News & Politics

What I’ve Learned: Arthur Cotten Moore

The Kennedy Center and FBI headquarters are awful, but one of the world's greatest buildings is here, plus lots of others that are interesting and beautiful.

Buildings I’d Tear Down

In 1965 we didn't have a Hirshhorn Museum, Holocaust Museum, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, East Wing of the National Gallery of Art, National Building Museum, Metro, Old Post Office Pavilion, Watergate, or Kennedy Center," says architect Arthur Cotton Moore.

"The Georgetown waterfront had a place that rendered dead animals. A nearby flour plant featured a sign explaining that 'the smell you smell isn't coming from here.' "

Moore, a sixth-generation Washingtonian, has worked in 38 cities. He's best known locally for two projects in Georgetown: the waterfront development Washington Harbour and Canal Square, a 19th-century industrial warehouse turned office and art center. Major renovations include the Old Post Office building, the Library of Congress, the Phillips Collection, and the former Cairo Hotel, now condominiums.

Moore, 70, grew up in a Victorian house with a barn off Connecticut Avenue in the District's Kalorama neighborhood, where the Chinese Embassy now stands. His father was a captain in the Navy. After St. Albans School, he attended Princeton as both an undergraduate and a graduate architecture student.

Moore's first book was The Powers of Preservation: New Life for Urban Historic Places; he plans another on his new buildings and has just finished a novel. He also designs furniture, for which he won an Architectural Record award for excellence, and is a painter. Moore has won more than 70 architectural awards and lectures around the world.

His wife, Patricia, works in their firm, Arthur Cotton Moore/Associates. A son by a previous marriage, Gregory, teaches physics at Rutgers.

In a top-floor apartment in the Watergate, overlooking the Georgetown waterfront, we talked about what he's learned.

What are your favorite Washington buildings?

Dulles Airport is probably the greatest building in the area–and among the greatest buildings of the 20th century.

Before Dulles, airports were boxes–utilitarian and not very handsome–like the additions to the old National Airport. Dulles expresses a sense of flight. It kicks out exaggerated, angular piers, which suspend that great roof and convey a sense of pulling against forces of gravity and tension. It's so dynamic, capturing the ideal of air travel. The airport tower, which is almost Oriental, balances the terminal.

Another favorite building is the National Gallery of Art. Its East Building, designed by I.M. Pei, shows how you can take a trapezoidal site and turn it into a play of triangles that work beautifully against each other. The workmanship is exceptional. The interior concrete was done with more loving care than most granite and marble. And the inside space is fantastic.

I also love the older West Building, by John Russell Pope, especially the serenity of the galleries with landscaped courtyards and skylights. It's pure classical temple.

The American Institute of Pharmacy building at Constitution Avenue and 23rd Street, also designed by Pope. That's a real gem.

For contemporary buildings, the Finnish Embassy, on Massachusetts Avenue, is terrific. Its trellis screen makes it almost a landscape solution to a building.

The new Realtors building, near the Hyatt on Capitol Hill, is a sliver that fits its site perfectly. It's very well executed, with real refinement of detail.

Some of our buildings aren't great but nonetheless interesting. The Museum of the American Indian is an example, though a disappointment inside. The building departs from Washington's classical mode by using a buff limestone called Kasota stone. Its structure is undulated, introducing a curvilinear element in the city, which is otherwise tight, square, and rigid.

Another is the Willard Hotel. Look at it from Pennsylvania Avenue and you see a papa bear, mama bear, and baby bear–trimmed-down replicas of the original building, done in an ironic way. That's very postmodern, to incorporate the design done by Henry Hardenbergh in 1901 into a 7/8-scale building adjoining the original and then an even smaller version.

Do you like the new Reagan National Airport?

