Housing Complex

Historic Review Board Member to JBG Architect: Go Back to Seattle

Last Thursday was the first day on the job for seven out of nine Historic Preservation Review Board members, and several of them wasted no time asserting their authority. In particular, they expressed concern over the size and modernity of developer JBG's plan for the empty lots on the south side of Florida Avenue between 7th and 9th streets NW, which is being designed by the Seattle-based architect Miller Hull.

DCMUD has an overview of the board's concerns, but they didn't include my favorite remark, from the bowtied Graham Davidson, a partner at classical architecture firm Hartman Cox. After warning of the "harsh" transition between a glassy, six-story building and the more finely grained neighborhood around it, Davidson said that Miller Hull's whole aesthetic was just too...Pacific Northwest.

"Your responsibility is not to create an icon...but most importantly to knit the neighborhood back together," Davidson said. "Knitting the neighborhood back together does not mean bringing west coast housing ideas to the east coast. And this still looks awfully like it belongs in Seattle."


The board ultimately decided to adopt the generally favorable staff report, with incorporation of their commends regarding height and taking more design cues from the surrounding neighborhood. So I doubt Davidson's comments will kill Miller Hull's entire concept. They also won't impact JBG's architectural choices on its Atlantic Plumbing site, for which it's holding a competition between four firms, since it's outside the U Street Historic District. As Urbanturf noted last year, that area is already turning into a modernist enclave, and some more ideas from the other side of the country can't hurt.

  • http://twitter.com/elcolin Colin

    God forbid we have some architectual diversity.

  • RT

    Thanks, Mayor Gray, for appointing a bunch of NIMBY dinosaurs to HPRB. Really moving the city forward.

    I find it particularly unbelievable that on an empty plot on a not particularly historic area of U Street (adjacent to a non-historic, modern part of U) that HPRB still tries to impose its will. I thought they didn't like historicist designs for new buildings since they never come close to the details of the originals? Or is it just that they prefer derivative moderism that vaguely mimics the look of historic rowhouses?

  • dave b

    Can this board be renamed the Board of White People Problems?

    (note: I am white)

  • http://thegreatermarin.wordpress.com/ OctaviusIII

    What we need is a bit more of San Francisco painted lady Victorian West Coast love. Put some of that woodframe historicity on Florida.

  • c stevens

    The sad part is miller hull doesn't really do strong work like this in Seattle. They're multifamily projects in Arizona, Chicago and this proposal exceed nearly all work coming out of that office the last 10 years.

    But Davidson is still an idiot.

  • Adam

    RT speaks my mind. I guess this board thinks empty lots are DC's truest architectural heritage, besides our beloved abandominiums.

    No wonder the rent is too high.

  • Water balloon

    To be fair, that is an incredibly ugly building in that photo.

  • http://tsarchitect.nsflanagan.net цarьchitect

    The rendering would be much more elegant if it were not rendered in SketchUp, and also if it showed the affect the architects want to create.

  • Bryan Shiles

    Its so sad that DC chose a retrograde path of development. The idea that cities freeze at some point in their existence and look backwards pays a disservice to future generations. Why in the world should new building need to look like old ones? London, Barcelona, Amsterdam and others are cities where history is revered along with the future. London is a city where modern architecture weaves with ancient without resorting to historical pap. The result is a dynamic urban fabric that speaks to diversity and opportunity while making the past an active participant in the future, not a stultifying delimiter. DC, well not so much. DC would do well with a dose of Miller Hull's lovely Seattle.

