Long considered one of the most traditional and risk-averse cities in the country, Washington D.C. is embracing innovative architecture and urban planning. Thanks to a new generation of enlightened local governance buoyed by on-going federal spending and related private development, which has kept the city booming through the Great Recession, the Capital is emerging as an unexpected model of progressive urbanism. Amanda Kolson Hurley surveys the scene.
It’s hard to pinpoint just when D.C. began to change—when a famously classical city took a second look at contemporary architecture and urban design, liked what it saw, and even more surprising given its ingrained traditionalism, many-layered regulatory processes, and vocal NIMBY groups, started building more of it.
“Here’s the challenge in Washington: it’s still a city in which the people are fundamentally not Los Angeles–type people. This is a place that’s conservative,” said Roger Lewis, an architect and Washington Post columnist who has lived in D.C. since the late 1960s. “We have this legacy of classically inspired buildings. That, coupled with the L’Enfant Plan and the 130-foot height limit, does tend to produce a mindset…that resists innovation.”
But Lewis and others see that resistance crumbling and a new eagerness for architectural innovation emerging. Even the Height Act of 1910, once taken as doctrine, is under review. D.C.’s Mayor Vincent Gray and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that oversees the district, recently said they would consider relaxing the limits, especially outside of the monumental core. As the city’s population grows and buildable parcels of land dwindle, economic development types can only look in one direction: up.
Courtesy Arch Stone
One watershed moment was November 2007, when the Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard opened at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery. A billowing glass canopy designed by Foster + Partners that floats over shallow pools and rectangular planters by Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, the space won over tourists, locals, and critics alike. An elegant juxtaposition of new and old—the museums are housed in the Old Patent Office, a Greek Revival masterpiece—it showed skeptical Washingtonians that modernism could mean more than a bland office block or a hulking Great Society–era government building.
Courtesy Adjaye Associates
Not long after, another British firm, Rogers Stirk Harbour, introduced a subdued version of high tech to Capitol Hill at 300 New Jersey Avenue. Vancouver architect Bing Thom’s transformation of the Arena Stage in the Southwest quadrant has also been a tremendous success since its opening in October 2010. There followed, in relatively quick succession, a number of buildings and commissions embracing the new. In 2009, Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup beat out other superteams to design the National Museum of African American History and Culture, now under construction on one of the last remaining spots on the Mall, and due for completion in 2015.
Diller Scofidio + Renfro is at work on the “Bloomberg Balloon,” an inflatable space it designed for the doughnut-hole of the Hirshhorn Museum, scheduled to debut next year. And the Trust for the National Mall, in partnership with the National Park Service, has recently announced the winners of a forward-looking competition to rehabilitate three neglected sites within the Mall’s 700-acre expanse: Rogers Marvel Architects + Peter Walker and Partners; OLIN + Weiss/ Manfredi; Gustafson Guthrie Nichol + Davis Brody Bond. Among the winning proposals, there was not a colonnade in sight.
Courtesy respective firms
Progress has not charged forward without a few bumps. Frank Gehry’s scheme for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, which features stripped columns and multistory metal “tapestries” depicting the Kansas landscape has stirred considerable controversy, and some early designs have been scrapped. Still, it’s worth remembering that Gehry was chosen by a commission made up primarily of members of Congress who continue to stand by their architect, despite objections by Eisenhower’s family and cultural conservatives. In late May the National Civic Art Society, the most vocal opponent of the Gehry scheme, issued a statement attacking “the lack of compelling symbolism or sense of permanence conveyed by the design.”
For years, city leaders have been working to shape a different Washington: dense, diverse, green, and wholly urban in a way that the Washington of the 1980s and early 1990s—starkly divided by income and race, and bereft of people downtown after office hours—wasn’t. In April, Mayor Gray unveiled what may be the signature initiative of his administration, Sustainable DC, which aims to make D.C. the greenest city in the United States over the next 20 years. Goals of the far-reaching plan include cutting both city energy use and the obesity rate by 50 percent; making 75 percent of all trips by bike, walking, or public transit; attracting and retaining 250,000 residents; and covering 40 percent of the District with a tree canopy. Much of the vision behind Sustainable D.C. comes from Harriet Tregoning, the rock-star planning director and a founder of the Smart Growth movement.