Yes, Cesar Pelli did a good job on the terminal. I especially like the cathedral-like sense. Being relatively narrow and tall, it has a generosity of space. And I like its incorporation of art. Most buildings have "plunk art"–there's an empty plaza or corner, and someone plunks down an art object to fill the gap. The Reagan terminal integrates art into the whole structure.

I don't like its arches at the top. The roof is vaulted, made of pieces of steel, which aren't bent but done in segments. That bothers me–it appears rough, as though the building is stuttering.

What are your feelings about our more traditional landmarks?

Who would say the Lincoln Memorial isn't wonderful and inspiring? Though the Jefferson Memorial was considered wildly anachronistic when it was built, it too works beautifully.

I have great affection for the Old Post Office, perhaps because I worked on it, and the old Pension Building, now the National Building Museum.

Washington has fantastic interiors. The Capitol is so wonderful inside, as is the Library of Congress, which I worked on for 17 years–I came to love its magnificent spaces such as the Great Hall.

What are the city's worst buildings?

Techworld Plaza on DC's Eighth Street axis, just south of the old Carnegie Library, with that mirrored glass bridge. It was a spec building, built as a pure investment, which means as cheaply as possible, and it looks that way.

Then there's the Kennedy Center. It looks like a Whitman Sampler, with toothpicklike columns. That, too, was an economy project. Someone took three theater spaces and plopped them into a box, and that was it. Boxes are cheap.

The original design by Edward Durrell Stone looked like a pregnant banjo, but at least it had steps down to the water. Ever since the Kennedy Center was built, I've been trying to add steps down to the water.

What about the FBI building?

It creates a void along Pennsylvania Avenue. Given its elephantine size and harshness, it creates a black hole. Its concrete wall, with no windows or life to it, is an urban sin. People should be strolling down America's main street. Nobody strolls in front of the FBI Building.

I've long wanted to put panels for outdoor art onto its blankness, as is done in Paris, to infuse some activity. The FBI long refused, I assume because they suspected somebody would burrow through the wall.

The greatest threat to our city's beauty is the hysteria about security. It's crazy to surround our memorials with security apparatuses. The monuments are basically ideas. We have the plans for each one, so if someone blows a hole in one, we can fix it. But instead of taking a .001-percent–or even 1-percent–chance of a terrorist damaging them, we've adopted a 100-percent assurance of disfiguring them all.

The proposed bollards in front of the Lincoln Memorial would be horrendous. We don't need them, because the massive steps in front constitute a huge barrier. Who will ever be able to drive up those? You used to park and walk right into the Jefferson Memorial. You can't anymore–it's surrounded by concrete bunkers.

Our downtown office buildings are mostly square and banal.

Yes. Square windows are less expensive. But there are some exceptions. Washington Square, at Connecticut Avenue and L Street, has a glass atrium right on the street. Across from it is a ribbon building with a rounded front. It's a simple design that makes a very good building.

K Street buildings are victims of their times. The 1950s introduced a watered-down modernism, beloved more for its economy than for its beauty–hence the slew of what I call "accountant buildings."

Has the height limit been good for Washington?

Overall, yes. But the rule needs more flexibility, allowing modest infringements for design purposes. The rule came almost a century ago, after the Cairo Hotel was built on Q Street between 16th and 17th. It was the tallest building in Washington, around 150 feet–the first and last example anywhere of high-rise Egyptian architecture. When it was completed, everybody got so upset that the city passed a law to restrict the height of future buildings.

No taller than the Capitol?

No, not the Capitol. The rule was in reaction to the Cairo. Everyone was so stunned by it that they wanted nothing else sticking out like that.

Most other cities have taken a laissez-faire approach, ending up with lots of disconnected buildings with parking lots between them–as if Tysons Corner were a city's main downtown. There's no street life. People just drive and park, go to their offices, get out, and go back to the suburbs.

By keeping a lid on buildings, Washington forced the city's development to in-fill, so it developed to resemble a European city. Nearly all garages downtown are underground, which are expensive to build. Few other cities have done that, but having them above ground makes the garages block-killers.

