The D.C. Council has an opportunity to allow the District’s skyline to become as iconic as those of capital cities around the globe.
The city’s buildings now must conform to the 1910 Building Height Act and a slightly modified update that includes a new resolution on mechanical penthouses. While these modifications will have no meaningful effect on our skyline, the changes give the council an opportunity to revisit the issue and send legislation to Congress for further changes.
Sadly, it appears that, instead of seizing a moment to expand the District’s architectural horizons, the council will rubber-stamp Congress’s penthouse realignment language. This would prevent Washingtonians from considering not just the location of the skyline (should it be 40 feet or 90 feet or 130 feet above the sidewalk) but, more important, also the quality of the skyline.
Clinging to antiquated urban notions, the District’s building height regulations imagine a skyline filled with spires, domes and minarets. This 19th-century approach, once validating the civic or religious architecture thought best suited for urban horizons, has long been rendered anachronistic. Most U.S. cities have embraced skyscrapers and vertical urbanism, but Washington remains resistant even to revisiting the myriad complex issues associated with its horizontal approach.
As regulations now stand, the only building elements in Washington allowed to rise above a building’s permitted height are the architectural fragments represented by the spires, domes and minarets of yore — and air-conditioning equipment. Indeed, because our aspiration to stay cool is greater than our aspiration to express ourselves, our skyline is littered with unadorned sheds housing compressors, condensers and cooling towers. Visitors to any of our most coveted downtown urban spaces — from Washington Circle and Farragut Square to Mount Vernon Square and Sheridan Circle — who glance upward will see only 21st-century advances to air-conditioning equipment.
In medieval towns throughout Europe and in modern cities spanning the globe, skylines represent the tension and pulse of familial rivalry, capitalism, corporate narcissism and, not infrequently, architectural grace. The cornice or pinnacle of a building is where man meets nature and where artists and architects have exercised their most creative and imaginative instincts. Not so in Washington, alas, where the squat outlines of air-conditioning sheds offer a depressingly uniform roofline aesthetic.
The D.C. Council could direct its planning officials to articulate a vision for the city’s skyline that transforms it. Instead of a skyline defined by mechanical equipment, Washingtonians could look forward to buildings topped with artistic innovation and spirit. Without redefining building heights, the city could evolve its unique and elegant skyline aesthetic — one faithful to its horizontal nature but soaring in its capstone finishes.
By rewriting the ordinances that treat rooftop structures as elements that need to be segregated from the buildings on which they sit and requiring them to be integrated into a unified architectural statement, the council could give architects the freedom to build, burnish and bequeath a skyline that elegantly complements the historic national monuments that represent our heritage.
The writer is the founder of Shalom Baranes Architects.