Tregoning has been instrumental in the long-stalled but now active push to redevelop the Southwest quadrant and its underutilized waterfront. Once considered a case study in how not to do urban renewal, Southwest is stirring again, with a lift from the transformed Arena Stage and Populous’ 2008 Nationals ballpark.
A proposed Southwest EcoDistrict, spearheaded by Tregoning’s office and the National Capital Planning Commission, would overhaul the imposing collection of federal office behemoths along 10th Street SW, making them more energy efficient, potentially with new uses, and improving the area’s connectivity, both internally and to the monumental core and downtown. On the nearby stretch of riverfront, developers have their own scheme to create “The Wharf,” a mixed-use project of 500-plus apartments and more than 1 million square feet of office and retail space. EE&K a Perkins Eastman company completed the master plan, which seeks to draw urban activity to the water and maritime activity into the new district via piers and a mixed-use “spine” linking them. Short blocks and preserved view corridors will enhance connections to the rest of the city. The development team, Hoffman-Madison Waterfront, hopes to break ground early in 2013.
D.C. has some of the highest rents in the nation, so downtown is getting aggressively built out (if not yet up)—and developers are not skimping in their effort to lure Class-A businesses and well-heeled residents. After years of planning, the massive CityCenter DC complex, designed primarily by Foster + Partners, began construction last year on a 10-acre site with an ample park and public plaza—amenities that city leaders lobbied for. Farther west, developer EastBanc wants to redevelop an existing library, fire station, and police station into “two unique buildings that will be the talk of the city” (according to its website), and has hired Enrique Norten/ TEN Arquitectos for the job. Norten’s library design is a striking riff on the standard D.C. glass box, with staggered setbacks that break up the massing to enliven its facades.
Lower-key but perhaps more transformative programs are insinuating themselves across the city. Capital Bikeshare, established in 2010, has met with wild success, reaching two million rides in a city that never was a cycling mecca. Then there’s the ambitious construction campaign led by Ginnie Cooper, chief librarian of D.C. Public Library. For a not-inconsiderable price tag, Cooper, formerly of Brooklyn Public Library, has built or commissioned several new facilities around the city by the likes of Davis Brody Bond, the Freelon Group, Adjaye Associates, and Bing Thom, just announced as designer for a new library in the Woodridge neighborhood.
That D.C. has been reshaped by so many players—public and private, local and federal—attests to an overall shift in the capital’s self-perception. Lionel Lynch recently moved to the District to head the new D.C. office of HR&A Advisors, the prominent New York–based real estate and economic development advisory firm. Lynch had lived in the city briefly in 2000, for an internship, but had not planned to return. He believes the last few mayoral administrations—which have mostly restored effective management to the once-dysfunctional city—made it possible for D.C. to seize its own destiny, a new and exhilarating kind of empowerment for people who, after all, still don’t have a voting member in Congress.
“The district leadership has actively engaged in urban improvements, despite the oddness of having all these multiple jurisdictions in control,” Lynch said. “They’ve tried to make sure there’s a quality public realm. You definitely feel that the District is getting its own identity, or that it’s becoming a lot more dominant over the federal government, in a way that is self-reinforcing.”
Lynch (whose firm has advised on CityCenter, the Southwest EcoDistrict, and the reuse plan for Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Northwest D.C.) mentions a recent performance by Project Bandaloop, a dancing/ climbing performance troupe, on the face of the historic Old Post Office Pavilion on Pennsylvania Avenue. Hundreds of people had gathered to watch; there were food trucks and live musicians.
In the old D.C., this would have been aimed squarely at tourists. Not anymore. “Tourists can definitely enjoy it if they like to, but there’s even a bigger piece of it: Residents are interacting with the District and the folks surrounding us,” Lynch said. “And that makes it a more interesting place to visit.” And, perhaps, to live.