18 June 2008

Halls of opulent butterscotch vomit


Come the rapture, may I have your credit cards?

The two-billion-dollar National Harbor Project received its final nod of funding back in August of 2004, and the big, glass-enclosed hive of marble, steel, and piped-in new-age saccharine hypnosis is nearly complete.

I had the opportunity to tour the mammoth Gaylord Resort with some co-workers as we plan an upcoming whoopie-doodle of a trade conference. And being the token Art Director in a group of editors gave me license to bring a camera and snap strange detail photos as we walked through the place.

NOTE: "Token Art Directors" will also be the most cynical, unkempt, quick to laughter, and the first to order scotch of any editorial group on field-trips like this.


Anyway: This "National Harbor" is a curious thing. It is, quite literally, in the middle of freaking nowhere. Technically it's in Maryland, across the Potomac from Alexandria, VA, and it's an easy drive from DC along 295, but it is eerily isolated. Certainly no public transit available.

As you approach it, the place begins to feel like a pre-fabricated, glossy Jonestown: It looks like the work of a cult of corporate/retail executives and paranoid survivalist lunatics who had this compound built to preserve their opulent, credit-card-waving lifestyle after the bombs drop and reduce the rest of us to carbon-stained cockroach kibble.

So why this location? What's the big idea? During the tour, I heard something about the developer having the site for some twenty years before launching the project. So perhaps "the big idea" was simply one of financial convenience, coupled with the ugly conceit of modern "place-making." Behold:

The approach from the 295 exit takes you along a new, crisp, flawless, manufactured "main street" of highbrow shopping and condos. Along the sidewalks you will see strolling families of fresh-faced Clean Laundry People, all of whom look suspiciously artificial--as if they'd been hired by the developer to wander outside eternally, providing the illusion that PEOPLE EXIST HERE. EVERYONE IS VERY HAPPY.

I know it's a matter of personal taste, but these suddenly-manufactured "town center" projects strike me as insanely creepy. The Kentlands in Montgomery County is like this: a nightmare of Stepford-Wives pleasantry, where it seems behind every smiling face is some boiling evil. Behind every WELCOME mat, some horrific violation is going on.

Can't trust it. Warning lights and sirens in the brain start going apeshit.


Despite its new-ness, the Gaylord hasn't had an easy run so far. Early on, it suffered a well-publicized plague of mice in the hotel, followed by a bit of norovirus contamination in the food, resulting in some rather unhappy guests and employees.

Oh, and on top of the mice and food poisoning was the slight problem of death. That can't be good for publicity.

But the place is definitely shiny, I'll give it that.

17 comments:

wordwitch said...

Ye gods you make me laugh!! I am so glad you're not shy to state your opinions!! And your writing is GRAND!!!

And I'm not just saying that 'cuz yer ma hubby....

IntangibleArts said...

dunno about all of THAT, but I will admit to dining there (crabcake dinner) and detected no mice, norovirus, or death. So things are looking up for the compound...

Anonymous said...

Great commentary, sadness for the brutal consumption. Flashback to summer 1996 - skinny dipping off a friend's boat in Smoot Cove as that tree-lined body of water used to be called. Other boats stayed away due to the treacherous bud bar invisibly blocking it from the main channel but close use of the chart could get you there.

ssfrance74 said...

As a sixteen-year resident of Kentlands, and the father of two teenage sons who know no other community as their home, I take great exception to your representation of our beloved community. While we certainly have our share of boiling evil and horrific violations like any other neighborhood on the face of the earth, the very idea that EVERY Smiling face and EVERY welcome mat hides all these nightmares is at best, uncharitable, and at worse, extremely unkind. I can assure you that the deep friendships and bonds that we all have established within our community over nearly two decades are real and nourishing, and our lives are extraordinarily richer for them.

Anonymous said...

someone obviously doesn't have any love for pg county....

mr-t-in-dc said...

And don't forget, they stole The Awakening from DC, and just as a result of that I'll never spend a dime there. Too bad all that development couldn't have been channeled towards more transit accessible locations in PG County. :(

IntangibleArts said...

Flashbacking Anon: There was no skinny-dipping during my visit (dammit!), as there was a killer storm brewing that night. I'd love to see that site as it existed before all the construction, though...

ssfrance74: Remember,those comments came with a disclaimer, re: personal taste. Only bashing Kentlands as a symbol, but it definitely qualifies as an manufactured town-center project, like a smaller version of that vortex of evil in Florida (Ave Maria). For a place to grow old gracefully, I prefer the organic growth of classic cities. But everybody's got their bag, eh?

Anon no.2: Who, me? I may be gung-ho DC but I'm PG-county youth, man: a product of LAUREL, baby, I grew up on the spilled blood of George Wallace! Whoo!

Mr.T: Yeh, I saw one hand of The Awakening peeking over the road as we drove in, and it made me cringe, slightly. I miss the old man...

Anonymous said...

How can you say no public transit is available? There are metro busses that serve National Harbor, as well as water taxi service from Old Town, Georgetown and National Airport. You should get out of your car sometime and look around you.

daniel said...

They didn't 'steal' the Awakening from DC. It was on loan by the Artist. National Harbor was willing to purchase it from the artist. DC wasn't.

IntangibleArts said...

Transit Anon: I stand corrected! While the facility is off the Metro-beaten track, it is indeed accessible by bus: Route NH1, infact, appears to run every half hour. Last one on weekends leaves the Nat'l Harbor complex just before 10pm.

So keep that in mind and make it an early night, folks, when you're out schmoozing and licking the Kiwi off the shoes of visiting dignitaries while they feast off plates of caviar precariously balanced on your peon heads!

Mike Licht said...

Reston Town Center looks more like Downtown Babylon.

Put a bubble over National Harbor and you've got a typical sci-fi moonbase.

Telecomedian said...

@mr-t-in-dc : This project has been in various stages of construction for years. Given the county's two-decade-long whine for more upscale development from large retailers and chains, you'd think that a high-profile upscale development like National Harbor would have been given more transportation options from the county and state. All the water taxi service connects Virginia and Georgetown. They had the time to put in a light rail option to one of the nearby Green Line stations.

Anonymous said...

The Awakening, being on Haine's Point, was the responsibility of the National Park Service, not DC. The sculptor had long wanted to sell it to Park Service, but they are so underfunded they couldn't budget for it. In fact NPS asked the sculptor to come a get it, as they were tired a paying for its repair (it was hit by racing cars back in the days when Haine's Point was open all night, and flooding in 1996 eroded and damaged its base - the picture of the Man reaching up from the swirling water when the entire Haines Point was under water was fantastic) The new location at National Harbor is cramped and poor scale.

Steve said...

Stepford Wives! EXACTLY!

I'll happily opt to become carbon-stained cockroach kibble, thank you very much.

lettuce said...

amazing butterscotch shinyness

and as for instant-manufactured towns, we do awesomely badly at those over here.... Thamesmead, Milton Keynes....

and, also, Go Mice!!

suicide_blond said...

Shiny = Scary.....guess im a gritty soul...
and well yeah theres the whole awakening thing that i cant quite give to them either... in my heart..it will always belong on haines point....
xoxo

mouse (aka kimy) said...

my that top picture's perspective is amazing ....

oh yeah, and give me the grit....much more interesting!