After touring Washington Harbour, the $200 million mixed-use real estate complex on Georgetown's Potomac waterfront, I asked Arthur Cotton Moore, its architect, a loaded question. "After doing this," I said, "what's left?"
Who could not wonder at the aesthetic and economic chutzpah obviously shared by the architect and his client, a development venture headed by Western Development Corp. Practically every conceivable architectural motif, compositional tactic and constructural element is represented.
Stylistically, Washington Harbour is at once historicist and modernist, classical and romantic. Its allusions are Greek and Roman, Renaissance and baroque, Gothic and Victorian, art deco and nouveau. Each facade, of which there are many, has its own theme with surprising variations thereon.
On the project's more classical river side, columns of varying height form colonnades disengaged from the building's walls. Stylized capitals are really bent sheet metal slipped around the tops of columns. If you squint, they vaguely suggest the Corinthian order.
Beige and brown brick, plus pale beige limestone, establish a consistent pallet of basic wall colors on all facades. From a distance, the brickwork looks simple and plain. But a closer look reveals projecting and recessed brick courses, specially shaped bricks, and subtle changes of plane.
Brick piers and pilasters, or pilaster-column combinations along the Virginia Avenue walkway, appear to brace walls. Look higher and you'll see contemporary versions of flying buttresses. On the east facade is a unique set of white columns, tapering from top to bottom, which frame and embellish ventilation grills.
Only some of these traditionally "structural" elements are structural. Many are primarily ornamental, the actual structure being a standard reinforced concrete column and flat-slab system.
Scattered throughout are arches ranging in span from a few feet to dozens of feet. Most semicircular arches frame windows or wall apertures, but a few flat arches stretch across facades like giant eyebrows. A neo-Romanesque arch, at first appearing to signal an entrance to the building from the east, serves only to surround sections of fixed glass.
Dozens of brick chimneys, with corbled caps and fluted sides, bristle skyward. Roof terraces and balconies at numerous levels are edged by a variety of brick parapets and metal railings. Sloping metal-covered roof surfaces bend upward at divergent angles. White domes in assorted diameters pop up at key points to cap conference rooms, circular offices or rotunda-like living rooms. On the north and west facades, sloped glass walls create a kind of inset mansard roof effect.
Classically inspired pediments and gables are in ample supply. Periodically, a cornice fragment, rather than a parapet or railing, sits atop a wall. Decorative scrolls and brackets intermittently adorn facades. High over Thomas Jefferson Promenade, cantilevered walls have deeply incised horizontal joints recalling the "rusticated" stone bases of neo-classical buildings -- but transposed from basement to attic.
Window and door types are countless. There are windows "punched" into brick walls, continuous horizontal ribbon windows, wraparound windows in circular and polygonal oriels, sliding glass and French doors. Windowsills vary in height and are sometimes curved. Most window and door frames are dark green, but here and there you see polished brass or dark bronze.
Fenestration patterns -- the spacing, rhythm, size and proportion of windows placed in walls -- change freely as whim or circumstance warrants. For example, on the easternmost portion of the K Street facade, each of the six bays of the building is different. In one story, this resulted in five different window widths in six different groupings, while windows in the story below follow still another pattern.
A network of metallic tubes and decorative connections, overlaying and framing the glass wall of the Potomac Restaurant facing the river, is an ornamental salute to 19th century cast-iron pavilion architecture. Another salute is made by metal and frosted glass canopies above the office building lobby entries.
Paved surfaces and steps are patterned with brick, granite, flagstone and ceramic tile. Cast-iron drainage grates have curving slots remindful of sinusoidal shapes seen elsewhere.
Originally, the buildings framing Thomas Jefferson Street were equal in height and symmetrically composed. But the mix of office and residential space, requiring slightly different floor-to-floor dimensions, was unequal. Consequently, the buildings ended up being slightly different in elevation so that matching elements on opposite sides don't quite match up.
How does one finally interpret this incredible diverse, complicated, at times overwhelming architectural collage? Exactly what were architect Moore's and his clients' intentions?
Washington Harbour was meant to be and look like a city in miniature, a seemingly random, picturesque assembly of pieces that would belie the enormity of its nearly 1 million square feet. It was meant to recall the roofscape not of a few buildings, but of a whole town or urban neighborhood.
Moore wanted some amount of visual regulation and standardization, but not a megastructure. Thus, he aggressively imposed disparity, as if many independent minds, loosely orchestrated, designed different building segments the way cities are created.
The architect also hoped that Washington Harbour would be a visual echo of Georgetown, presumably accomplished by borrowing forms from Georgetown's bayed and turreted buildings, but with liberal interpretation and application.
Cutting Washington Harbour into several buildings by extending Georgetown's street network through the site and down to the Potomac was a masterful stroke of urbanism. And further fragmenting the scale of each building through changes in massing, materials, colors, stylistic motifs and decorative details most certainly disguises building bulk.
But excessive inflections and multiplication of gestures can distort perceptions, actually making things look bigger rather than smaller and more personal. In fact, at close range, Washington Harbour's pedestrian spaces and busy building facades look colossal, their proportions imparting a feeling akin to walking down a Manhattan street instead of a Georgetown street. Thus, despite intended references to Georgetown's architecture, the overall imagery of Washington Harbour is not Georgetown.
Perhaps the development is most notable not because of its aesthetic affectations, but rather because of its astounding architectural exuberance. With complexity at times bordering on chaos, this ad hoc formalistic display enthusiastically breaks architectural rules left and right while positing few rules of its own. That a profit-motivated commercial developer would accept, finance, build, and market such an unconventional, costly architectural extravagance is in itself extraordinary.
Indeed, Washington Harbour may prove to be among the boldest, most optimistic cultural symbols of 1980s' American materialism and laissez-faire ideology, the crowning achievement of stage-set, anything-goes design.
It lavishly houses the rich and super rich, along with prestigious office tenants and pricey boutiques. Yet it also invites and accommodates any and all citizens as it connects itself willingly to the city's streets, parks and river. Catering to the prosperous and privileged, its architecture and urban design nevertheless seem pluralistic and democratic.
A project looking like this probably never would have been contemplated 10 years ago, and there may never be another like it. Washington Harbour and its unique site offer little opportunity for an encore.
NEXT: Back to Suburbia -- Shopping Centers. Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.