Q: One of the biggest projects to hit Washington in a long time has your signature on it -- the Washington Harbour. How did you go about designing something like a Washington Harbour? Do you have dreams at night? Visions of what a waterfront should look like?
A: I find that some music and a great cigar are helpful. The waterfront is not just a project. It is a whole section or piece of the city. We will ultimately be talking about determining the future of these 10 acres of land on probably one of the most precious and most important sites in the United States, if not the world. You begin from a very large-scale planning perspective: How does this thing fit into the plan of Washington? How does it fit in to the plan of Georgetown? You begin from a giant large planning prospective and proceed, constantly telescoping focus to the final detail of the railings and (how) everything fits together.
Q: Who are you designing the harbor place for? Who is your audience, if you will?
A: We are initially designing for our client. But ultimately the client's client is the public. We want to have something that is so exciting and stimulating that it will be well received by the public. We've remodeled a lot of old buildings in Washington. They were all condemned at the time they were initiated as being terrible by the set of architectural critics and the special people in the know. They have survived to be beloved by the public. I'm thinking about the Old Post Office, the Cairo Hotel, the Library of Congress, the old Renwick Castle.
Q: You grew up in Washington. You have visited a little more than 50 countries. What do you see as right and wrong with the way Washington has developed?
A: (Given) the overall perspective of visiting all these countries first, I will say that half of Washington stands up very well.
Q: Which half?
A: It's a kind of beauty and rational order that we see in the grand plan of Washington. In terms of that visualization and realization, it looks great against all the cities in the world. It's not better than all the cities, but it's certainly up there as a match with some of the qualities of Rome and Paris. What is missing in Washington -- I often talk about it being too Apollonian and not enough Dionysian. When you go to New Orleans you go to New Orleans to have fun. A lot of Washington is so obsessed with its power and its commitment to this kind of rational and Apollonian point of view that it has not developed on the other side as a charming place to live. Paris, New Orleans, London have that other side. Washington is missing some of the charm and clutter and the humanity.
Q: But isn't that what they have at Wisconsin and M in Georgetown? It's causing quite a bit of controversy.
A: Georgetown is so popular because it does have some of this, the texture and quality of the 19th century European city. It has humanistic scale and character. Back when L'Enfant and Thomas Jefferson were planning the city, they were in a tavern in Georgetown doing it. Georgetown has this quality of being extremely logical for where it is, being a hill town, being perfectly positioned at the fall line where you've got the perfect navigational point. It is a logical human settlement that Washington is always trying to counteract as being kind of an artificial city. There is a problem of success here.
Q: Why did the waterfront die, if it was such an integral part of the development of this section of Washington?
A: The waterfront died historically because of two factors. One, as a port, it was not competitive with Norfolk or Baltimore. Its alternative economic raison d'etre was the canal, and at the same time they started the canal, they also started the railroad and the railroad is simply cheaper and more efficient about moving goods from the center of America to the seas. It lost out on an efficiency basis.
There's a national pattern all over the United States -- as the waterfronts become obsolete as port facilities, they become the location for heavy industry and often sort of trashy industry. Georgetown was a classic case. I mean, this is a place where people rendered animals.
Q: Living in this area, did you get to smell any of this?
A: Absolutely, when the wind would shift in Georgetown, everybody knew it. It was a very democratic thing. They would ship dead animals in by railroad, and render them down to the fats, and whatever goopy thing they could sell. This was a known obnoxious use that did not want to leave because every jurisdiction for miles around -- hundreds of miles around -- had passed an ordinance against such a thing. One day they tried to improve the smell by dumping chocolate into the thing and there was a smell of rancid chocolate all over Georgetown.
Q: It seems sometimes that there really are several Washingtons and Georgetown is connected to the official Washington, Northwest area. Some of those panoramic views of the city are in the southeastern section where there are public housing projects. What's going to happen over there?
A: We are engaged right now in competition to do the largest project in Washington. It's in Southwest Washington. It holds, I think, extraordinary promise for trying to resolve those industrial problems, in that case mainly the railroad, the main line of the northeast corridor.
The Anacostia waterfront has a parallel history with the Georgetown waterfront. It has a lot of the same industries. We don't have to necessarily talk about gentrification here. We're talking about simply improvement in those areas. Often a movement to revitalize a city may have to work from a special core structure, such as the Old Post Office. It will spread from that. A lot of things have happened on Pennsylvania Avenue, because of the Post Office.
Q: What have you been trying to do architecturally in Washington for 20 years? You cannot enter (Georgetown) without finding some Arthur Cotton Moore work on one of the main thoroughfares.
A: I see being an architect beyond simply rendering a service, beyond simply getting a building built. I see it as being an artist, and I'm interested in basically pushing out what I call the esthetic envelope.
Q: Esthetic envelope?
