this end, the firm has contributed several town and city plans to national design competitions. Working with Richard Schaupp, formerly of Cooper Robertson, the firm won an award for its design of a new town center in Plainfield, IL, a rapidly expanding town west of Chicago. The design extended the 19th-century grid of the existing town, incorporating a range of mixed-use developments and passive and active parks. A similar proposal for a historic village in Channahon, OH, owned by the local Catholic diocese, used the Catholic church as the anchor for an orderly, campus-like design that mixes commercial and retail space, residential housing types and parkland.

Back in Washington, DC, one the firm's most intriguing proposals involved a post-September 11 reorganization of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. The proposal mimicked the form of the adjacent Lafayette Park, as well as the Ellipse Park on the south side of the executive mansion, by introducing a circular traffic node into the avenue. In addition to slowing down traffic, the design allowed for subtle security bollards that decoratively ring a fountain at the roundabout's center. The DC Department of Transportation recently commissioned the firm to submit a new plan for the major intersection of Pennsylvania and Potomac Avenues, including considerations involving mass transit, new development, federal parkland and historic neighborhoods.

"We work to get these Classical ideas into the city and come up with a vision of what the city should be," Franck says. "At the same time, we want to keep our designs simple, with not a lot of jigs and jogs. It can't be so idiosyncratic. On Pennsylvania Avenue, there were a lot of clues to the solution that already existed in the site."

Art and Architecture
In just over five years, Franck Lohsen McCrery has engaged in a wide range of other work, including institutional, ecclesiastical and residential new construction, as well as historic preservation and adaptive reuse. Churches and religious campuses, in particular, allow the firm to indulge its profound belief in the marriage of art and architecture. At the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, IL, the primary academy for the Chicago archdiocese, the principals were charged with developing a master plan for the historic 1920s campus that included a new quadrangle, new buildings and renovations of existing buildings.

Once again, the clues existed at the site. Saint Mary of the Lake was designed in a uniform Georgian style, fashioned in brick and stone. The firm sought to ensure that new structures and additions drew on this vocabulary while remaining deferential to the chapel and other prominent campus structures. The firm's design for the expansion of the McEssy Library, for example, mimics the scale, materials and massing of original buildings, with a dramatic new façade of five arched doors that illuminate the main reading room. Outside, twin pergolas enclose a cloister garden in front of the library, defining the space and tying it to the rest of the campus.

Inside, McEssy's classically detailed main reading room features book-lined alcoves on both the main and mezzanine levels. In addition, the architects incorporated niches in the upper walls to showcase several busts that the college possessed. Inspired by the gesture, the university has since commissioned two new busts – one of the archbishop of Chicago and the other of the late Pope John Paul II. "We work to get fine art included in our work, and we design both exteriors and interiors together," McCrery explains. "There has been a lamentable separating of the two." Similarly, for the Chapel of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Sioux Falls, SD, the firm worked with a muralist, stonemason and other artists and craftsmen to create a dignified and traditional worship space. (See Traditional Building, December, 2004, p. 19.)

Performing arts deserve no less attention than decorative or monumental art in the firm's estimation. For a theoretical design competition sponsored by the Manhattan Institute, Franck Lohsen McCrery envisioned a new plan and design for New York's famed Lincoln Center. In his call for proposals, City Journal's Myron Magnet noted that Lincoln Center's "flimsy modernist architectural construction" requires major restoration, its marble facing "melting away like sugar in Gotham's polluted air." In the firm's response, Lincoln Center would be re-envisioned in the Classical style, with new buildings oriented to face Broadway and a public square that terraces down toward the street level. The plan is "civic in scale and design," the principals stated, "in keeping with the very best of New York's public buildings."

Farther south, at the request of a consortium of local business interests, the firm submitted a counter-proposal for the Performing Arts Center in Richmond, VA. Although the massive building would be Classical in form, with arches and pilasters, huge domed rotundas are filled with glass, allowing in the abundant light not normally found in Classical civic buildings. The Virginia Performing Arts Foundation ultimately went with a more streamlined design, but the massing and window openings indicate that the firm's proposal was influential. "Our design showed that a building can be traditional, and yet we can infuse it with an openness and progressiveness that causes it to look forward," McCrery says. "This is not a modern building with some Classical details glued on. It's not a period piece. It is traditional."

As for the future of traditionalism, McCrery adds, one way to encourage this supposedly "rearguard" movement is to inspire lay people to speak up about the kinds of spaces they want to be in – to articulate what moves them, calms them and inspires them. He is banking on the fact that people will be most drawn to orderly, beautiful places with a sense of history. "Architecture, like other arts, obligates people to interact with it," McCrery says. "You can't not see the White House, the Seagram building, the Wal-Mart. People shouldn't just look to architects to say what good architecture is."

"There is still a raging debate between Classicism and Modernism," Lohsen adds. "We're all Classicists here; it's the language we're most effective at using. But we as a firm do not spend a lot of time and energy trying to affect that debate right now. We're here to design and build beautiful buildings. If, 20 years from now, someone points to our buildings as models of good design, then that would be very worthwhile." TB

 

 

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