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The Mediocre Mile

Renderings of the City Vista complex, left and above, going up along K Street just off Massachusetts Avenue NW. Architectural oversight for the many projects recently completed or under construction has been spotty.
Renderings of the City Vista complex, left and above, going up along K Street just off Massachusetts Avenue NW. Architectural oversight for the many projects recently completed or under construction has been spotty. (Above And Below: Lowe Enterprises Real Estate Group-east)

Philip Esocoff doesn't think so, and argues that there is still room for creativity in large residential buildings. He is responsible for several buildings in the area, including a residential building at 400 Massachusetts Ave. with a fancifully curved face and a very whimsical, almost Mayan-looking structure at 910 M St. NW, the Whitman.

"Gaudi in Barcelona or the architects of Paris weren't limited by height," he says. Instead, Washington architects focus on detailing. Because nothing is very tall, because you can see the top of any building in the District from across the street, the city's architecture must withstand surface scrutiny.

"It's like bespoke clothing," he says. "It has to be beautifully tailored so that it looks good up close and personal."

Esocoff's buildings generally meet that standard. In his eighth-floor office on 17th Street, surrounded by photographs and renderings of the new buildings he and his associates have designed, he focuses on details: the rhythm of brick patterns, how windows and stone articulate facades, and how he defines the roofline with chimney elements, pergolas and railings. When he breaks a solid facade, he tries to give the illusion of thicker walls, so that the masonry doesn't appear so much to be what it really is: a thin veneer, braced by steel over a concrete frame. He describes a technique that he says Washington architects and local builders have become very good at, a process that creates strong and very thin concrete slabs. That's a boon to developers working under height restrictions, and to architects who like to create eccentric edges to their floors. It's also a quick way to put a building up in the sky.

Unfortunately, rapid development can make good buildings, such as Esocoff's, look bad as they are surrounded by bland knock-offs. The larger sense of economic and development urgency also means that unfortunate precedents take root before they can be challenged.

In February 2001, representatives of the Mass Court project, including Sami Kirkdil, the architect, came before the Commission of Fine Arts to talk about his new project. Two basic messages came across: They wanted as many units as possible and they had a lot of political support.

Kirkdil called his project "a social building" and emphasized his effort to "reduce the mass of the building," and subdivide it to "give an illusion that the buildings are done over time."

According to the minutes, the commission, which expressed concerns about the bulk and the 130-foot height of the structure, noted, "It's very important . . . this not be a precedent for height along Mass Avenue."

But it was a precedent. As development has raced up and down Massachusetts Avenue, 130 feet has become the norm for at least a half-dozen buildings. Zingsheim, of the city's Office of Planning, says, "I can't imagine anyone will build less than the full height." And despite Kirkdil's effort to make his project seem as if it had been "done over time," the look of the new Massachusetts Avenue corridor is very much a snapshot of one particular, and not always inspired, moment in Washington architecture. A Hampton Inn hotel, which might be merely innocuous if situated on an airport service road, is now in place and isn't going anywhere soon. The District's longest avenue is filling up with serviceable, mediocre and conservative buildings.

Has anyone learned any lessons from this? If you read the city's plans for the area that includes this stretch of Massachusetts Avenue, it's clear that officials had hoped for more inspiring architecture, and tried to lay down guidelines to encourage it. Almost everyone who isn't a developer, from Zingsheim to Tersh Boasberg, chairman of the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board, to community leaders, says the solution (at least in part) is some kind of architectural oversight. But the forces aligned in favor of bad architecture, including what Zingsheim acknowledges is a peculiar reluctance to take architectural chances in the District, are overwhelming. It's as if the city is governed by an iron equation of architectural futility: The economic imperative plus the height restrictions equals big ugly boxes.

Widdicombe suggests the controversial possibility of altering one part of that equation: the height limitation. He says another 25 feet of leeway on most buildings would allow developers to play with setbacks on the top floors, and different rooflines. Of course, another 25 feet could also mean boxes that are 25 feet taller.

But what if the city took its design so seriously that developers would feel some compensating civic pride in exchange for building more beautiful though marginally less profitable projects? Unthinkable?

Perhaps. Boasberg points out an intriguing new development: L'Enfant's plan was itself recently declared a D.C. landmark. But, he says, "no one seems to know exactly what kind of protection that would give to significant features of the plan, such as prominent avenues and squares."

A historically enshrined city plan must inevitably be either a forgotten artifact or something sacred. L'Enfant could lose his relevance to the real life of the city. Or his early vision could suggest a new imperative -- to revere our avenues as more than just frontage on buildable lots.

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