Top D.C. Architect: City Skyline Is Boring, and It’s Not Our Fault
Casual observers of D.C. development would be forgiven for thinking that every new big building in the city is statutorily required to be designed by Eric Colbert or Shalom Baranes. The two architects, along with a small handful of others, to a lesser extent, seem to be behind just about every project in the city's booming corridors. And to the substantial portion of the city's population that finds D.C.'s architecture boring, it's tempting to blame the architects, starting with this prolific pair.
But Baranes says it's not his fault. As reported by Michael Neibauer in the Washington Business Journal, Baranes grew frustrated at a recent Zoning Commission hearing after the board panned his attempt to add a touch of skyline diversity to an office building on K Street NW, and he opened up on what's wrong with D.C. architecture. In a word: It's the regulators.
Zoning Commission approval is required for the 11-story building, at 2100 K St. NW, but the commissioners took issue with the embellishment Baranes proposed to conceal the mechanical penthouse. The discussion turned technical, centering on whether or not the structure counted as a tower, which is allowed to exceed the 130-foot limit under the Height Act—Baranes said it did; the commissioners said true towers are skinnier—but it hit upon a central point of contention in the debate over the city's aesthetics: whether or not the city and its regulators should proactively ensure a more diverse skyline.
Other cities, Baranes said at the July 31 hearing, specifically address skyline configuration in their zoning codes and through studies. "When you look at the Washington, D.C., skyline," he said, "it’s basically unaddressed. It’s kind of a leftover."
He added, "We should be thinking about ways of improving it, not as a result of some penthouse regulations that require setbacks and don’t really address the aesthetics at all, but I feel here we have an opportunity to actually address the aesthetics of the skyline and we took it."
But as long as the Zoning Commission doesn't take it, the skyline along monolithic corridors like K Street is likely to remain uniform and bland.
Colbert, in a 2011 Washington City Paper profile by Lydia DePillis, also shifted responsibility from himself somewhat, emphasizing that he builds to his clients' needs and desires. The result, DePillis wrote, is often "to produce the least offensive structure possible" because "it's what most clients want." Still, by his own initiative he doesn't take risks for the sake of taking risks.
“I don’t want it to be boring," he told DePillis of his architectural style. "But on the other hand, I don’t want to put ornamentation on a building that doesn’t have some practical foundation. It’s hard for me to explain, but some buildings seem to be just kind of swoopy, just for the hell of it. And we don’t have the luxury or the desire to do that.”
Clearly, D.C.'s regulators don't approve of needless swoops. But for the sake of a skyline worth looking at, a few more swoops might be just what we need.
2100 K St. NW rendering from Shalom Baranes' Zoning Commission presentation