John King is the urban design critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. He is currently a Mellon Fellow in urban landscape studies at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C.
Some Washingtonians complain that the city’s height limit has resulted in lookalike, boxy buildings. But creativity can emerge from constraint, a West Coast critic argues.
Farragut Square in Washington, D.C., is one of many crossroads in the nation’s capital where, architecturally, all bets are off.
A stone office building from 1926 with neo-Gothic airs is flanked by a perfunctory punched-window office building from 1963 and a relatively sleek metal-clad model of recent vintage. Across the way, there’s a heavy-looking concrete crate at one corner, an icy blue cube at another.
What the five buildings have in common with each other, and with the five other buildings that frame Farragut’s pleasant green, is that they’re all around 130 feet, or 13 stories, tall. And since they can’t go any higher, the newer ones tend to fill every foot of airspace that they can.
This flat-topped skyline is a local given, and it drives many urbanists crazy. But after several months in Washington, I’ve come to see this feature as one of the city’s defining physical traits—in a good way, not bad.
Call it the virtue of architectural monotony: a relentless horizontality where commercial canyons recede into the distance. One stretch of cliff might be granite, another one concrete or tile or glass. But as the city’s core has filled up in recent decades, the materials have come to serve as seemingly interchangeable wrappings for squat containers of leasable space.
The result? An awkward yet oddly endearing terrain where, absolutely, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
The culprit, so to speak, is a century-old zoning ordinance that ties building heights to the width of adjacent streets and “reflects the preeminence of our democratic institutions, now and into the future,“ according to the Height Master Plan done by the National Capital Planning Commission in 2013. In most cases the formula translates to a maximum height of 130 feet, with another 20 feet for mechanical equipment and a penthouse. By comparison, the Washington Monument is a commanding 555 feet. Chicago has five buildings over 1,000 feet—with a sixth, Jeanne Gang’s Vista Tower, on its way to reaching an eventual height of 1,191 feet.
Some architects bridle at the rigidity, saying it thwarts design innovation. Some economists and planners say the rules induce sprawl by forcing new development to more height-friendly locales outside the District.
All of which may or may not be true (I have my doubts). But there’s no denying that the rigid status quo prods architects to make the best of a confining situation. And yes, some rise to the challenge.
Around the corner from Farragut, for instance, a taut glass box from 2009 at H and 17th Streets NW is sculpted with right-angled precision in such a way that the result forms a quintet of abstract 10-story columns above the base.
This regally subversive office building was designed by Kevin Roche, the 1982 recipient of the Pritzker Architecture Prize. The chiseled recesses of the “columns” mean less leasable office space, but Roche was quoted in a 2012 article shrugging that the trade-off penciled out, since “lawyers love corner offices.” Whatever the rationale, it’s fascinating to see a major architect find ways to work within the dictates of restrictive zoning and produce something distinctive.
I’m also a fan of District Center (1995) at 555 12th Street NW. It takes cues from older styles, with pressed-metal bays and a rectangular form where the facade is tailored to suggest an old-school base and crown. But the architectural firm, Florance Eichbaum Esocoff King, understood that thoughtful craftsmanship endures, and this exercise in careful historicism has aged much better than chronological peers that relied on clumsy allusions to the past.
If District Center is a product of its time, so is the 11-story infill building designed by Gensler at 2112 Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Still under construction, it’s skinned in glass—the too-predictable material of choice in urban America—but with a fuzzy unexpected twist: fritted glass fins seem to ripple across the facade, each fin cut diagonally to add the illusion of movement.
The angled fins deflect afternoon sun, an energy-conserving gesture that’s also touted as “a unique architectural statement” on the building website. Sustainable and stylish: how better to market “an office building built for the next generation”?
These aren’t isolated examples. Once you start looking at the terrain in terms of material style, instead of asking, “Why is everything the same height?,” the structural aspirations of postwar Washington unfold like a stocky accordion.
Next door to 2112 Pennsylvania is a concrete slab owned by George Washington University with the gridded depth of 1960s institutional Modernism, and I suspect it looks better in hindsight than it did at the time. Across the way, its 1997 neighbor couldn’t be more different: a block-long behemoth that’s home to the International Finance Corporation.
This building is by Michael Graves, who for decades before his death in 2015 brought postmodernism to the masses. Often he went to cartoonish extremes (see his Disney office building adorned with the Seven Dwarfs), but here he opted for a succession of oversized, faintly Tuscan bays clad in subdued gray and red masonry. Detractors are put off by the unfriendly base (the occupant is a branch of the security-conscious World Bank). Me, I like the rhythmic gravitas that turns a long block into a procession of emphatic facades.
Some parts of downtown are in danger of becoming as glassy as a mirror showroom. And for every District Center, there’s a 600 13th Street NW, a pompous exercise in peach-toned classicism by Robert A.M. Stern Architects.
Is all this subjective? Of course. Because all these are variations on a theme, they let you ponder what architectural values you hold most dear.
Whatever your style of choice, or how you balance looks and craft, too many of the buildings boxed in by the height limits are not very good. Some are earnest but incompetent. Some have an air of desperation (let’s put a cupola at the corner! Let’s pop out a glassed-in bay!). Some ooze cynicism, where the architects and their clients were happy to package maximum square footage in a marketable and non-controversial way.
But this would also be the case if heights hadn’t been capped since 1910. For evidence, look at every other large American city where the skyline is in flux. Attention-seeking developers would hire big-name architects to do something “different.” The mediocre glass boxes, meanwhile, would be 25 or 40 stories instead of 13 stories tall.
That’s the real reason that Washington should embrace its low-slung skyline, caveats aside.
Consider: this is a moment in our culture when authenticity is valued above all else. Cities tout any element that sets them apart, any rooted sense of place, any hint of local flavor. Idiosyncrasy is where it’s at.
Which is exactly what downtown Washington offers—a global city predicated on the notion that a predictable march of uniform forms is a virtue. Politicians come and go, the political skies may darken, but the nation’s capital is memorable because of its democratic landmarks and the spatial grandiosity of wide boulevards and a central mall. The architecture defers to the setting.
Put another way?
Washingtonians, relax. You don’t need to grow up to show off.