The Wharf, a new $2.5 billion development in Washington, D.C., as seen from its Michael Vergason–designed recreational pier. Courtesy of Hoffman-Madison Waterfront

Washington, D.C., has a huge new waterfront development that’s fun, popular, and easy on the eyes. Is anything wrong with that?

There are no stop signs along the Wharf, the new $2.5 billion waterfront development that opened over the weekend in Washington, D.C. No traffic lights or pedestrian crossings, either, even though the strip stretches for more than a mile along the Washington Channel. The master plan calls for chaos. Let the cars drive where they will.

That’s the free-wheeling vision of Stan Eckstut, principal of Perkins Eastman, the architecture and planning firm responsible for the master plan of the Wharf. In all, 22 different graphic design, landscape, and architecture firms worked together to erect a new mini-city in place of an old strip of dance clubs and seafood buffets in Southwest D.C.

When the whole thing’s finished, the Wharf will comprise more than 3 million square feet of retail, office, marina, and residential space—and some very mixed messages about design. According to its planner, the Wharf is greater than the sum of its parts.

“I see buildings as a means to something much bigger,” Eckstut says. “I really don’t think the buildings are the feature.”

The Wharf, a massive new waterfront development that opened in Washington, D.C., in October. (Courtesy of Hoffman-Madison Waterfront)

Like much of rapidly growing D.C. and other fast-rising cities, the new Wharf development is chock full of blocky mixed-use glass buildings—the market’s best answer yet to working under the strict costs and restraints involved with building in cities today. Call it Fast Casual Architecture—the built-environment analog for all the Chipotles, Shake Shacks, and like-minded better-than-fast-food restaurant chains that have materialized nationwide: everywhere the same, decent value, built from a menu of common ingredients and amenities. Fast Casualism is…fine.

Phase one of the Wharf opened to 6,000 fans screaming for the Foo Fighters at a new venue called The Anthem on Thursday night. More retail outlets and restaurants opened over the weekend as visitors (plus potential new residents) got a first look at a new 60-foot-wide waterfront boulevard, a recreation pier (complete with an Olympic-scale torch), fountains and water features, benches and swings, and tons more interventions designed for maximum fun.  

Phase two is still underway—and it’s a complete 180. Whereas the first buildings are humble (even handsome in places), the coming ones are high-end projects penned by some of the biggest names in architecture. Twin buildings by SHoP Architects, the firm responsible for the Domino Sugar Factory redevelopment in Brooklyn, pick up where phase one of the Wharf leaves off. Next door, ODA has designed a residential ziggurat with two wings that look like interlocking puzzle pieces: one a stair-step series of garden patios, the other a mirror-image inverse projection of balconies. It’s funky Jengatecture, something the city hasn’t seen much of before. Morris Adjmi (of Atlantic Plumbing fame) is doing an office project. Completing the set is a curving building by starchitect Rafael Viñoly, whose work—from the Walkie Talkie in London to 432 Park in New York—is as reviled as it is admired.

Compare that to phase one, designed by a rogue’s gallery of national and regional firms working to all different ends. Perkins Eastman issued only a few rules for the architects designing the individual building projects that make up the Wharf. That tells. The Wharf is a hodgepodge, in the best sense of the word.

Phase two of the Wharf includes projects designed by SHoP Architects, ODA, Rafael Viñoly, and Morris Adjmi—a starchitectural departure from phase one. (Courtesy of Hoffman-Madison Waterfront)

One guideline for the architects: Pay attention to the corners. From the perspective of the person lining up for the rooftop bar at The Brixton or window-shopping at Ligne Roset, a building’s entrances and corners can shape that experience. At the Wharf, these moments are treated as opportunities, from the warm wood frame over the entrance of the Dolcezza gelateria to the purple whatever-the-hell-is-going-on outside Kirwan’s Pub & Restaurant. In most Fast Casual architecture, one storefront’s no different from the next.

“If there’s a city other than Barcelona that celebrates corners, it’s Washington, D.C.” Eckstut says. “It’s a bit of a lost art in modern buildings here.”

Monty Hoffman, founder of PN Hoffman, the waterfront’s developer (as Hoffman-Madison Waterfront), says that every aspect of the Wharf was elected to emphasize the street-level experience. The street blocks are 270 feet long, shorter than regular blocks. This makes for smaller building floor-plates, he says, allowing for more light to reach interiors. Every retailer and restaurant, from Politics & Prose to Mike Isabella’s Requin to Fabio Trabocchi’s Del Mar, has been “curated” by the developers. Selective retail and a bespoke grid are two benefits of building a city corridor from whole cloth. (Many of the outlets are chains, but they’re prestigious chains: a Bluebottle, but no Starbucks.) “We’re really interested in creating a street vibe, because it enhances the value of the assets overhead,” Hoffman says.

