Cityscapes are often testaments to past eras of prosperity. And years from now, the sight of all those glass boxes around Washington will clue visitors to the flush times here in the early 21st century. The building boom that began in 2005, with a brief intermission during the Great Recession, is not quite over yet. But along with tens of thousands of new residents, it has changed the face of the city.
In 2014 alone, the District added nearly 7,000 residences, the most since the Washington D.C. Economic Partnership began keeping track in 2001. Office construction peaked in 2009, but since 2001, the city has added an average of 3.9 million square feet a year.
The commercial architecture of the new Washington skews modern but stops short of avant-garde. There is no equivalent of the new Whitney Museum in New York or the instantly iconic Seattle Public Library.
“There’s still a bit of timidity to the design to much of the commercial architecture in Washington,” said G. Martin Moeller Jr., author of the 2012 American Institute of Architects Guide to the Architecture of Washington, D.C., and editor of Architecture DC magazine. He attributes the city’s deficit of daring partly to the building height limit — which he supports — but mostly to a lack of vision. Developers often build with top-dollar tenants such as law firms and associations in mind, which may not be up for an exterior of undulating titanium. “Without patrons interested in cutting-edge design, sometimes developers can’t justify spending extra money on more elaborate designs or sacrificing more developable space,” Moeller said.
That may be changing. In a survey of Architecture DC magazine’s 20,000-plus readers about what sort of architecture they’d like to see in Washington, “by far the thing people want to see is modern and progressive design,” Moeller said.
Some of the most interesting projects are still on boards. But there are plenty around now that have something to say. Here are 10, all younger than 10 years old, and what architects, architecture writers and locals had to say about them.
1901 Independence Ave. SE. Completed 2006
The late Michael Graves, perhaps best known for his whimsical whistling-bird tea kettles for Target, designed several buildings in Washington, including the Department of Transportation in Southeast, as well as the lighted scaffolding for the Washington Monument.
His sometimes-cutesy postmodern aesthetic is not for everyone. But it is hard to fault his achievement with St. Coletta, which serves adults with intellectual disabilities and operates a charter school for special-needs children. It is in a tricky location — on the eastern edge of Hill East, a residential area of modest Federal-style rowhouses and adjacent to the 1940s-era D.C. Armory and the campus of the now-closed D.C. General Hospital.
St. Coletta is closer in scale to the armory than the nearby rowhouses — three stories high and a block long. But it is not imposing or clinical-looking because the top half is broken into sections of different colors and shapes. As local architect Roger Lewis put it, “it looks like something kids would have put together if they had Lego blocks.” But the effect is not cloying.
“All the goofiness of his design makes sense there,” Moeller said.
Alison Lurie, author of “The Language of Houses,” tried to imagine what it would be like for a parent to pull up for the first day of school. “I would feel immediately reassured. It’s quirky, but it is so friendly and charming.”
7900 Tysons One Pl., McLean, Va. Completed 2015
The 22-story office building designed by the Washington office of San Francisco-based Gensler became an instant landmark. You can see it when you’re walking out of the Tysons Corner Metro station or driving toward it on Leesburg Pike or Chain Bridge Road.
Deborah Dietsch, author of “Architecture for Dummies,” described the tower in the Washington Business Journal as “more daring and dynamic than many buildings downtown.”
But the most interesting thing about the tower may be its location next to that poster child for urban sprawl, the three-story, 2 million-plus-square-foot Tysons Corner Center mall. Along with two other new glass-sheathed high-rises — including VITA, a striking, zig-zag-shaped luxury retail and residential building — the tower announces the higher-density, transit-oriented direction Tysons Corner is headed in now that the Metro has arrived.
The best part may be the pedestrian plaza that connects the high-rises and the shopping center and serves as the main entrance to the mall for Metro riders. Designed by Sasaki Associates and Rios Clementi Hale Studios , the plaza offers an inviting mix of green space, restaurants, fire pits, comfortable seating and a children’s play area. For warmer months, there are games such as ping-pong and a giant chessboard . In cold months, there’s ice skating. Most important, the plaza is suspended over multiple lanes of traffic, so you can almost forget the cars and asphalt beneath you, stretching for miles in every direction.
Bounded by New York Avenue, Ninth Street, H Street and 11th Street NW. Phase I completed 2013
CityCenterDC is still new enough and unblemished by years of smog or gum on the sidewalks that whenever I pass through it, I feel like one of those faux pedestrians that architects digitally insert into renderings. There is a Stepford quality to the six completed buildings, which Washington Post critic Philip Kennicott has described as “immaculately designed glass boxes ... defined by the ostentatious blankness of its surfaces.”
