Burdened by being at once an international symbol and an actual working city, the site of both great wealth and incredible poverty, the seat of national government and perhaps America’s greatest disenfranchisement–the District of Columbia, with a population larger than Wyoming, still has no voting representative in the Senate or House–Washington, DC, is a city whose marble columns and hallowed halls tell only part of the story. And, as is the tendency in America, it gets things about half right, starting immediately with its design.
Maligned in its day, Pierre L’Enfant’s 1791 regimented plan for Washington is now heralded as one of the best in the country, an urban grid at once orderly and unexpected that prizes wide boulevards, capacious parks, staggering vistas, and stately, angled avenues. If San Francisco makes you look out and New York makes you look up, Washington makes you look at Washington—self-regard being something of a local specialty. At each turn one finds an expansive plaza, a stoic facade, a granite monument, or the White House itself.
Yet for all the clever planning and snappy patter about historical preservation, the buildings in the District of Columbia can be remarkably staid. The multicolored row houses of Columbia Heights and the brick sidewalks of Georgetown easily outstrip more recent development, and with 45 separate historic districts, novelty rarely gets a chance to breathe. Even some of DC’s attempts at modernity ring false. The Richard Neutra house at the edge of Rock Creek Park and the I. M. Pei house in Cleveland Park fare well, as does the Hirshhorn Museum on the National Mall, but the Museum of the American Indian is a disaster of post-postmodern architecture (yet offers the best food on the Mall).
What then to make of this small, walkable, international, sophisticated city that is underfunded, underestimated, and, at times, decrepit? For answers, we turn to Martin Moeller, senior vice president and curator at the National Building Museum and a longtime Washingtonian.
You live in a fairly vibrant part of the city, just off 14th Street NW, near Logan Circle. What’s going on there?
It’s become something of a loft district. Much of the 14th Street corridor used to be auto shops, which tended to be pretty low buildings, maybe only one story high, so that’s where there’s room to build vertically. Plus, we have a Whole Foods. There was a whole letter-writing campaign to get it. Never underestimate the catalytic power of a Whole Foods.
Is it true that no building can be taller than the Capitol, except the Washington Monument?
Contrary to popular belief, the building height limit in Washington does not relate directly to the Capitol or the Washington Monument. The first legislated height restriction, from 1899, was drafted in response to the construction of a 160-foot-high private apartment building near Dupont Circle. Also contrary to common belief, the prevailing law does not simply set a single maximum height for all buildings. In general, the height of a building is limited to a figure equal to the width of the adjacent street plus 20 feet. The law does, however, set maximum heights. In most commercial districts, buildings may not exceed 130 feet. The law also contains a fascinating loophole that was largely overlooked for many decades: Towers, domes, and other vertical extensions may break the maximum height plane as long as they are purely ornamental.
Plenty of people think the height restriction inhibits growth. Do you?
The typical American downtown is a patchwork in which skyscrapers alternate with surface parking lots. It is unwalkable and it dies at night. Washington would have suffered a fate similar to that of Cleveland or Detroit had it not been for the height limits. The exodus of businesses and residents to the suburbs in the mid-20th century surely would have left a forlorn, spottily developed downtown had it not been for the height restrictions, which kept a literal lid on the development of any single site, and thereby preserved the fundamental urban fabric of the city. Washington is frequently hailed as one of the most walkable cities in the country. This is a testament not only to the consistent density of development throughout the city center, but also to its manageable scale. We can thank our height regulations for both.
Walkability is part of what makes DC wonderful. It also reveals its brand of weirdness, like the Khalil Gibran Memorial on Massachusetts Avenue, near where Cheney lives.
The typical visitor to Washington spends most of his or her time in highly ordered, controlled environments like the National Mall or Capitol Hill, while missing the diverse neighborhoods, lesser-known cultural institutions, and quirky local landmarks that punctuate the daily lives of residents. There are, for instance, an otherwise unremarkable couple of blocks of Corcoran Street NW that are peppered with delightful small metal sculptures—some freestanding in front gardens, others affixed to doors and facades—all by one artist who used to live on that street. To me, these modest works of art are as quintessentially Washingtonian as the Lincoln Memorial. They speak of a time when residents on that block knew the artist and were pleased to play a part in the permanent exhibit of his work. Sure, Washington has lost some of the eccentricity it once had—a dump row house that once bore a sign saying "The Embassy of Outer Space" is now an unlabeled, painfully yuppie domicile-but if people just look a little harder, they will find plenty of intriguing and quite strange tidbits lurking amid the manicured landscapes and polite facades of the capital city.
At the risk of you saying “the Capitol,” what’s the most important building in DC?
I always talk about the row houses. To a trained eye you can see that’s a Logan Circle row house, or that’s a Georgetown or a Columbia Heights row house. We have three or four distinct styles here and their scale is what makes them so special. The row house neighborhoods of Washington are so successful because they have lots of doors to the street. There’s this implicit mingling of public and private spaces along the sidewalks. Particularly with the bay windows that face the street here, usually right next to the front doors. The facades are flat in many of the row houses of, say, Philly or Baltimore, but in DC you have an irregular streetscape, with stoops and little yards. I should also note that I love the National Mall. Americans love to fill up their spaces with crap, and for all its flaws, I love the Mall because it’s a great big void.
DC has its modern monuments—Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, I. M. Pei’s East Wing of the National Gallery–but it’s still in love with marble columns. What is modernism’s place in our capital?
It’s very important for a capital to foster a range of ideas and attitudes, and a capital city needs to be influenced by progressive values, and that means theater, dance, music, all of it. This idea that modernism is a rejection of the past, something DC tries very hard to preserve, is absurd. Particularly now that we have this moral imperative that green design presents, it would be totally ridiculous to make a neo-Gothic cathedral; it’s a poor use of energy.Though we haven’t been as great lately, take a look at a lot of what went up here in the 1960s. Washington was a pretty progressive town. Take Philip Johnson’s Pre-Columbian Wing at Dumbarton Oaks.
Aaron writes the men's style column "The Pocket Square" for the San Francisco Chronicle and has written for the New York Times, the Times Magazine, Newsweek, National Geographic and others.