Fair enough. But beyond the value-add, the streetscape is also an answer to several vexing problems that give rise to Fast Casualism in the first place. When people say that condo architecture in D.C. is boring, they are responding to land-use regulations (whether they know it or not). The notorious federal Height Limit, for example, forces architects to max out a project’s floor–area ratio and cut short the tops of projects—restrictions that add up to modest Lego blocks. The high costs of building, staging, labor, and planning in D.C. eat away at the resources available for decisions about materials, profile, texture, massing, and so on.

The District is especially heinous in some ways—approval for the Wharf required four acts of Congress—but land-use regulations drive up costs everywhere. And high costs drive down the design possibilities. Architects who prove that they can deliver good-enough multi-use projects get tapped by developers over and over and over again, making copycat designs by the likes of D.C. architect Eric Colbert feel ubiquitous. When entire new neighborhoods are built from a Fast Casual kit of parts, the built environment itself starts to feel like an upscale outlet mall.

When Eckstut says that cars will amble through the Wharf at their peril, he really means that he’s trying to maximize congestion. The master plan asks pedestrians, bikes, and drivers to coexist peaceably in cramped alleys and streets (what the Dutch call a woonerf). The congestion serves as a traffic-calming feature. More than that, though, this focus on street activity is insurance that a development that might otherwise feel sterile, like a Potemkin village, instead feels lived in and busy.

“If you don’t have a working business on a Wednesday afternoon in the middle of March when it’s cold, then you don’t have a real place,” Eckstut says. “When I’m designing cities, I’m not thinking about the summer, the sun, and the July Fourth fireworks. Quite the opposite, because they’ll take care of themselves.”

A rendering for VIO at the Wharf, a mixed-use condo building. (Handel Architects)

Eckstut is by no means slighting the architects who worked on the Wharf. (Perkins Eastman designed two of the buildings.) Rather, phase one of the Wharf embraces the idea that the plan can deliver where the buildings cannot. The Wharf pushes right up against the water; its public spaces are condensed into a few pockets at the ends of streets or pushed out onto piers. The project feels reminiscent of the urban marketplaces and waterfronts first designed by Benjamin C. Thompson for developer James Rouse, such as Baltimore’s Harborplace. The Wharf will no doubt draw some of the same complaints that these 70s-style festival marketplaces still receive: economically vibrant, fun for the family, and totally flavorless.

“Although the festival marketplace formula is now criticized for replacing diversity with homogeneity, and for eroding the distinction between urban and suburban, public and private, it was conceived as the answer to the serious shortcomings of urban renewal by bulldozer,” wrote David W. Dunlap, 15 years ago, in The New York Times. It could easily be today’s take on the Wharf. Southwest D.C. even endured the same history of urban renewal: The rest of the neighborhood is marked by visually outstanding, mostly failed experiments by modernist architects to replace razed Victorian townhouses with superblock housing projects.

Eckstut says that he strove to emphasize “idiosyncratic surprises, mistakes, and errors” to differentiate the Wharf from stuffy, federal Washington. But it’s #TheNewDC you have to watch out for: the emergent corridors that seek to emulate Brooklyn or Portland or Austin or really, none of those places, but something new and generic and common to all of them.

“It’s a very old tradition of architecture, where great cities are made by buildings that aren’t necessarily all that iconic. Maybe the church is, and city hall,” Eckstut. “But everyone else is making fabric in the backgrounds and creating public places that are the popular icons, more than the buildings.”

One weekend in, the plan for the Wharf appears to be working. The recreation pier by landscape architect Michael Vergason already looks like a destination. With kayaks, swings, a giant torch, and a curving walkway feature, the pier boasts an everything-goes design vocabulary, a frenetic feel that it shares with another favorite D.C. waterfront site, Yards Park. From a pair of hotels designed by SmithGroup JJR to the condos and apartments designed by Handel Architects and WDG Architecture, the buildings tend to take the form of glass cubes plopped down on top of brick-and-mortar retail.

And that’s fine. All in all, it’s a fun-if-inoffensive ramble from the old fisherman’s wharf that still anchors the west end of the Washington Channel, where you can buy fresh shucked oysters right off the boat, to Hank’s Oyster Bar on the east end, where you can pay twice as much for them. For the most part, the Wharf avoids the most desultory aspects of Fast Casual design—the first-date wine-bar vibe, the de rigueur farm-to-table fonts, the reclaimed-wood bar behind glass-panel doors. Where it might have descended into the worst kind of Chipotletecture, the Wharf sometimes surprises. And where the buildings disappoint, well, they’ve still got a Shake Shack.

“In our work, [buildings] do not dominate the view,” Eckstut says. “They only contribute to making a city.”

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