Visions of a Brave New Washington
Contest Shows the D.C. of 2108 Salvaging Decay For New Modes of Harnessing Water, Food, Energy

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 16, 2008

In the year 2108, after the general collapse of society, Washington residents will flee the violent decay of the city and migrate to utopian "ecohubs" in the middle of the Potomac River.

There, civilization will be reborn amid renewed natural resources, wind- and solar-generated power, clean water and man-made wetlands brimming with wildlife.

Or, a century from now, Washington will be ringed by 2,000-foot towers -- erected on the sites of 28 Civil War forts -- where rain will be collected for water, power will be generated by wind and sunlight, and multitiered hydroponic farms will grow food for the city.

By 2108, heat could be generated by thermal wells. Cars and commuting could be obsolete. The Pentagon might be a peace institute. And elevated farms could grow crops above inner-city neighborhoods.

For three hours yesterday, eight teams of architects and designers, armed with scissors, cardboard, plexiglass, plywood, glue, tape, pushpins and jumbo containers of coffee, raised imaginary Washingtons of the future.

The event was a competition of sorts called City of the Future and was hosted at Union Station by the History Channel, IBM and Infiniti.

The teams, from architectural and design firms and universities near the Washington area and New York City, had been given seven days to come up with visions of Washington 100 years hence, and had from 9 a.m. until noon to assemble their models inside the station.

Missing was the sense of limitless possibilities. Many hinted at a dire future plagued by pollution, shortages of water, goods and energy and the prospect of catastrophe. The future seemed a place for those who might survive the present.

One collaboration of D.C. architects and designers from the firms Envision and IStudio foresaw a city in which the government bureaucracy was moved from downtown and its office buildings converted to hotels, condos and apartments.

"The federal agencies . . . start to become something that provides a barrier to people actually being on the Mall, accessing the Mall and bringing life to the Mall," said IStudio's Rick Harlan Schneider.

Several entries foresaw a critical need for food in Washington's future and designed sci-fi urban farms to meet it.

The elevated farmland was the idea of a team of students and teachers from the University of Maryland.

"This would be an urban agricultural farm," Isaac Williams, an architecture teacher, said as he held part of a plexiglass model of future Washington with a carpet of green floating on pillars near New York and Florida avenues.

The farm would draw water and power from the ground, he said: "We'd be to able harvest the crops from here and feed most of D.C."

The team from the Washington firm of Beyer Blinder Belle, which won the competition, looked into the city's future and saw "totemic" towers raised on the sites of the old forts, partner Hany Hassan said.

The towers would have to be huge -- taller than the Sears Tower in Chicago -- to harvest the wind for power. The sides of the towers would capture solar energy, and farms would be spread across lower levels.

Hassan's plan envisions the Mall inundated with water from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, much as it was when the Tiber Creek ran where the Mall is now.

"We believe that water is life," he said. "Bring life into the city. Transform what is referred to as the National Mall today . . . to become a water mall, [and] reflect all the monuments and memorials into it."

The team from Sorg and Associates imagined a vast extension of the Mall across the Potomac and enveloping the Pentagon, which would become a peace institute in a new world where security is achieved through diplomacy and ideas.

New York's OBRA Architects saw a future in which technology will eliminate the need for commuting. "Traffic will disappear as we know it," said Pablo Castro with OBRA.

Castro also imagined multi-use "super towers" the size of the Empire State Building. They would be scattered across the city, including around what is now lower Rock Creek Park. "We think in a hundred years the infrastructure . . . will need to be replaced," he said. "All the areas of medium density become areas of high density, and all the areas of low density become parks."

The most apocalyptic scenario was created by a team from the University of Virginia.

"This project starts off by assuming that Washington, D.C., will decline to a certain extent," said Nataly Gattegno, an assistant professor of architecture. "Because of its pollution. Because of its lack of educational infrastructure, lack of actual infrastructure, sewage, water treatment, energy, fuel, coal plants."

That would lead to "citizen engineers" creating river ecohubs capable of cleaning and recycling water, generating energy, cleaning the Potomac, attracting wildlife and essentially saving the city, she said.

"We harvest the decay of the city and build off of it," she said. "It all comes out okay in the end."

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