It’s hard to hear the word “Watergate” and not think about Richard Nixon’s tricksters breaking into the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in 1972. But in fact the six-building Watergate complex is a truly remarkable architectural set piece. Their stylish massing, design details, and modernist gardens have a striking presence on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C.
The complex, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, was designed by the Italian architect Luigi Moretti (Corning, Moore, Elmore & Fischer were associate architects). The project broke ground in 1964 and cost $75 million to construct. It was Moretti’s single American project.
Perhaps as a response to the problematic urban conditions and their attendant racial segregation of postwar Washington, D.C., it was conceived as a “city within a city” and was designed with all the amenities its residents would need without leaving the complex: a hotel with 24-hour room service, health club, restaurants, shopping mall, medical and dental offices, grocery, pharmacy, and a post office.
It consists of six 13-story buildings comprised of 600 apartment units, a 350-room hotel, offices (where the National Trust for Historic Preservation is now headquartered), and three levels of underground parking. It is not simply its size that stands out but also the architectural qualities of its mass and its small details that are unique for a project of its size in the United States.
The Watergate’s website claims that it was “The first major construction project in the United States in which computers played a significant role in the design work.”
I am not skeptical about this claim, but it is true that in a large complex where the designers are working on massing and scale, details are often lost. In this project, however, the small design details are extraordinary. For example, beautiful black and white patterned terrazzo on the lobby floors are unique in the United States and channel Italian architecture to bring a design flare to a city not known for its flamboyance.
It is worth noting that the seven-acre landscape of interlocking private and public spaces in the 10-acre complex (which have been altered and updated numerous times) were designed by Boris V. Timchenko, a noted D.C.-based landscape architect and included more than 150 planters, tiers of fountains designed to enliven its public spaces, landscaped rooftop terraces, privacy planters between apartments, and swimming pools.