A: To explore new forms and new ways of doing things in the same way that an artist really does work. Washington has become rather enamored with post-modernism, a kind of infusion of traditional forms into architecture. I'm hoping that the post-modernism phase is a transition to a new development of modern architecture which incorporates traditional forms, which creates out of that a new fusion of art and architecture, a new sense of unity and feeling and forms, which will be that pushing out of the esthetic envelope.
Q: Do you think that this would shake up the sensibilities in Washington? This city is not known for taking change -- .
A: Easily. We may have some of that reaction on the harbor. I think we're inventing a combination of old and new forms and creating there that kind of sense of movement and fusion and flow in architecture, which is kind of a baroque modernism. I think that it will take some people back.
Q: What is it specifically about Washington Harbour that might surprise people?
A: Looking at it from the outside, you see a lot of roofs and chimneys. But inside there is a whole network of streets which have 23 different facades on them. They are like 23 different buildings and they all come together to a kind of crescendo around as they look at the harbor. It is not a background building. It is not passive. It is definitely making a sculptural and architectural statement.
Q: Why did you try so hard to save the Old Post Office Building?
A: The building was a really marvelous example of the idiosyncratic spirit of freedom in America. America is a place of cranky individuals, individualism, and there was something absolutely wonderful about the assertion of this building surrounded by the classical sort of bureaucracy. I had also done enough work in historic preservation in many cities to recognize this as an absolute incredible precious resource. (It was) badly abused and very hard to see that it had any qualities at that time. But I had taken that sow's ear and made it into a silk purse enough times that I could see that if it came to life, there was a chance to make a strategic connection in the city of Washington, create a bridge between the 20 million people who come to The Wall (the Vietnam Memorial) from all over America, but then just go home after that, and local Washington, which was a downtown in trouble. You could make that bridge between local and national Washington, make a chemistry which would help to revitalize that whole section of town.
I think most people don't realize that the interior of the Old Post Office is largely a newly created situation. The interior virtually didn't exist before. Most people sort of say, "Gee, you did a great job of sort of polishing up the railings and fixing it up." We demolished the inside of the building and created that whole aspect of what you see.
Q: So when you drive through the city, you don't really see what other people see, a city of monumental structures?
A: Washington has a cold bureaucratic face. We have another project in the Commerce Department to create a visitors center and museum of science and innovation, which would spill out onto the sidewalk to invite people. (It would) make the government more porous and available to a typical tourist. What is happening is the "bunkerization" of Washington. Because we are worried about terrorists now, they are dropping things called "Jersey bunkers" all over town. The city is becoming rapidly uglified. We have a proposal to try to create something which does the effect of deterring the Iranian car, truck driver or a car loaded with bombs and at the same time making something beautiful out of it.
Q: Was there any point in your childhood where construction or design of buildings interested you?
A: I was very interested in drawing and I did a lot of painting. In fact some of my paintings have been bought by my school, St. Albans in Washington. I was well known for being able to draw extremely well and very precise realistic types of paintings. The interest in buildings was not that well developed until I got into the architectural curriculum at Princeton. I saw so many contemporaries doing, what shall I say, standardized tracks, on their way to becoming doctors, lawyers or going (to) the State Department. Some dissatisfaction with that sort of automatic careerism prompted me to investigate this other wacky, possible way of eking out a living.
Q: Well, you've done very well at eking out a living. In fact you've developed a reputation as an expensive architect.
A: There is a backhanded compliment there. There is an assumption in our society that if something has quality and merit, it has beauty, it has some special aspect that it must cost more money. That's why I say it's a compliment because in actual fact the buildings we have done, beginning with Canal Square, were either equal to or even sometimes below what the typical, speculative, commercial investment building was costing. Every client comes to you -- they want the Taj Mahal but they have a beer budget.
Q: What does an architect do?
A: Our job is not precise in the beginning. Somebody comes in and says I want to build an apartment house or project of some sort. We then investigate all the aspects of governmental regulations, all the impacts, the codes. Then we come up with a preliminary concept of what this thing should look like; how it would fit all the codes, how it would also meet all the economic needs, how it would resolve all the uses, how it would work, how it would interrelate all these things. We shape and give actual tangible form to the project, working with the client back and forth. Then we do the final drawings, all the detail work. Then we would go through a bidding process and selection of a contractor. We actually monitor the construction. So in a way we are the author of this project. Architects are really the authors of buildings, but it's a little bit more like a playwright in a way, because a playwright writes the thing and often is involved in the actual production but it takes many many people to bring the whole thing about.
Q: What made you come back to Washington? It is such a small city, it probably seemed already developed.
A: I can't answer that question. I was very well situated in New York. I had potentially a nice job and a nice apartment. It was a homing instinct. I had grown up in Washington and it was logical to go home.
Q: If you could start everything over again, use the big eraser in the sky, so to speak, what changes would you make?
A: There's really only one thing I would do different. I would have spent more time finishing something I haven't finished, which is my book. I've been writing it for 10 years. It's almost a joke here in the office. It inches forward and then, I think, it inches backward. But we have been very busy and I just haven't gotten to it.