March 27th, 2019
There’s something endearing about honest ugliness.
I work a few blocks from the Rosslyn metro stop, and so my lunch break generally consists of a walk through “Rosslyn,” Virginia. Unincorporated, legally it’s Arlington, or something. (It used to be D.C. but whites have been flying since before the Wright Brothers, and Richmond wasn’t about to let go of Alexandria township’s slave-trade. Tax money, baby.) Anyway, it’s a hideous collection of concrete warts—architectural herpes, really—erupting from the face of the earth, right where district regulations on building height end. These pustules are huge.
But not all of them. The initial Reagan defense-spending boom, which transformed Northern Virginia from a quilt of farms and villages and estates—the kind traditionally described as patchwork—into a suburban hellscape, was honest in its ugliness. In the ’80s, Cold Warrior architects knew victory over a hard enemy required a hard people, so they built squat office buildings the sight of which probably inspired more than one young would-be designer to get into prison work. And they built tall ones ensconced in strange excess-cement exoskeletons that seem to whisper of the mountains of cocaine consumed within their walls. The “morning in America” motels still suggest Russian sleeper agents may kill you in your sleep, and promise a time when dating interns wasn’t frowned upon. The apartment buildings, boxy and boring beyond belief, seem like monasteries for bureaucrats possessing a celibate patriotism, living lives of automaton regularity, leaving a “studio” cell to go to a cubicle cell. These piles are hideous, macabre, and weirdly delightful.
There’s even a mess called a “Dark Star Park” in Rosslyn. A work of “integrated public art,” it was built in 1984 by some pervert named Nancy Holt. As you can see above, Ms. Holt probably saw the first Star Wars movie while on acid and dated a guy she nicknamed Bilbo Baggins. Baggins appears to have dumped her. No ring. No new hope.
These ’80s originals make Rosslyn bearable. The rest of the place is ’90s excess, post-9/11 fear, and the sleek and boring faux-urbanity so typical of the last decade. Glass tower next to rowhouse condos next to a glass tower that switched up the steel ratio. It’s architectural inbreeding, rebar and concrete Habsburg jaws and red brick hemophilia. I hate it.
There’s one comfort, perhaps: It is a kind of divine justice that the spooks, bomb jocks, fake news (journos, like me!), and consultants, whose work kills brown kids to make the world safe for democracy, live and work in an environment that so well reflects the shape of their souls.