  • Lance

    The comments above (as well as the article) underline the misunderstanding of what the preservationists are looking for. It's not that the building is all glass that is objectionable, and it's definitely not that it's modern. As most preservationists will tell you a building should look like it is 'of its time'. The problem here with this building, which I think we'd all see if we sat down and imagined it in its context, is that it tries to 'stand above' its surrounding rather than being a part of them. And being a part of them doesn't mean having to be a recreation of the past. Actually, that would be worse than what we're seeing here. Being a part of them simply means that the building needs to follow the same rythm of the street (for example, if most of the facades are 20 feet wide, then the building should have something in it facade that makes it look like a series of 20-something foot wide facades rather than one long monolithic block which this is ... like FBI building ...). If the existing buildings are street friendly (i.e., storefronts) than so should this building be. If the existing buildings have a regular skyline (rather than this 'strewn box'look) than it should too. (And that strewn box look IS very west coast ... NOT east coast). I.e., No one is asking that the past be recreated ... simply that the fundamental elements of the design of the past, which define the 'look', be similarly incorporated into this building so that it's part of the streetscape and not set apart from the streetscape as happened with the FBI building because it didn't try to be part of what was already there. I think we're in violent agreement as to what should be going in there, but that there are a lot of misunderstanding about what those charged with protecting our historic districts are asking for.

  • xmal

    Hi Lance---Thank you for the elaboration! Helpful to know that there is a middle way.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.


    So, are you describing preservation masquerading as zoning? Sounds like it to me.

    This is nothing like the FBI building. Please.

  • Flora

    The more I hear about historic preservation, the less I respect it. DC suffers from monotonous expanses of low-rise housing and businesses in a mishmash of historicist styles. The natural course of a city's development is to grow denser--the only alternative is to continue to sprawl into West Virginia. And yes, that means taller buildings with smaller setbacks. Some of us--a lot of us--think big new buildings right on the street make for a more lively, walkable environment. It's hard to believe the NIMBY contingent stands for anything but inflating their own property values by keeping density artificially low.

  • Chris

    Mr. Davidson sniffing about "west coast housing ideas" and whining that the proposed design "looks like awfully like it belongs in Seattle" sounds familiar. Oh yeh, sort of like the anti-French mania a few years ago, with the w campaign saying that Senator Kerry "looks French" and renaming foods as "freedom fries" and "freedom toast". Demonizing France was bad enough, but Seattle?

    I look forward to poking around online and seeing what Mr. Davidson has designed for Hartman Cox. With some many boring office buildings in the city, I certainly hope that he is not responsible for any of them.

  • ghoy

    There's a counter argument to Flora and other's claim that DC is too nimby and protective of existing property values (apparently) based on not allowing height's to rise.

    It's this: If you want to live in NYC or Chicago with dense urbanism, DC is not the place for you. We don't have to be the housing savior of everyone who can't hack it financially in NYC but wants to live in Dupont Circle. Even Baltimore might be a better fit for your needs and, as an incentive, is in desperate need of young professionals.

    We could expand for decades eastward with the same density and height limits that already exist in most of the established western DC neighborhoods and still not be the worse off for housing. The only difference is that some people who can't afford it, won't get to live in on the exact block of their dreams. Boo hoo.

    It's whiny entitled-ness at it's worst to suggest that already over subscribed neighborhoods have to change their character to appease a handful of individuals that can't afford what they want, so they name call others to get their way.

  • Lance

    "the only alternative is to continue to sprawl into West Virginia"

    And what's wrong with that? What makes Washington so attractive to so many people is that it isn't NYC. It has breathing room, sunlight, parks, gardens, and the kind of things that cities end up losing when they get overbuilt. Building higher and denser just to cram more people in here doesn't allow more people to 'enjoy' Washington, it just destroys what Washington is. If that means people need to look to West Virginia ... or maybe instead Manhattan ... for what they're looking for, then so be it. To destroy what we have here so that no-one ends ups with the lowrise, medium density city which Washington is, would be like throwing the baby out with the bath water. It wouldn't serve anyone, current or future residents.

