Housing Complex

Column Outtake 1: The Next Frontier of Preservation is Modern

Tiber Island coop, potentially historic. (www.tiberisland.com)

My column this week makes the case that preservationists are in a difficult spot, since many of the city's most charismatic buildings and neighborhoods have already been saved. But as time progresses, the definition of what we consider "historic" also changes. That window is usually understood as about 50 years, which puts us in the early 1960s already. The biggest game in town during that decade was urban renewal in Southwest, clearing out African American neighborhoods to make way for gigantic new apartment complexes.

The city has a complicated relationship with that period. At the time, Nancy Metzger of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society tells me, the destruction of old rowhouses prompted Capitol Hill residents to organize to protect their own neighborhood, fearing the same thing might happen to them. The clearance resulted in the displacement of thousands of black folks to other parts of the city, many east of the river. And urbanists have long carped about the deadness of the single-use, towers-in-the-park planning scheme.

As the buildings near the end of their natural lifespan, those who'd be happy to see them go will come into conflict with those who consider them too valuable to chuck in the dustbin of history. There's certainly an argument for preservation: Designs for many of the buildings were selected through competitions that drew the top architects of the day. But so far, few have been individually designated as landmarks, and there haven't even been rumblings about making it into an historic district. Which, according to architectural historian Richard Longstreth, is a shame.

"I think that Southwest is a very important frontier," Longstreth says. "It should be seen as a precious asset, no less than Capitol Hill and Georgetown."

Any movement towards an historic district, Longstreth says, would have to come from the residents of Southwest themselves. Which leads to tinge of irony: The leading edge of preservation could center around the very neighborhood whose creation helped give birth to the movement in the first place.

There are lots of resources for this sort of task, of course. Tom Jester, an architect with Quinn Evans who's interested in modern buildings, would like to see a chapter of the international modernism preservation organization Docomomo in the D.C. area, and thinks Southwest could attract support from new preservationists.

"I think the younger generation is a lot more open to what history is. The temporal boundaries  in their minds aren’t so fixed as to what’s historic," Jester says. "They’re not as turned off by these buildings, and don’t think they’re ugly."

Well, we'll see about that.

  • Eric

    Uhh, I beg to differ about what the younger generation tends to think is ugly. Tom Jester might be surprised to note that it's not only baby boomers who think architecture from the brutalist, towers in the park period is largely garbage. We young people do, too. If we didn't, don't you think there'd be a greater influence of this kind of stuff in the types of buildings we're attracted to? We love modern, and we love mixtures of modern and classical. Architecture of the sixties is pretty much a throwaway item for us, at least in my experience. We'll deal with it if we have to, but not as long as we have the ability to move away from it.

  • http://tsarchitect.nsflanagan.net/ цarьchitect

    There are options besides "modern" and "classical."

  • Skipper

    There is nothing architecturally historic about Southwest, other than a lesson on how NOT to build shitty looking buildings that architects tell one another is really cutting edge.

  • Richard

    I'm not so much a fan of the buildings, but I am curious about the planning that took place in the area. The whole L'Enfant Plaza/SW Waterfront area is so unlike any other part of DC. I like riding my bike through the neighborhood to get a sense of another era.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/mr_t_in_dc/ Mr T in DC

    You can preserve the misguided, utopian planning concepts of the time on paper and in photographs, but to me, REAL historic preservation would have been to preserve the existing buildings and street grid back in the 1950s, not to preserve the perpetrators of the crime, so to speak. In general, I like pre-WWII buildings. It's not to say there aren't examples of good quality architecture from WWII to the present, but in general, buildings like Penn Station and the Singer Building in NYC should have never been demolished, and I will shed no tears if and when the FBI building or other Brutalist architecture is demolished.

  • http://www.studiosml.com Merarch

    Speaking as a Southwest DC resident and an preservation architect, I feel a lot of Southwest residents live here specifically because of an appreciation for Mid-Century architecture. I agree that the original Southwest was a huge loss, and no one would advocate the wholesale destruction of the neighborhood now. However, the Southwest we have today is one of the most successful and complete modern neighborhoods in the country and should be considered for preservation.

  • Cavan

    Don't preserve the scene of the crime. Preservation was designed to preserve good, not old. SW was the first example of replacing good with bad. Don't preserve the bad.

    Restoring the L'Enfant street grid would be the truly historically reverential course of action.

  • John

    This is why people loathe "preservation" as it has been done. We are now going to "preserve" a crappy structural design we know creates urban dead zones (as alluded in article) because it like...well...old and shit.

  • Michael

    I have this crazy idea for historic preservation: if you really like a building, purchase and maintain it.

    But I guess it's easier to for someone else to do that.

  • http://www.studiosml.com Merarch

    I'd have to disagree, Cavan. I'm not saying the old Southwest wasn't good, but the new one isn't bad imho.

