DC has a lot of boring architecture, and that’s no mistake; a cheap federal government and a bevy of paper pushers keep the District that way. At least that’s what a few experts on architecture and development in DC had to say at a panel last week.
Turncoats, an urbanist debate group, hosted its first DC debate last week on the question of whether or not the District wants boring architecture. The organization works to encourage provocative discussion, fueling everyone — including audience members — with a shot of liquor before things get started and only assigning the panelists sides after they’ve taken the stage.
Payton Chung of the Urban Land Institute (and a member of Greater Greater Washington’s editorial board), Brian Miller of Edit Lab at Streetsense, Nooni Reatig of Suzane Reatig Architecture, and Mina Wright of the General Services Administration and National Capital Planning Commission (who was careful to stress that all of her statements were hers alone and not those of her employer) participated in the panel.
Initially, Payton and Nooni were assigned the position that DC does indeed want boring architecture, while Brian and Mina had to argue that isn’t the case.
Despite their supposed sides, the panelists coalesced in agreement that DC architecture is boring… they just differed on the reasons why. For example, Payton argued that it is the embodiment of DC’s culture of middle-management paper pushers while Mina said it was simply the result of a cheap federal government keen to maximize usable space in its office buildings.
We (Edward and Joanne) attended the panel and discussed our thoughts in a chat format.
Edward Russell (ER): It was clear to me that the panelists, whether they took the pro or con position, feel that DC’s architecture is boring. I do wish those who argued that DC does in fact want boring architecture had said more about why boring architecture can still be interesting.
Joanne Pierce (JP): I expected the panelists to discuss DC’s architecture as it is now, why it appears to be boring, and whether they agree (since boring is relative). “City architecture is boring” is a popular opinion. You can google any city and “boring architecture” and get dozens of articles decrying NYC, Boston, LA, etc., for being filled with boxy, glass buildings.
ER: Exactly. I felt that some were a bit of tongue-and-cheek, especially on the con side — though the two blended together a bit — with Nooni arguing that multiple streets lined with “Soul Cycle, Chipotle and Starbucks” made her feel comfortable, which was clearly a dig at the homogeneity of it all.
JP: There were lots of zingers, which were fun and spirited. I think everyone truly enjoys living in DC, and they can still poke fun at its stodgy reputation. That was an interesting comment on the sameness of our streets, which Mina echoed with her comment about Federal Triangle being lovely, but “you don’t want to live in a city of Federal Triangles.” I appreciated that comment because Federal Triangle happens to be that prime example of DC federal building run amok. It’s just federal building after federal building. But it can be lovely!
ER: It can be lovely. There is certainly a grandeur of the federal DC, with the ordered avenues and the neo-classical buildings.
JP: I’m a little biased because I work in the Ronald Reagan Building.
ER: One thing that surprised me was how the height limit only came up once, and it was an audience member saying they didn’t think that is the issue holding back DC architecture. I expected it to be discussed more.
JP: I did, too. I think that’s owing to the structure, where the panelists didn’t bring it up, except to say that we don’t need skyscrapers. The discussion seemed to be more about the overall uniformity that exists in DC. I was also surprised that the discussion focused mostly on public or semi-public buildings, and not much at all on residences.
ER: Yes, I think that was the result of, as Payton put it, the fact that DC is a city of “middle class, paper-pushing bureaucrats.” A lot of the speakers built off that. I agree that the federal government has had an outsize impact on DC architecture for decades — centuries even — but the panelists took it a step further and argued that we’re a city of bureaucrats who ultimately want an unadorned box (or row house) rather than some limit-pushing designed residence, whether in a tower or a house.
JP: There’s some historical connection with that comment. Lots of our boxy tan buildings are brutalist, and a lot of those came about because of the federal government. For instance, the Weaver building, which is where Housing and Urban Development is now, was built according to President Kennedy’s architectural initatives. So if we think the Weaver’s big, boxy (it’s actually kind of curved) look is unattractive, it is because Kennedy wanted it to represent the strength of America.
ER: Like Brian said: “DC has lots of cutting edge architecture, it’s just from 100 years ago.” Or 50 years ago in the case of President Kennedy.
JP: Concrete is wonderful! You’ll see! Going back to your comment about wanting unadorned, big boxes — I’m no architect, but it seems like when your primary need is space to house many people (for housing or for work) your most logical shape is a square or rectangle, not a curve or a triangle. It seems like there should be a way to combine the two, but then you sometimes get the 20 Fenchurch building, which was Brian’s example of ugly design.
ER: Yes, that is something DC architecture does well — maximizing the amount of space available for workers or for residents, within the limits that exist for buildings (height limit, plot size, whatever). As Mina put it, “I think the Feds are at fault. Why? They’re cheap.”
JP: The cheapness of government makes a lot of sense but I think it’s more of a cultural cheapness. Maybe for a long time, we just didn’t want to stand out. Or at least, the people in power who made the decisions didn’t think the city needed to stand out. Except with The National Mall.
ER: Did you agree with the general conclusion that so much generally mediocre architecture will make the unique, interesting buildings in DC stand out? I agree with the premise but wonder how we get to the point where we have unique buildings to stand out from the crowd. Like Atlantic Plumbing (2112 8th Street NW), I do like it, it’s more industrial then we generally have here, but at the same time it is still a steel and glass rectangular box.
JP: I think that the question of what is boring should be reframed. Are we boring, or are we just not a place where we have singular, instantly recognizable buildings. Things that show up in magazines, like Brian pointed out, and things that wow people as they drive by. Is that what we consider to be the most important?
ER: We have a few remarkable buildings, but I’d say they’re iconic more due to their historical significance than their architecture (the White House, the Capitol).
JP: Certainly, we have the White House and the Capitol and the monuments. But beyond that, when we talk about iconic buildings that aren’t Federal… I think the premise of whether our uniformity allows the interesting buildings to stand out is totally right. The African American history museum stands out because it’s brown and not in the same architectural style as many others.
ER: It certainly does, whether you like the design or not.
JP: Sometimes, you just need one bold idea to start things off.