What should we have done differently since 1965?

Gone ahead with the Frank Gehry extension on the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The board's refusal to do that was a great loss. The climate here is antithetical to avant-garde design.

Second, the new convention center was a missed opportunity. It should have incorporated retail spaces into the building. But the old convention center was a disaster, best blown up.

I'm pleased that the National Capital Planning Commission reversed its earlier decision and we're going to have Norman Foster's glass roof over the courtyard between the National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum, modeled after what he did for London's National Gallery. Over the central courtyard there, he put a fabulous, free-flowing glass canopy. What's helpful here is the fact that it had been done before–which again points up the conservatism in Washington. Only when it's been done once before does it find acceptance here.

What more needs to be done here?

We should use the river more. Rosslyn has a large population and more than 15,000 parking spaces, but there's no contact with the Potomac. I'd build a walkway down to the river from Rosslyn, and then have ferry service from there to Washington Harbour, over to the Kennedy Center, and back to Rosslyn. Look at Hong Kong, with its Star Ferry, or even the Staten Island Ferry.

This route is even shorter than Staten Island's. It would be such an easy, natural circuit. All those people in Virginia are almost trapped, denied access to the waterfront.

Before Washington Harbour, people didn't even realize they were living on a river. The Potomac wasn't part of the collective consciousness. Now we have regattas and dragon-boat races. The river is being used, with a lot of rowing and kayaking.

Soon there will be a park from Washington Harbour to Key Bridge and a nice new promenade down from Washington Harbour to the Kennedy Center. They've already raised half or more of the money. There need to be steps up to the Kennedy Center, with a ferry landing there.

Similar improvements are needed at the Washington Channel waterfront. I worked in an office on that waterfront years ago–there are now chainlink fences everywhere.

New projects on the Washington Channel are part of the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative. On the Anacostia itself, there's a great opportunity to link St. Elizabeths Hospital–which has an Arcadian campus, abandoned now–to the waterfront. There are wonderful possibilities there.

What do you think of putting the stadium there?

I like where RFK Stadium is–it's magnificently situated. I'd simply remodel it into a first-class stadium. It's close to downtown and has a Metro stop plus lots of parking.

There's a push to remake South Capitol Street into a grand boulevard. I'm doubtful. The Southwest Expressway and all the main-line trains cross over right below the Capitol. And I wonder how catalytic the stadium will be. Plus, a stadium's not the ideal use of a valuable waterfront. A stadium can go anywhere. Few people come to the ball game in their boats. In that area, we need a real waterfront–as in Vancouver.

What's interesting outside of the District itself?

Reston has turned out surprisingly interesting. It has a real urban feeling, a sense of town. The Lake Anne Village was a fine design–architecturally excellent, with houses along the lake so people can have a boat or at least enjoy waterfront living. The Reston Town Center has real dynamism.

I've likewise been impressed by Ballston and Bethesda, which has become so sophisticated. When I was growing up, it was a place to go for used furniture.

How about all those McMansions in Potomac and elsewhere?

I'm surprised anyone would want to live in them. Why have a gigantic house right next to a gigantic house? Many are quite awkward and malproportioned.

How can architects and designers create a feeling of community?

What was called "the new urbanism" should now be dubbed "the new suburbanism." Its contribution was to place houses right on the streets, to give personal involvement with the street. To have a friendly place requires facilities that are friendly to pedestrians.

But you also need a sense of small-town authenticity. In the 19th century, a town square had a church, a general store, and most important, a basic economic dynamism to it. You need to feel that the place–even a modern place–is not something cooked up yesterday. It must feel as though it has roots in the past.

Instead of building in a cornfield, these new developments should be wrapped around an old village, making a core that would give the overall project a sense of authenticity.

What have you learned about life?

That hard work pays off. If you love your work, that's a great luxury. At the same time, take time off. Enjoy yourself.