I spent most of this week (Monday through Saturday) in DC--both for work (meetings with the government masters who run my company's big contract) and visiting Beef & Laurel/seeing DC. Ah, the city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm (John F. Kennedy)
. Another busy-busy blog post--feel free to read it and check out the photos if you have the time.
The meetings were held, as you would expect, in the big government buildings in the middle of town. That area felt very much like the architecture of intimidation
--repetitive geometric concrete buildings, big empty, unshielded plazas, nothing built for the human scale. Think of an entire part of a city set up with the aesthetics of Boston's Government Center
, and you'll have a good mental image of the place. You can occasionally find an overhang where you can drip off in the sweltering shade.
While walking around streets and riding the Metro (subway), I realized precisely how to look like a native instead of a tourist: wear a suit or business casual clothes (no
shorts), and then wear a neck lanyard with an ID badge. Seems like everybody on the subway and the streets is on their way to some key-card-access office building. Incidentally, I found that my BlackBerry wants to type "lanyard" as "labtard." I think this is a neologism that needs greater use.
Speaking of the Metro, the design of the stations is pretty nice--the waffle pattern on the sides of the tube are not only structural (deeper waffles on top than sides), but they also somewhat echo the vaulted ceiling of DC's Union Station
. Also, the high ceilings and subdued lighting provide a pretty neat ambiance--very different from the low rabbit-warren/watch-your-head/cut-and-cover tunnels of the New York City system.
Evenings were spent getting dinner in Georgetown, which was a short walk from our hotel. It's a great little neighborhood... but probably too expensive for mortals to actually live in. One nice accidental find was Vietnam Georgetown
--they had a great softshell crab with ginger and scallion sauce (Yum yum... crunch crunch crunch...).
Walking back to my hotel, I decided to wander over one block and take the parallel route back. I ended up running into the Chesapeake and Ohio canal
, an abandoned-then-restored 1800's 184-miles long canal that once ran from West Virginia into Georgetown (mostly bringing down coal), which is now a National Park and trail. Geez... I walk a block off of the main drag, and infrastructure dorkery finds me
! See! It's not just
my fault! It seems like it would be a fun trip someday, to bike or hike the entire length.
Tbe last day of meetings ended at noon--I had that delightfully freeing feeling of, "Yes! My time is my own again!" Especially because I had to give a presentation that morning that was being used for a peer review evaluation of my company (which basically went well).
I hopped the Metro up to Chinatown; I was curious about DC's Chinatown, because it was described as a dying area (see In Chinatowns, All Sojourners Can Feel Hua
):You can spot a dying Chinatown: vestigial restaurants, but no doctors' offices, no barbershops, no funeral parlors, no businesses required by daily living. Outside New York and San Francisco, many urban Chinatowns have dwindled to Chinastreets, or even Chinablocks, as the population centers have shifted to the suburbs. Washington's Chinatown is superficially preserved: the storefronts, including Starbucks and Subway, must display Chinese names. The Hooters sign says "Owl Restaurant" in Chinese.
I have to say that I agree with this assessment--the stack of Chinese restaurants was barely a block long, and very few people on the street were actually Asian. Not a very fair exercise, given that my reference cases are New York (both in Manhattan and Flushing, Queens)
, San Francisco (both SF and Oakland Chinatowns), Boston, Toronto, and Vancouver. Other sources also described the movement of Chinese, after a few generations, out to the suburbs--"yellow flight," perhaps? However, I managed to stumble to a well-rated place (Chinatown Express
) where they make the noodles fresh on site; the guy was doing the whole stretch-spin-fold-repeat thing in the window. Good (but not great) food--if I'm ever back, I'll have to try some other dishes.
A few blocks from Chinatown was the National Building Museum
, which is the renovated Pension Building (provided funds to Civil War-era veterans and their survivors). A really great space to see; the building is mostly a hollow atrium, and the available collections were only on the first floor at the perimeter, so it was pretty easy to check it out in an afternoon.
