Architectural students often ask their design instructors for absolute judgments that, they hope, will lead them to idealized, flawless buildings.
For example, a student engaged in a hypothetical study of the Techworld site -- the two blocks bounded by Seventh, Ninth, I and K streets -- might ask if a bridge should span Eighth Street. Or the student might wonder if buildings fronting on Mount Vernon Square should be 130 feet high.
The appropriate answer to either question would not be a dogmatic "yes" or "no." Instead, such questions concern "how" to design, not "if." There can be good bridge designs and bad ones. Buildings 130 feet high can be ugly or beautiful.
In the nonacademic world of design and development, the same questions arise. And no one knows that better than the parties struggling over Techworld, the $300 million hotel and high-tech trade mart complex proposed by International Developers Inc.
Techworld is awaiting judgment by a court in Washington because aesthetic questions couldn't be resolved. Indeed, the court will not worry about how well or poorly Techworld has been designed by California architect Wayne Williams. It cannot act as architectural critic, but only can decide matters of law, even though design disputes are the root cause of the litigation.
Techworld's history reveals dramatically the conflicts so often generated when projects, especially large ones, are proposed and when public and private interests cannot be reconciled. The former generally strive to maintain cultural traditions and high (or popular) standards of design, while the latter seek to exercise their legitimate rights to develop property in accordance with applicable laws and regulations, many of which don't address the public's keenest concerns. Local governments, presumed to act as mediating forces, must protect and advocate both private and public interests simultaneously.
This almost worked at Techworld. Developer Giuseppe Cecchi followed the rules as he and his consultants understood them. Like most developers, he sought the "highest and best" use of his land, including the land acquired through the closing of Eighth Street. He was convinced that Techworld offered a great deal to the city in return for this undeniable windfall, plus higher density.
But from the outset, the D.C. Preservation League and the Committee of 100 for the Federal City felt that Techworld's design was flawed. They and others questioned its architecture generally, but their greatest objections focused on the closing and bridging of Eighth Street, which they believed compromised the vista between the Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square and the National Portrait Gallery at G Street.
Cecchi insisted that bridging and increased density were programmatic necessities. He also questioned the significance of Eighth Street and its vista. The preservation group and Committee of 100 were equally convinced that the design could be improved to protect the vista and the historic streetscape of the nation's capital. If the city was making concessions, then the developer should reciprocate in the spirit of "quid pro quo."
Both parties seemed willing to negotiate. The city would play the role of mediator through its Zoning Commission and the planned unit development zoning process. Under the planned unit development provision, the developer would be obliged to meet stipulated conditions, some of which preserved the street vista and governed setbacks. Plans would have to be reviewed and approved by the Zoning Commission before issuance of building permits, thereby ensuring that Techworld delivered what was offered during the separate street closing and zoning proceedings.
But months after Eighth Street was closed and conveyed to the development firm, Cecchi withdrew the planned unit development zoning application, choosing instead to develop Techworld under existing matter-of-right zoning. To the preservation league, Committee of 100, Zoning Commission and other public officials, this appeared to have been a calculated abandonment of the negotiation and accommodation process.
From Cecchi's point of view, however, there was no choice. He said that unacceptable conditions were being imposed. The extra density wasn't worth the risks, and design compromises that the planned unit zoning conditions entailed might make the project unfinancable.
Late in 1985, all parties were losing faith. With negotiations over design at an impasse, litigation seemed the only recourse. Last January, the preservation group and Committee of 100 sued, making these allegations: The D.C. City Council lacked the authority to close Eighth Street and convey it to a private developer because the original L'Enfant city streets and avenues (but not alleys) were federal property; under the 1973 Home Rule Act, the District government has no authority over federal "property." The suit asks the U.S. Department of the Interior to reclaim Eighth Street. Even if the court upholds the developer's and city's position regarding the closing and conveyance of Eighth Street, the city failed to protect Eighth Street's "landmark" vista. The plaintiffs allege that there is an implicit requirement for Zoning Commission review of Techworld's design, normally not required under matter-of-right zoning. Although the City Council's street-closing act makes no such stipulation, the suit argues that the council's action was predicated on planned unit development zoning with mandatory review by the Zoning Commission, and on the promises made by the developer during hearings and negotiations. The 1910 Height of Buildings Act -- which limits building heights to 20 feet more than the width of the street on which buildings front -- and the city's street plan were misinterpreted by the developer and the city government. Cecchi claims that 110-foot-wide K Street is "interrupted" by Mount Vernon Square, as if K broadened to encompass the square; in this case, K would be deemed 110 feet wide north of Techworld, allowing a building height of 130 feet. The opposing view is that K goes around the south side of the square and becomes 90 feet wide where it abuts Techworld, in which case Techworld's height could not exceed 110 feet.
Clearly, new issues have been raised, not the least of which are the meaning of home rule and the District's authority (and competence) in managing its own territory. Should the court decide in favor of the plaintiffs and the U.S. government, past and pending actions by the city may be in doubt. Equally regrettable is that this particular set of legal issues was never intended to be the anvil on which Techworld's shape and destiny would be hammered out.
The judge and attorneys won't be deliberating about massing, facade composition, scale or stylistic motifs. No briefs will be written about high and low buildings coexisting next to one another, or about how to merge new and old in a changing city. Techworld's fate and form will be settled in court for the wrong reasons. Matters of design, not law, are what really need debating, and that won't happen.
NEXT: Washington Harbour.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.