  • Gregory

    If the City Paper is going to write about architecture, it ought to better educate itself on the language associated with architecture and the architects about which it is writing. The venerable firm of Hartman Cox has produced some of this nation's better architecture during its existence. While many of its buildings evoke a more traditional massing and use of materials than many other firms, the use of the word, "classical" is not an accurate description of the firm. Possibly one of the best and most enduring buildings built in post-war Washington is the Euram Building built on Dupont Circle in the early 70s, hardly classical in the pure sense of the word, but clearly an appropriate insertion into the historic district.

  • http://alexblock.net Alex B.


    The fundamental error in your thinking is the idea that cities and neighborhoods are ever static. That's never been true in the millennia of urban human settlement.


    Building higher and denser just to cram more people in here doesn't allow more people to 'enjoy' Washington, it just destroys what Washington is.

    This is fundamentally untrue, of course. Plus, it's not like this particular project is cramming anyone in - we're talking about a whopping six stories.

    To destroy what we have here so that no-one ends ups with the lowrise, medium density city which Washington is, would be like throwing the baby out with the bath water.

    Sure, destruction is bad. The problem is that none of what you would oppose is actually destroying anything. We're talking about infill development on a vacant lot here.

  • Bryan Shiles

    Thanks for the thoughtful response, Lance. And yes, I suspect that there would be some agreement amongst the contributors to this string. However, you head down a path that I believe is more mimicry than critical urban design. Why should one building look like a series of individual store fronts to mimic a zero lot line plot reality that is no longer in place? Or, why should a frame building replicate the rhythms of a bearing wall tectonic no longer useful for the building type? I would rather see the street defined in terms of rhythm, scale, tactility, etc that is thoughtfully tied to the current realities of the economic forces which shape our cities and the construction methods deployed. I bet we'd agree on a lot of elements that make a good street, but I believe language is important too and I believe rhythm mimicry and some other tactics championed by those who are in a position to censor our cities leads us down a nostalgic path.
    I'm not do sure the "strewn box" (nice label!) thing is so west coast. That's one of those uber motifs making the rounds. I'd say the progenitor for the strewn box in this country is probably SANAA's New Museum in Manhattan via Tokyo. But in any case I'd say that DC should be an international city and welcome influences from outside it's borders.

  • Flora

    #15, #16: I could just as easily say, if you don't like the natural process of densification that's going on in DC, maybe you should move someplace like Detroit, Cleveland, or any of the thousands of US cities where hardly anything is taller than two stories and you can always find a place to park. If enough of you are successful in choking the life out of DC's urban renaissance you may find that your property values end up looking like Cleveland's or Wichita's, too.

  • Lance

    @Flora, Your assumption about property values couldn't be anymore incorrect. If current homeowners were looking to profit from their properties (i.e., see them go UP), they'd be jumping on board with the developers to build ever higher. Why? Cause a property where you can legally build 20 stories is worth a lot more than a property where you can only build 10 stories. But the fact here is that for most of us we're more concerned about maintaining a quality of life over how much we can wring out of our properties ... Because to do the latter would require selling our properties. Your false assumption is leading you to assign motives on people which are not only not accurate but not fair.

  • ygogolak

    The Architect didn't come to the developer and tell them how tall the building should be, it's the other way around. With that being said, the review board should be speaking to the developer, not the designer.

  • Lance

    @ygogolak, If the Review Board was speaking to the designer it's only because the developer asked the designer to represent them at the hearing ... And I don't think height was part of the issue here ... we were discussing density and I just gave height as an example ... not related to this specific project.

  • Nathaniel Martin

    I am sick and tired of the knee-jerk HPRB. This is not the 19th century! DC needs some good, environmentally responsible, progressive architecture and U Street is the perfect place for a really innovative building! Fire Graham Davidson and the rest of the fuddy-duddy HPRB members!