  • Michael


  • http://greatergreaterwashington.org/cavan Cavan

    Isn't bad? Compared to what? Leesburg? Accokeek?

    It doesn't have an urban form. It's garbage. Don't force it to go as it's (mostly) private property. But don't designate something that doesn't preserve a sense of place.

    The goal of preservation is to enrich the community by preventing the demolition of buildings that create a unique sense of place or are exceptional examples of architecture for their day. The 1950's SW DC urban renewal is neither.

  • http://www.ncpc.gov William H. Herbig

    Balancing preservation and new development in Southwest is part of Architect Bing Thom’s talk on Oct. 18. At the NCPC Speaker Series session Mr. Thom will discuss his Arena Stage project; the Southwest neighborhood; and how future developments can build upon the community’s legacy of mid-century modern design.

    You are all invited to join the conversation, but space at the Embassy is limited. Here’s all of the details: http://conta.cc/oN5Av5

  • rusty

    I like some elements of the look of Tiber Island and some of the "must have been built in the 60s" low-rises in SW, but the overall use of space in the neighborhood is somewhere between poor and inexplicable, considering the neighborhood's proximity to large employment centers (both above the freeway and across the river).

    I'm not saying the answer is rip out everything and make it look more like Navy Yard, but granting a stay to a few iconic buildings while opening the conversation about the rest seems prudent.

  • Mr. S

    I firmly believe that the criteria used to measure the value of an historic building or district over the last 50 years should be changed for the same evaluation in the next 50 years. To simplify the discussion, I'd like to consider architectural, historical and associative significance of a resource. Associative is going to be increasingly difficult in the future, but this has always been the most tnenuous of the criteria. For instance, we've herd the phrase "Washington slept here." Well, that can of associative relationship will be difficult for modern day celebrities. Secondly, historical. With relatively few documentary accounts in the 18th and 19th century, a few key historical events are significant, and the resources associated with them can take on this significance. For instance, Civil War battle field sites. However, in the fast-paced era of the current and future times, who's to say what will constitute a truly important historical event? Lastly, architectural, well, this is clearly a very subjective issue. There are several issues to consider. 1) Many modern architects designed hundreds, even thousands of buildings. Which of the lot is significant? Which are totally forgettable? 2) Was the building recognized in its time as a significant architectural piece? 3) Has the building aged well and should it be considered iconic,? 4) Is this a technically sound building or does it have significant design flaws such as sagging roofs, uninsulated walls, and single-pane windows?

    Last, as we all consider sustainable design and ever decreasing energy resources, hard decisions will need to be made by individuals, cities and states regarding economic viability and long term service life. These factors have not generally been a part of the preservation vocabulary, so we'll all need to take a deep breath as we look into the future.

  • http://www.bfcollection.net Boris

    What we consider “historic” is often based on our emotional connection to a building, and is always subjective. Even if mediocre by appearance, some buildings give a sense of comfort in continuity, and attachment to a place. (Imagine this opening of a 2061 memoir: “I spent my childhood years at 22 West”. Nothing against SBA, I just spent 10 min sitting in traffic in front of the building).

    If a building is functional and is not falling apart, why not keep it as an example of ugliness. There is still plenty of room in DC to create truly modern architecture, modern because of the style, not the datestamp.

  • Jake

    The top historic "preservation" priority in Southwest should be the reestablishment of the L'Enfant street grid. Is it possible to save the worthwhile buildings while reconstructing the grid?

  • http://tsarchitect.nsflanagan.net/ цarьchitect

    Restoring the L'Enfant grid might be good for urbanism but it isn't preservation.

  • tom veil

    Good article. This cultish insistence that what's old is always good is why historic preservation has a bad name.

  • Robert

    Beauty is obviously in the eye of the beholder. I moved to SW DC because of the mid-century architecture and it's proximity to the waterfront. I think Tiber Island is an amazing complex that is in the process of becoming even better with a new master plan for renovations and the addition of solar panels. The complex won awards when it was completed and is listed in DC's Best Addresses. It is conveniently located to the Metro, shopping and new amenities. The entire neighborhood is only getting better. If my place was in any other major US city, I would never have been able to afford it. I consider myself lucky to live here. You can keep your crowded little row houses with no parking in Logan Circle and Dupont. There is room in this city for different ways of living and I choose SW.

  • Jean

    I've been active in historic preservation for many years and agree with Robert that a building/neighborhood doesn't have to be old to be good. We chose SW DC for it's livability and the Harbour Square complex for it's good design. If readers are concerned about SW preservation, they should join the conversation on planned redevelopment of the waterfront which is underway right now.

  • Pingback: Tiber Island, Harbour Square Could Get Landmarked - Housing Complex