Preserving Our Unique Capital City

Over the past week here in the Nation’s Capital there has been a fair amount of chatter about the possibility of raising the building height restrictions which have kept the  Washington skyline relatively low to the horizon over the past century.  Among a number of other commentators, Harry Jaffe had an opinion piece in the Washington Examiner explaining why this was all about greed, and Josh Barro gave his own views in The Atlantic as to why New York is a much better city than Washington, in part because D.C. has such restrictive building codes, including the height restriction.  As it happens  I have written previously about why height restrictions in D.C. should not be loosened in any way.  To paraphrase the Emperor Charles V, when he saw what had been done to the Grand Mosque in the city of Córdoba after Spain had been reconquered from the Moors, people are seeking to build something here which might be found anywhere in the world, and in the process will destroy something truly unique.

The first issue we have to confront head-on is an architectural one.  The heart of the ongoing design problem of the vast majority of contemporary architecture is its bland disposability. People tend to focus on unique and interesting-looking modern buildings, such as The Gherkin in London, and forget that these are the exception, rather than the rule, in architecture today.  No matter how high you build a tall building, 99% of the time it is never going to be much more than a box of kleenex stood on end. Even worse, occasionally you get something like the laughably awful Sony Tower in New York, by the grossly-overrated architect Philip Johnson, who tried to differentiate his box of kleenex from the others by putting a giant broken pediment on top, and only ended up creating a rather expensive bit of kitsch.

This is not to say that all tall buildings are uniformly awful. Architects of the 1920’s and 1930’s for example, managed to produce some interesting and lovely ones, such as the Chrysler Building and the American Radiator Building in Manhattan. Yet again, these are the exceptions, rather than the rule, particularly because the idea of integrated ornamentation that enlivens the skyline and makes us want to soar like a bird is a rare commodity these days. Either we get the steel and glass box in the colors du jour, or we get some half-hearted attempt at stretching out semi-traditional-looking architecture past the point of ridiculousness, like a Victorian shopfront wrung through a pasta roller.

As Mr. Jaffe points out in The Examiner, there is nothing to be gained by increasing building heights in the Nation’s Capital, apart from making money. Those of us who are not in one of the circles where such money will be made, but rather simply live in, work in, or visit this city, will suffer the consequences of higher rents and taxes, to begin with. Never mind the fact, by the way, that there is plenty of undeveloped or underdeveloped land all around the city where at the present time there are only unimportant one and two-story buildings waiting to be knocked down, and where new communities well-within the existing height restrictions could be built.

And with a precedent of adding two more stories to buildings in Washington, why should we stop there? Why not add five, or ten, or twenty? In other words, why can’t we just try to be like New York, as indeed Mr. Barro advocates in his article?

The point of course is that Washington is not New York – and thank goodness for that.  The real estate market is not always easy here, but on the other hand one does not to hire a real estate broker to try to snag an apartment at a ridiculously inflated price plus commission.  Nor does one have to settle for a dark railroad car apartment with no outside space, which looks out onto some alley on 7th Avenue.  Those of my readers who live in Washington know that it is not at all unreasonable to want and to get outdoor living space when one is house-hunting here – whether a balcony, terrace, patio, or even an entire back yard – which in Manhattan would be positively unheard of, unless one counts sitting on a fire escape “outdoor living”.

What makes the Nation’s Capital special is that when you look out across it, you see dozens of parks large and small, noble monuments to those who loved this country, and low, restrained buildings in various architectural styles such as Federal, Victorian, Beaux-Arts, Art Deco, International Modern, and so on.  We have hundreds and hundreds of magnificent, beautiful trees all over this city, lining our streets in ways which cities like New York could not even dream of attempting, now.  And with the trees in blossom during the past two months, in green leaf now, and with the autumn to follow, there is a vibrant, natural canopy over the entire town that makes it a wonderful place to walk, pause, and enjoy nature in ways which other cities, who have built too high, must concentrate only in a few central locations.

Anyone who has visited Manhattan for example knows that, as exciting a city as it is, at least for a few days, it is very easy to feel a sense of darkness, claustrophobia, and malaise within a very short period of time. Most of the gigantic buildings that make New York so lovely from a distance are actually rather oppressive up close. For every beautiful Chrysler Building there are dozens of unremarkable concrete boxes that provide no shelter to the passerby, block the sun and air, and are distinguished only by their dirt and ugliness.

Those cities which have tried to copy New York City, assuming without foundation that it sets the standard for how all cities ought to look, usually end up ruining much of their unique character in the process.  Take a look at whatever vista you can manage from street level in cities like Philadelphia or Shanghai, and compare them to photographs of what these places once looked like before they Manhattan-ized themselves, and you realize that there is an appalling sameness to all of these places now, which were once beautiful in their own way.

Moreover, the reasons why you have to fit so many people onto the island of Manhattan or other urban centers do not exist here in Washington.  The only industry in this city is the Federal government: there is no shipping, manufacturing, finance, publishing, entertainment, etc. to really speak of, certainly as compared to New York City.  Why do we need to make ourselves look like a city with which we have virtually nothing in common?

Even with large, grand buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue, or glass office blocks along K Street, there is still a feeling of the small American town about this place.  You walk under the trees, rather than under giant buildings funneling dirt and debris through murky canyons and down into your eyes, your skin, and all over your clothes.  Anyone who has wiped their face with a white towel after stepping off the street in Manhattan knows exactly what I mean.

As I see it, Washington’s strength as a city is its relative smallness, and its human scale.  The tallest and most prominent buildings inside this oddly-shaped former parcel of Maryland are those which speak to the nobility of what man can achieve when he acts selflessly, rather than when he celebrates his own powers of acquisition.  I hope that Congress continues to see sense, and leave the Nation’s Capital the way it is.  Flawed it may be, but it remains uniquely beautiful.

View of tree-covered Washington from the National Cathedral

6 thoughts on “Preserving Our Unique Capital City

  1. I do not understand the objections to the limited raising of the height limit outside of the downtown area. The proposal leaves a large area around the Capitol and the mall off-limits, so that would remain. Taller buildings, if the market supports them, would allow more people to enjoy city-living. To deprive people of this choice simply to preserve a vista is unwarranted. If you fear missing the vista, take a picture, frame it, and hang it in your room.

    Finally, Jaffe’s article has no argument about why the drive to build taller buildings is driven by greed. Isn’t it just as easy to say that the drive to keep buildings low is drive by the greed of the owners of parcels of land that only get looked at because people can build nowhere else?

    This drive to control people merely for aesthetic reasons is troubling.


  2. Excellent piece. Anyone who has lived in cities like Copenhagen, Munich or Amsterdam as well as cities like London and New York, Shanghai, Jakarta intuitively understands this – and no wonder it is reflected in the quality of life stats year after year after year. The best cities to live in are all European / Canadian / Antipodeian, where maintaining a human scale and a living town centre (as opposed to high-rise office towers to commute into/out of) remains central to city planning.


  3. Thank you for this well-written, sensible, reasonable essay. As a former resident of both DC and Manhattan, I agree (though Manhattan isn’t quite the dark, grimy place you describe, to New Yorkers at least).

    There is simply no reason to raise the height limits in DC, and many reasons not to. Paris is struggling with the same issue right now and is at risk of losing its UNESCO World Heritage status if it proceeds with the eyescapers being proposed.


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