Techworld, the $300 million hotel and trade mart complex planned for construction next door to the D.C. Convention Center, currently is tied up in litigation. Its fate is no longer in the hands of developers, architects, lenders, city officials or even the public. Instead, attorneys and the courts, attempting to interpret federal and District laws, will determine its future.
In January, Techworld's developer, International Developers Inc., and Techworld's principal opponents, the D.C. Preservation League and the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, filed suits against each other alleging improper or unjustified actions. Two months later, the federal government also filed suit, joining with the preservation group and the Committee of 100 in challenging actions taken by the D.C. government and the developer.
What precipitated all of this? The answer lies not in the realm of law, but in the realm of architecture and urban design. Techworld's physical form, not its programmatic or economic concept, sparked the opposition that sent everyone to court.
When first unveiled in 1984, Techworld was to be a slick, faceted, glassy mass of abstract geometric forms filling most of the two blocks bounded by Seventh, Ninth, I and K streets, immediately south of the Carnegie Library at Mt. Vernon Square and two blocks north of the National Portrait Gallery. To many, it seemed stylistically out of place, although almost anything would have been an improvement over the concrete fortress, the D.C. Convention Center, next door.
But what most offended those who looked at the preliminary scheme, designed by California architect Wayne Williams, was the extent to which Eighth Street was being visually obstructed. As proposed, Techworld's 15-story building would span a closed Eighth Street and leave little more than a tunnel astride the Eighth Street "axis" that presumably connects the Portrait Gallery at G Street with the library at K.
Techworld's feasibility, according to developer Giuseppi Cecchi, absolutely depended on merging the two blocks flanking Eighth Street into one development parcel. However, preservationists and city officials anticipated that the Eighth Street "vista," designated an "historic landmark" by the D.C. Joint Committee on Landmarks, would nevertheless be respected and maintained.
Cecchi and his architect responded to the criticisms and redesigned the project. They made volumetric and stylistic changes in the building's massing and elevations -- more materials and "layering," upper-story setbacks and compositional detail. The closed portion of Eighth Street was to become a more open pedestrian promenade and plaza, the major exterior, public space in Techworld's cosmos.
But the bridging remained. The two Techworld building volumes framing Eighth Street still were to be joined overhead, providing what the developer claimed to be indispensable: continuous circulation from one side to the other, along with large, horizontally contiguous floors for office-display tenants.
The bridge over closed (but not forgotten) Eighth Street and its effect on the street vista between the library and the Portrait Gallery became the primary focus of attention and controversy. While questions remained about Techworld's height, bulk and exterior skin, it was really the bridge and vista that galvanized the opposition.
In a further attempt to achieve consensus, and at the urging of Mayor Marion Barry, Cecchi proposed additional design modifications to frame the reciprocal views more liberally between the existing neo-classical facades at G and K streets. The space between Techworld's buildings would be widened from 85 to 90 feet nearest the library. At mid-block, where Techworld's 130-foot-high volumes are only 70 feet apart, the bridge's thickness would be reduced from 93 feet to 45 feet, while its height above the street plaza would be increased from 64 feet to 88 feet. Four floors on each side, rather than six, would connect.
The controversial span was beginning to look increasingly like a true "bridge" across the street rather than a building with a tunnel through it. Nevertheless, opponents were still unhappy. Many wanted no bridge at all, regardless of its design, insisting on restoration of the original 100-foot street right-of-way and unobstructed vista. Those willing to compromise would accept the bridge only if it were limited to three floors no less than 90 feet above the street plaza. Design negotiations were stalemated.
And all along, some simply thought that Techworld was just too big. They wondered why Cecchi needed so much bulk.
Indeed, what exactly would exist behind Techworld's facades, demanding such quantities of floor space and volume? A 15-story, 884-room Ramada Renaissance Hotel is embedded in the west half of the development. It faces the convention center on Ninth Street and Mt. Vernon Square on the north. A 12-story "trade center" of office, display and showroom space, occupying more than 1 million square feet, covers the block between Seventh and Eighth streets, but also includes upper level space west of Eighth street (hence the bridge). A health spa is on the third floor, next to the hotel. At the plaza-street level are hotel and trade center entrance lobbies, restaurants, a cafe, retail shops and a 12,000-square-foot public exhibition space -- "Tech 2000." Appropriately, all front directly on the surrounding sidewalks and streets, or on the Eighth Street plaza. Also, within each building are interior courtyards accessible from the surrounding streets via passageways connecting through from Eighth to both Seventh and Ninth streets. A conference center occupies the first two levels below grade, which includes a grand ballroom, a "junior" ballroom, a 300-seat auditorium, 17 meeting rooms, a 21,000-square-foot exhibition hall, plus "back-of-the-house" service space. Farther below grade are four levels of parking accommodating more than 1,500 cars (nearly 2,000 with valet assistance); these are intended to serve the convention center, which is critically short of parking, as well as Techworld.
Techworld's site area, including Eighth Street, is a bit more than four acres, and D.C. zoning permits 8.5 times as much above-grade building floor area as site area. Thus the visible portion of Techworld contains close to 1.5 million square feet of space. Another million square feet of space is to be constructed below grade, producing a total of 2.5 million square feet.
Clearly, "complex" is a fitting term for Techworld, for it's no small feat to put together such an enormous, three-dimensional puzzle of functions and space on such a challenging site, and make it work for everybody.
Yet it's fair to ask, setting aside pending legal questions, how successfully Cecchi and his architects solved the puzzle and packaged the product. Is Techworld simply too much for this site in this location, no matter what the design? Will Techworld prove to be the economic magnet and catalyst that its supporters claim it will be? Or is Washington's streetscape about to be spoiled by another white elephant? Only time and the judicial system will tell.
NEXT: Design meets law at Techworld.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.