The use value vs. the exchange value of place: density, height, and urban design and aesthetics
I weighed in on the "middle finger" expansion of a typical rowhouse into a 5 story condominium in "Civic aloofness and civic f*ck y** in architecture."
Separately, GGW covers the same ground in "Pop-ups may look weird, but they're OK;," and argues that the building is fine, because the height fits in with nearby buildings, and adding density is a good thing.
In my comments on the GGW entry, I make the point that there are three very different issues in the argument, and that the post only elucidates one and is therefore incomplete.
1. adding floors to 2-3 story buildings that are 100+ years old -- in theory I am not against this, but it's almost impossible to do it in a way that respects historic architecture
2. whether or not additions are reasonable or "too tall" -- I argue that 5 story neighborhoods aren't unreasonable, but they are atypical in DC. But that doesn't mean that I have a problem with it.
3. aesthetic wholeness and balance, in terms of the width and proportions on the block, In other words, one building sticks out and doesn't work, while sets of contiguous buildings at different heights works, even if seemingly discordant in terms of height.
The issue isn't the height of buildings per se, it's that each of these issues needs to be addressed simultaneously, rather than separately or not at all.
There are plenty of blocks in the city that have residential buildings of multiple heights, but they aren't examples of a single tall building sticking out from the rest--usually a mix of apartments and traditional rowhouses, such as this block, the east side of the 1300 block of Rhode Island Avenue NW in the Logan Circle neighborhood.
The apartment building is 5 stories + basement, the rowhouses on either side are large 3 story buildings with raised basements (probably apartments).
The buildings are grouped so to speak by height so that there is context and wholeness, so that while the heights vary and are juxtaposed, the overall effect is balanced, unlike the so-called finger building under discussion.
Similarly, the 200 block of C Street SE on Capitol Hill mixes 2 story rowhouses, 2 story rowhouses with rented basements that are above grade, and a 5 story apartment building.
Probably people at the Space Syntax research group in London could come up with a good mathematical formula to provide guidance on how many buildings/what width you need to produce an organic juxtaposition of building heights in a residential neighborhood.
I do know that this building project isn't doing it.
Interestingly, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article I just quoted from in another entry, "Mobile interviewers look to city residents to help craft a plan," has a really great set of quotes on this exact issue:
Public art and design of the built environment are underrated aspects of urban life, but they can make or break a place.
Morton Brown, the city's manager of public art, said it usually comes down to scale. A 10-story building in a corridor of three-story retail is dissonant. A modernist wedge would deeply jar historic rows of Victorians. When urban designers talk about a harmonious scheme, they talk about ease of pedestrian movement, the relationship people have with the street aesthetic -- both man-made and natural -- and the blend and complement of materials, textures and colors.
Urban taxpayers should care about the aesthetic of the built environment. A good aesthetic is good for business and has staying power; the discord of bad design costs more because we want to replace it before the materials are worn out. It's also about context, Mr. Brown said. A new building can go up in harmony with old buildings "if it has listened to and echoed design cues," he said. ...
We want to raise the bar on public and private property. We've gathered every community design plan that has ever been done in neighborhoods, to pick out the 'greatest hits' of each and to educate people on best practice models."
The art and design plan will result in the city's first design manual, which will be a guide in the planning department for each area of the city. "That way, developers can say, 'OK this is what the people have voted on and what the city deems to be important,' " Mr. Brown noted.
As for public art, he said, "It tells visitors and residents who we are, that this is a cultured place, a progressive city, and we want you to come and live here."
It is a shame that the region's self-described go to blog on urbanism doesn't get this with regard to urban design issues in Washington, where the city is an example in multiple respects of leading planning theory (L'Enfant, City Beautiful, etc.) and urban design and historic architecture are key defining elements of the city's livability and are a primary source (along with transit) of the city's resurgence and attractiveness.
Jan Gehl's "Close Encounters with Buildings" paper is another good resource on this general topic.