One exhibit that took up most of my time was the exhibit Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future
. I knew that he was an iconic architect, but I didn't realize just how
many iconic structures are his: at MIT, the chapel and Kresge auditorium. The rest of the list includes the St. Louis Gateway Arch
, Washington Dulles Airport (IAD)
, the TWA Terminal at JFK in New York
, the Vivian Beaumont Theatre (part of Lincoln Center)
, and furniture designs such as the tulip chair
--all examples of "Oh sure, I know that
As much as I harsh on modernism, Saarinen aesthetics were pretty spectacular--they really create this 1960's-Jetsons-here's-our-cool-future aesthetic that gives me nostalgia for an era before my time. Also, unlike--say Gehry--his style is not a snap to pin down: sure he made swoopy concrete shells like Dulles and TWA, but he also made rectilinear/almost cubist works as well.
One interest footnote in this exhibition was in the biographical materials. He started out in a firm working with his father and his brother in law; after his father died, he was in charge. Saarinen made stereotypical I'm-a-great-artist business decisions--e.g., he burned through all of the commission money for one design, but didn't think it was "done," so he had the firm spend the next year still working on it, out of pocket. This behavior drove the brother in law nuts (who was trying to run the business end, I believe), and he eventually left the firm. However, in the end, history remembers Saarinen, not the brother in law. Perhaps a bit of a cautionary tale, or a depressing example that those who actually make the numbers work out are not important.
I met up with Beef & Laurel and crashed with them for a few days--they're both doing well, living in Alexandria, and they now have a pair of pet rabbits.
They took Friday off to go to the Air & Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center
--it's the new annex to the Air & Space Museum (the one on the National Mall) located near Dulles Airport; it is basically a large hangar with the overflow collection, including an SR-71 Blackbird
, the space shuttle Enterprise
, the Enola Gay (B-29 Superfortress that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima)
, a Concorde
, and the JSF/X-35 VTOL prototype
It has a delightfully unpolished appearance in parts--it's obviously a dressed-up hangar, complete with huge hangar doors at each end, to bring in new pieces to the collection--a bit like a "grandpa's attic" of aeronautical history. For instance, various aircraft parts tucked into the corner with a cordon around it and no caption.
Beef and I totally geeked out... it was awesome to hang out with somebody who also
finds cutaway radial piston engines
fascinating (BTW--check out that Wikipedia link; they have an animated GIF of a 5-cylinder radial; it looks like a starfish trying to boogie).
<Dork> ...and then the wing pops up, so you can change the angle of attack for carrier catapult launches...
It seems like a portion of the building, however, could be thought of as the museum of seriously bad ideas
. For instance, the Focke-Achgelis Fa 330 A
, a "rotary-wing kite"--it looks like a one-man helicopter, except, um, there's no motor.
The idea was that a World War II U-Boat would surface, put this thing together on the deck, and launch it like a paraglider, reeling it out behind it while cruising on the surface. The pilot would then act as a long-range observer/lookout. I just have mental images of the U-Boat crash diving with the dude in the kite still attached, or cutting him loose, sitting in a lawnchair-like-whirlygig, losing speed over the North Atlantic (what's German for "Uh oh"?).
Also, there were several examples of "This aircraft will make air travel cheap enough that there will be a helicopter in every garage!" Yeah... still waiting for that one, guys.
The Boeing 707 on display prompted one of us to wag, "...and this is where Boeing came up with the innovation of the Middle Seat."
Another item that goes off that scale straight into ZOMFG insane: repairing high-tension power lines while they are still "hot" (i.e., entergized and carrying electricity, thus reducing downtime), from a platform on the side of a helicopter
The helicopter comes in, hovers next to the line, the worker touches a shorting rod to bring the helicopter to the same voltage (up to 230,000 V), and then the worker crosses over to the line to do repairs. Like I said, ZOMFG. Here's a video of workers doing these repairs
, to give you an idea what it looks like.
The collection also included the utterly mundane: "Timer-Stopwatch: Astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle use these devices to time experiment procedures, exercise periods, and other activities."
Um, dude. It's a kitchen timer. "Timer-Stopwatch: Bats in his kitchen use these devices to time a roast or cake, and other activities."
I'd strongly recommend a trip to this museum (if you are sufficiently geeky), if you are coming to DC, or you can schedule a long layover at IAD (a bus runs the ~2 miles between the two).
Overall, a fantastic trip. Yay for micro-vacations!