News & Politics

The Blogger Beat: The Straight Torquer

Architecture blogger Kashuo Bennett is up to bat this week.

Kashuo Bennett on the roof of the JW Marriott Hotel, overlooking some of DC's best buildings. Photograph by Chris Leaman

“I love photographing buildings,” says Kashuo Bennett. “It’s my church. I’m totally at peace.” Last January, Bennett started an architecture blog to share those photos with an audience.

On the Straight Torquer, he posts about modern architecture in Washington. While students and professional architects are his primary audience, Bennett says he’s found readers in passionate amateurs, too. His favorite way to find content? “I ride my bike around the city until I see a building I like.”

Bennett knows his stuff: After receiving a master’s of architecture from Virginia Tech in 2008, he moved to DC to work for a local firm. He spends his days designing buildings; right now, he’s working on a child-care center for the new headquarters of the Food and Drug Administration.

We caught up with Bennett to pick his brain about—what else?—Washington architecture. Greenest building? Favorite monument? Legos or Lincoln Logs? Read on for his answers.

Five words to describe your design aesthetic:
“Avant-garde, deconstructivist, rational, tectonic, minimalist.”

Five words to describe DC architecture:
“Classical, planned, international, demure, short.”

Architect who’s left the best mark on our city:
“I.M. Pei and his office have done a lot of important work. He is responsible for the East Building of the National Gallery, L’Enfant Plaza, the dramatic new Chinese Embassy, and more. To my knowledge, Pei would represent the biggest name with the most built in the city to date.”

Favorite building:
“Wow, I can’t possibly pick just one. That’s what a never-ending blog is for!”

Biggest architectural eyesore:
“The thing about DC is that it was never really an industrial city, so we don’t have many of the derelict factories and depots that pervade much of urban America. Practically everything constructed in this city was designed by an intentioned, studied, and reputable architect. That said, Tech World Plaza at Seventh and K streets, Northwest, is quite an unfortunate project. Besides the postmodern columns, it tries to fool you into thinking that it’s smaller than it actually is. There’s an applied layer of white faux columns that only go about two-thirds of the way up the side of the building. The top portion is black-tinted glass that literally disappears in the evening against the dark sky. At night, the real extents of the building become invisible while the observer is presented with a faux-graphic image of a structure that has no real physical connection to the way that the building was actually constructed. This kind of disregard for earnest expression in construction drives me crazy. And not a good crazy.”

Favorite and least favorite monuments or memorials:
“The Jefferson Memorial is an easy pick, and Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a luminary example of poetic minimalism, but my personal favorite monument is the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial on Roosevelt Island. This is truly a wonderful outdoor space and a great example of sensitivity to environment. More of a clearing in the woods than an actual construction, the memorial includes a great circular ring of pin oaks that were planted in 1967 and are just now coming to maturity. They elegantly blend the space into the surrounding forest.

“As for least favorite, I’m not particularly fond of the World War II Memorial. To be built so recently but with such antique-looking floral wreaths and classical columns disturbs my modernist sensibilities. A more graceful recognition of America’s involvement in the war is the Netherlands Carillon bell tower located in Arlington National Cemetery. It was a gift to the people of the United States in 1952.”

Greenest building:
“To pick the single greenest project in the city, you must consider a wider planning scale. The Metro system is probably the greenest constructed object in the city for its ability to move so many people so efficiently compared to cars. As an aesthetic bonus, the beautifully high-ceilinged underground stations were designed by 20th-century master Harry Weese and represent some of the best modern architecture in the city.”

Building or structure that’s due for conservation work:
“I admit to being especially fond of the now-doomed Third Church of Christ, Scientist—an assertion I’m sure will ruffle some feathers. The current congregation roundly loathes the building, claiming that it intimidates the average worshiper with its austere presence and that it’s costly to maintain. They blame the stark brutalist architectural style, with its unordained concrete forms and elemental geometry. But the District of Columbia’s historic-preservation board designated the church a historic landmark in December 2007 specifically because it is a strong and unique example of architectural modernism. In the latest turn of events, authority has been granted to tear down the aging structure and build a new church in its place. I’ll be sorry to see it go, but I suppose at the same time it’s an opportunity for someone else to do something good in a high-profile setting. Let’s just hope they pick a good architect!”

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library: blight or brilliance?
“Seriously? It’s like you asked a lover of rock and roll to criticize the Beatles. Just to have one of Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe’s buildings in the District is an amazing gift. Much like the Christian Science church, this building has been plagued by neglect, but I am absolutely of the position that it should be saved and revered.”

Rosslyn: misunderstood or mishap?
“The suburban sprawl of much of Northern Virginia is regrettable and easily lamented, but as you come down the hill in Arlington, getting closer to Key Bridge, you actually get into some pretty good urban architecture. I like the RCA building very much, and the brand new Turnberry Tower apartment building is also nice. For DC residents across the river, Rosslyn is a place to see buildings of some respectable height. Due to a building ordinance inside the District, a building’s height is limited to the width of the street it fronts plus an additional 20 feet or so. I don’t really have a problem with this—in fact, I think that working within this limitation has given DC a unique and recognizably scaled character—but every once in a while I get a hankering to see a tall building. In those moments, I feel lucky we have Rosslyn so close. Now, ask me about the nightlife and you might get a different answer.”

Pick one: Willard InterContinental or Renaissance Mayflower.
“The Willard by a mile.”

National Gallery of Art: West Building or East Building?
“These are both lovely, but the East Building is easily one of my favorite buildings in the city. The prismatic stone volumes are laid out on a daring plan that follows the angled streets of the baroque city plan while at the same time fulfilling its own modernized geometry. The central lobby is a grand multilevel space full of striated light, crisscrossing with cast-in-place concrete terraces and bridges. Standing under the Calder mobile h
anging from the ceiling as it slowly rotates, I feel as though I am floating in air. It is quite a remarkable sensation.”

Legos or Lincoln Logs?
“I’d have to say Legos for their versatility. But here’s a fun fact: Did you know Lincoln Logs were invented by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son? And that the word Lincoln refers not to Abe but actually to Frank’s father?”

Favorite neighborhood for taking in architecture and design:

“Southeast is a wonderfully enigmatic zone for a historian of modern architecture to explore. The grandeur of its heroically optimistic modern building forms is a magical thing to ponder. When you’re there, you feels as if you’ve temporarily stepped out of the established fabric of the DC building tradition and into some fantastic experimental project of architectural imagination. Within this delineated sector of the city, we have preserved a distinct historical era in aesthetic theory that has since been thoroughly rewritten.”

Favorite local blog besides your own:
Gang Green is a blog maintained by National Building Museum curator Susan Piedmont-Palladino. She writes about efforts towards a sustainable built environment within the District. It’s funny, philosophical, and well informed.”

Next week, we check in on the dating scene with Christie and Jess from City Girls World. We get their picks for best date spots, biggest dating disasters, and the worst pickup lines they’ve ever heard. Check back Wednesday for the interview!

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