  • Steven

    The idea that a new building has to replicate the rhythm of surrounding buildings or match their materials in order to fit in is ridiculous. Have you ever been to Paris? Or to any of the world's most glorious cities? They are full of diverse buildings, many of which broke from their predecessors in scale, proportions, and materials. They all work together when they share key characteristics -- namely, that they are GOOD and they are OF THEIR TIME (and they are united by coherent streetscape plans and other peripheral factors). Just because nearby streets have a certain standard lot size doesn't mean a new building on a more prominent site needs to copy the rhythm of those adjacent sites. DC has a height limit that will prevent anything that is grossly out of scale from being built. For heaven's sake, let the architects design a building that makes sense in its own right and isn't bound by the building methods and material choices that were dictated to architects a century ago.

  • Thayer-D

    Wow, you say something dosen't look like it fits in and people start calling for more diversity, as if there was a shortage of glass buildings in this town. I know Lydia is a fan and koodos for being up front about that, but here's a round up of the hyberbole.

    NIMBY dinosaurs
    the Board of White People Problems
    Davidson is still an idiot
    ...talk about awaiting moderation!

    They didn't express concern over the "modernity" of this project, they rightfully expressed concern over how indiferent it is to it's context. Modernism is not modernity, it's a 80 year old style that is as historicist as any other. This building is just plain ugly and it's nice to see we have some people on the board that can actually say that.

  • De-Ziner

    You mention Hartman-Cox's Euram Building, which I like, but that was designed 40 years ago. For the past couple of decades, the firm has been churning out uninspired, mostly classical pastiches.

    Invoking the FBI Building? Really???

  • Thayer-D

    Is there such a thing as modernist pastiche?

  • Scott P.

    Davidson's comment is simply ignorant. Maybe he can (and should) learn something from Miller Hull?

  • maktoo

    The FBI Building is not worth fussing over, but it IS a good example of what to avoid. It was a vanity project pushed by Hoover himself, and its non-exterior grade concrete is rapidly deteriorating (note the netting on the outcropping and caution tape below). The Bureau has until 2014 to move out, and I doubt the GSA will be keeping the eyesore on such valuable downtown land. Look for a fabulous demolition and the beginning of the end of Brutalism in D.C.


    On topic, I don't mind an airy glass facade on the building in question, but I'd like it to have more visual interest.

  • Dave

    "What makes Washington so attractive to so many people is that it isn't NYC."

    Yes, and a 6 story building along U Street will do exactly NOTHING to change that. Only in DC do people shit bricks over 6 story buildings.

  • Robert L.

    I am very disturbed after reading this article. More specifically, Graham Davidson's comments ruin the reputation of DC architects. Is he abusing his power/community voice? Threatened? Jealous of Miller+Hull's design? All of the above? This type of ignorance sours architectural discourse and only hinders well executed architecture in DC. Having practiced architecture in Washington for a number of years, I find the project contextual, handsome, and refreshing.

  • ygogolak

    I agree with your response. I didn't say you had a problem with the height, the review board did. It's a shame that the designer has to be viewed negatively for doing what a client has asked of them. They do have some responsibility to the neighborhood, but they also have a duty to their employees to pay them.

  • http://tsarchitect.nsflanagan.net цarьchitect

    Is there such a thing as modernist pastiche?

    Yes. This isn't it.

  • http://tsarchitect.nsflanagan.net цarьchitect

    Well, actually, I do dislike the way it pretends each building is a separate entity. So I'll give you that, T-Dawg.

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  • http://strassgefuhl.wordpress.com J.D. Hammond

    Hey, he didn't call the building a rapist this time.

    And yes, LOL @ the oppressive six-story building. I'm still trying to get over hearing someone pat herself on the back over opposing a "monstrous" 12-story "high-rise" some thirty years ago. Why is DC so neurotic about density.

  • Thayer-D

    Mr. Hammond,
    I was curious about the violent language you employed so I went to your now defunct blog "Straßgefühl" and found more of your violent imagery here http://strassgefuhl.wordpress.com/2009/08/21/deconstructing-neo-trad-again/

    "I just want to say that I love this house, because it’s like like punching Leon Krier in the face, repeatedly, in the most awesome way possible."

    You know we're talking about style right?

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