The master planner of the 10-acre site, the world-renowned Foster + Partners, worked with local firm Shalom Baranes Associates, which also designed two buildings. More buildings are planned. The existing ones hold condos, rental apartments, restaurants, offices and shops. CityCenter is a prominent monument to the sort of moneyed minimalism that has become synonymous with the city’s increasing affluence. Every store and eatery is high-end. Even Starbucks is too down-market for this place. The security guards are outfitted in suits and orange ties.
If you can’t afford the bread (or $19 hamburgers), there’s at least a bit of free circus. On the H Street end is the Gateway, a 25-foot-high by 50-foot-wide opening onto a courtyard between two residential buildings. Contiguous screens line the walls and ceiling, playing images programmed by media artist David Niles . One second, they can look like a hard surface, and the next, the underside of a water tank with bubbles floating up and over your head. Or dancers appear and twirl in front of psychedelic backdrops. The effect is a visual version of surround sound and a reminder that a little urban spectacle can go a long way toward making a place feel more vibrant.
2112 and 2030 Eighth St. NW. Completed 2015
New York’s Meatpacking District was the inspiration for Atlantic Plumbing, a pair of residential buildings near U Street NW at Howard University. Developer JBG chose architect Morris Adjmi based on his work on the Manhattan High Line, a 1.45-mile stretch of old train tracks that has been turned into a park. Just as the words “Meatpacking District” bring to mind the smell of spoiled meat and men in blood-smeared aprons, “Atlantic Plumbing” evokes industrial grittiness. The only problem is that grittiness is generally in short supply in Washington.
JBG and Adjmi got the name off a plumbing supply warehouse that used to be on the site. They saved old signs from the warehouse and used a gum-covered wall from the adjacent 9:30 Club for “an interior piece.” Adjmi told The Post last year: “I try to take artifacts and use them to tie new buildings to the existing neighborhood.”
Adjmi further indulged our desk-bound, paper-cut-induced fantasies of industrial chicness with buildings that resemble old warehouses. His most authentic flourish, however, may be the window frames on one building: They’re staggered to create a bricklike pattern. His inspiration were the brick storefronts and rowhouses nearby. The gleaming Atlantic Plumbing duo is unlikely to fool anyone into thinking they predate the 9:30 Club, much less the 1968 riots. But they make a striking pair that exemplify how much we love a throwback, even if we have to embellish.
101 N St. NW. Completed 2013
Dunbar will always have its storied history as the nation’s first public high school for African Americans, founded in 1870 in a church basement on 15th Street NW not far from the White House. In terms of architecture, however, the new Dunbar is everything the old one was not: airy, light-filled and state of the art. The building, designed by the Washington offices of New York-based Perkins Eastman and Columbus-based Moody Nolan, replaced a 1970s-era Brutalist concrete high-rise that former principal Stephen Jackson described as “built like a prison.”
The new four-story, L-shaped structure has an eight-lane swimming pool, classrooms with flat-screen televisions, a 29-foot-high window overlooking sports fields. There’s a senior lounge, a media room and an auditorium. It also has solar panels on the roof, geothermal wells under the football field and giant cisterns for storm water reclamation.
Ever since students began attending classes at the new building, the looming question has been whether any of it would help the school turn around academically. Throughout Dunbar’s history, there have been folks who believe architecture does influence academics and were upset when the Brutalist “prison” partially replaced a 1916 stately stone school in the ’70s. That view has gained more support with hindsight. The new design was inspired by the 1916 one.
“I think one of the things that we can learn is not to be so hasty to get rid of the old,” Alison Stewart, author of a history of Dunbar, told NPR in 2013. And Jackson told Architectural Record, “the students definitely will do better in this building.” He also made substantive changes such as lengthening the school day by 90 minutes and creating a Saturday academy for failing students. The results so far: In 2014, Dunbar posted the largest gains in standardized test scores of any high school in the city. Enrollment is also up.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the completion date was 2010. It was completed in 2012. This version has been updated.
This is not your standard office building. For starters, it houses a church on the ground floor and its immediate neighbor is the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library , the only building in Washington designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe , one of the biggest names in 20th-century modernist architecture.
The Mies is more or less a black box that takes up three-quarters of the block facing G Street NW. Since it opened in 1972, it has had more detractors than fans. Even the director of the library system refers to it as “unloved.” But by now everyone seems to recognize its landmark status, and renovation plans have touched off public bickering.
Knowing how touchy people can get about the library, D.C. architect Ralph Cunningham said he and his colleagues tried to be “very careful” incorporating their building near it. They made the lower part of their building out of a dark brick, in a nod to its neighbor’s black exterior, and as a way of separating the offices, which are encased in the glass part, from the new sanctuary below. (The structure that it replaced predates the library, and the church still owns the land on which the new building stands.)
