Housing Complex

Is Boring Better Than Ugly?

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"For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope." –Jeremiah 29:11

So reads a banner facing the corner of 16th and I streets NW, affixed to a concrete wall of the Third Church of Christ, Scientist. The thoughts that Washingtonians have held toward the Brutalist building have long been negative: Passersby find it unattractive, and the church itself finds it structurally deficient. But the future has been uncertain. When the church and the property owner sought permission to raze the building, preservationists objected, and the Historic Preservation Review Board voted in 2007 to designate it a historic landmark, meaning it couldn't be torn down. Then, in 2009, Planning Director Harriet Tregoning gave a little hope to the future of the building by overruling the HPRB and allowing the demolition to proceed.

And now, finally, the church at 16th and Eyesore is coming down. The Washington Business Journal, which reported the news yesterday that a development team recently applied for a permit to raze the Third Church of Christ, Scientist complex, calls it "the ugliest church in D.C." While Kriston Capps, an editor at Architect magazine and frequent Washington City Paper contributor, begs to differ in a series of indignant tweets, I think most Washingtonians would agree that the irregular concrete polygon is not only crumbling, but, well, fairly hideous.

The question is whether the office building that will replace it is any better. The developers, ICG Properties and the JBG Companies, have plans for a structure that's about as run-of-the-mill-downtown-office-building as they come: 11 stories, boxy and glassy, and bringing the skyline of the immediate vicinity to a flat plane. The only distinguishing feature is a spiky glass atrium above the entrance to the small church component of the new development. (JBG declined to provide a rendering, and every ICG voice mailbox seems to be full, but the Business Journal has a few renderings here.)

From a use standpoint, it'll undoubtedly be an improvement. The bare concrete walls of the current church do zero for street life. A narrow passageway along the church's west side feels vaguely dangerous. The new development will have ground-floor retail, something most of its immediate neighbors lack. And D.C.'s expensive downtown office market could always use more supply.

But aesthetically, is it an improvement? Is boring better than ugly? In our squat downtown, a little bit of height variety helps keep things interesting. The current church is no beauty, but at least it doesn't simply blend in with everything around it, as the new development appears it will.

At the risk of being a broken record, I'll just note that this is where a significant modification of the Height Act would help, provided it's accompanied by zoning that would encourage a varied skyline. Imagine a downtown where developers could add a few extra stories if those stories had varied architectural features, perhaps with setbacks. Right now, we can hardly afford to do that, since developers are so determined to capitalize on every usable square foot of space in our height-restricted city. But maybe, if the Office of Planning gets its way and federally imposed height limits are loosened downtown and removed elsewhere, we'll get some variety that'll allow the aesthetes among us not to long in some perverse way for the ugly but different structures of old.

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Photos by Aaron Wiener

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