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D.C. Architects Support Changes to Height Act

One of the principal arguments employed by opponents of proposed changes to the 1910 Height of Buildings Act is made on aesthetic grounds: D.C. is an attractive city due to its low skyline, these critics say, and so allowing taller buildings will make the city uglier.

As it turns out, architects don't agree.

At a Wednesday meeting of the National Capital Planning Commission, Mary Fitch, executive director of the D.C. chapter of the American Institute of Architects, testified in favor of the city's proposed changes to the law, which would slightly raise the height maximum for buildings in the historic L'Enfant City and give D.C. and the Zoning Commission control over heights elsewhere in the city. The law, she says, restricts good architecture, and allowing taller buildings would "add visual interest to the skyline."

Architect magazine published more details yesterday of the AIA's objections to the current Height Act from an architectural standpoint. According to Architect, Fitch and AIA DC President David Haresign sent a letter last month expressing its concerns with the current Height Act to the National Capital Planning Commission, which along with D.C. is leading the study of revisions to the Height Act and has so far expressed reservations about meaningfully altering the law.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • crin

    Really. Architects support something that will give them more billable hours. Stop the presses.

  • Daniel

    @crin: Pretty much. Another way to put it: "Architects who design almost nothing but cheap bland crap for last 30 years in DC critical of 'bland architecture,' and place blame on height restrictions."

  • http://www.twitter.com/AdamLDC Adam L

    Blaming architects for "bland architecture" in D.C. is like blaming the construction of highways on engineers. You give someone the task to move 10,000 cars per hour and you get a freeway. Likewise, you give someone the task to fit 500,000 sq. ft. of space in a 12-story building and you get a cube.

    Add on top of that the many layers of design review from local citizens groups, the District government and, in the most significant spaces, the National Capital Planning Commission and the Commission of Fine Arts, and you pretty much strip any hope for anything exciting, new, or different. I'm not saying that's necessarily a bad thing in a city with such symbolic importance as Washington, but to blame design choices on architects is ridiculous.

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  • Fabrisse

    The visual interest is provided by the Monument, the Memorials, the bridges, and the Capitol Dome. From the time I was a child, my throat would catch when I first saw the Monument in the distance. I knew I was coming home.

    The blandification of DC has more to do with the US Commission on Fine Arts who discourage items of visual interest -- like balconies, decorated rooflines, and three dimensional signs -- than it does with height restrictions.

  • Alf

    "Add on top of that the many layers of design review from local citizens groups, the District government and, in the most significant spaces, the National Capital Planning Commission and the Commission of Fine Arts, and you pretty much strip any hope for anything exciting, new, or different. I'm not saying that's necessarily a bad thing in a city with such symbolic importance as Washington, but to blame design choices on architects is ridiculous."

    While I don't necessarily blame bland design on architects (after all, their clients are paying for the projects), I would note that there is a nearby place that is freer of such pesky review and where buildings can be taller (but not necessary less bland). It's called Rosslyn.

  • http://www.twitter.com/AdamLDC Adam L

    @Alf

    You're so right but for most its recent history Rosslyn was just an office park and builders had little concern for urban design. Washington, however, is the nation's capital. You'd think that with all the design and review in the city you'd have a push for better architecture, but instead it gets dumbed down.

  • JP

    DC has more iconic architecture than any other city in the country. There are at least 6 structures that most Americans would recognize as DC landmarks, more than the rest of the country combined. In addition, there are dozens of museums, gov't buildings, hotels, and office buildings that are absolutely beautiful and very distinctly DC. The residential neighborhoods north of downtown

    The same architects that built the iconic Rosslyn-Ballston skyline are complaining about bad DC architecture. Many of the new buildings in DC are bland, but the restricted height hides them from being seen from more than a block away, and more importantly, doesn't block the views of the iconic buildings and monuments.

    If the height restriction wasn't in place, DC would look exactly like Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, which is in the running for the ugliest skyline in the world.

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  • Bob

    I agree. Tall or not, the Rosslyn-Balston corridor is largely fuglytecture.

  • E.H.

    What I do not understand in the conversations so far is that the vast majority of buildings in DC are not approved by CFA or NCPC, they are local matters.  Neither NCPC nor CFA have approval authority over private development in DC. So why harp on CFA and NCPC as if they were the ones designing and allowing these buildings to be constructed?  And don't 99% of the other cities in the US have less restrictive heights - and the results are better there?! Vastly better architecture in those cities!? I learned in my college studios that as an architect there will always be constraints. My job would be to work within those constraints - whether they be budgetary, zoning, topographic, or something else.

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