Rising out of the brick base, the glass section pivots slightly toward the library, to make it seem as if it were “floating,” Cunningham said. The gesture also feels deferential to the Mies without being slavishly so. It’s sort of like taking note of but not staring creepily at a celebrity sitting next to you. Cunningham, who counts himself among the few fans of the Mies, said, “We wanted that historic building to have some air.”
3660 Alabama Ave. SE. Completed 2012
The D.C. Public Library branch in my neighborhood is slated for demolition, with its replacement expected to take two years to build. I am already impatient to see the final result after taking in the new libraries in Shaw, Tenleytown, Anacostia and Southwest — all very modern and light and airy inside. But for me, the standout among these standouts is the Francis A. Gregory Neighborhood Library at the edge of Fort Davis Park in Southeast.
The architect is David Adjaye, who also designed the National Museum of African American History and Culture that is set to open in the fall. Architectural Record aptly described the Gregory library as a “shimmering pavilion.” It’s a two-story glass-sheathed box with an aluminum roof that juts out over every side.
Interior walls cut into rows of diamond-shaped windows and mirrored glass panels. The checkerboard effect lets in light, and the reflection of the surrounding trees in the mirrored panels allows this glass and steel interloper to blend in with the leafy setting. Inside, the dappled shadows created on the floor further remind you of a walk through the woods.
Beyond the Beltway, “K Street” has become slang for lobbyists and, for some, political corruption. Around Washington, it has become synonymous with that architectural sin of sins: utter dullness. At K and 20th streets NW, Chicago-based architecture firm Murphy Jahn, now known as simply Jahn, has made an artful attempt to break the monotony. It designed two boxes — the main one that holds the offices and a skinnier one attached to the front— that supports a glass curtain. The curtain creates a sense of depth. It also pushes the entrance away from the street and turns the corner into something more than, well, just another corner.
If glass buildings are the khaki pants of D.C. architecture, this building is a pair of flat fronts in a soft olive shade. K Street might shake its dull rap if more buildings tried as hard as this one to be interesting.
1444 Irving St. NW. Completed 2014
As a condo or luxury rental, La Casa would rate better than average. As housing for the chronically homeless, it’s exceptional, and that’s even before you compare it with what used to be there: trailers on a lot behind a chain-link fence. Washington City Paper has called La Casa “a rare aesthetic and policy success.” It’s supposed to mark a new chapter in the city’s ad hoc shelter-dependent approach to homelessness.
It’s also a new take on the single-room-occupancy hotels, or SROs, which used to be commonplace starting in the late 19th century; they were closer to hostels or boarding houses. As they declined along with urban cores, they became associated with squalor, prostitution and crime.
In recent years, SROs have regained respectability with the rise of the small-space movement. SROs featuring edgy design can now be found in the Bronx and in Chicago. Design acts as a “stigma buster,” experts say. In a similar vein, the District required La Casa’s designers, D.C.-based Studio Twenty Seven Architecture and the Washington office of Omaha-based Leo A. Daly, to make sure the building looked like the upscale apartments and condos surrounding it.
La Casa is part of a “housing first” approach that, for example, does not require sobriety before a homeless person can be placed into housing. La Casa has room for up to 40 men, who also receive life skills, job readiness and financial management training. The biggest downside is that it does not come close to meeting the needs of the roughly 7,000 homeless people in the District.
2700 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE. Completed 2013
In 2010, the remaining patients at St. Elizabeths, the once-sprawling psychiatric hospital in Anacostia, moved into a new, smaller facility near the Congress Heights Metro station. By then, redevelopment schemes for St. Elizabeths’ 356 acres were underway.
The campus straddles Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue; the west side is owned by the federal government, and the city owns the rest. The U.S. Coast Guard moved into the west side in 2013, and the Department of Homeland Security is slated to join them. On the east side, Microsoft plans a training facility, and the Washington Wizards may also build one.
In the meantime, city officials wanted to integrate St. Elizabeths into the community, which is separated from the campus by a tall brick wall. The Gateway Pavilion and park inside the east gate is part of that effort. Designed by New York firm Davis Brody Bond, also the architects for the Watha T. Daniel Neighborhood Library in Shaw, the pavilion is about the size of a small supermarket and features a butterfly roof that slopes down on one end to ground level, making it look as if the place emerged from the grass.
A park runs the length of the roof, which at its tallest point is nearly two stories high. In the open space below are stalls and tables for a monthly farmers market and concerts. Its eco-retro design stands out among the red-brick Italianate and Classical Revival buildings on the rest of the campus, 16 of which will be preserved and reused. But that’s the point of the pavilion: to serve as a placeholder for what’s to come.
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