You can’t sit in an office and ask the city’s resident expert on architecture to critique Washington’s good, bad, and ugly. So Ben Forgey and I roamed in search of his favorite—and least favorite—buildings.
Forgey was the Washington Post’s architecture critic for a quarter of a century, from 1981 until he left the paper in 2006. In his Cityscape columns and reviews, Forgey charted Washington’s architectural landscape as it grew from a downtown of windowed cubes to a canvas for some of the world’s greatest architects. He covered the construction of three new monuments on the Mall, the rebirth of downtown DC, and the chilling effect of post-9/11 regulations on good architecture and design.
Forgey’s columns managed to be both erudite and accessible; his affection for the city always came through.
For our tour of Washington, we began with a simple question and drove through town on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
What are your favorite places in Washington?
We’re heading toward one of them, the Lincoln Memorial. This classical temple is indeed lovely to look at, but it’s not just an isolated pretty building. The building was designed for a particular place, and that place was created for it. Each is the complement to the other; the landscape and the building are really inseparable in terms of their physical presences and their symbolic messages.
Why is this your favorite spot?
I’ll tell you one reason: because of the brevity of the inscription behind Lincoln on his throne. “In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.” It takes your breath away every time you read it.
What about the structure?
The proportions are classical in nature; every detail is out of the classic Greek Revival handbook. It was put together with exceptional craft and a great sense of proportion. The immense size of the statue isn’t overwhelming because of the scale of the room. It was meant to impress; the proportions were very carefully worked out so this oversize Lincoln fits in this great chamber.
How does the Lincoln Memorial connect with the rest of the city?
I started our tour here because I wanted to start on an optimistic note. Washington is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I believe that; for years I’ve sort of haunted the Mall. The sense of order, the greenness, and the openness of it extend throughout the whole city.
How can you feel optimistic in a place that celebrates wars and generals?
We’re talking about the Revolution and the Washington Monument and the founding of the country, which was soaked in the blood of the first patriots. But the Washington Monument is not just an object in the sky; it is an object that symbolizes the aspirations of the people who fought and died to found this country. You link that with the Grant statue and the Lincoln Memorial, which cover the entire bloody history of the Civil War. So death—not the elevation of it but the fact of it in our history—gives this place much more of a resonance than just a simple celebration. It’s very serene, very impressive visually, and very deeply moving emotionally. Death was never a stranger in this commemorative landscape.
Let’s walk around to the back of the Lincoln and take a look at Memorial Bridge and the Virginia skyline.
Washington is not fortunate in its bridges, but Memorial Bridge is the chief exception to this unhappy rule. It is calm and handsome and very important in a symbolic way. Even before the Civil War, Daniel Webster gave a speech about the need for a bridge across the Potomac to link the North and South. The McMillan Commission seized on the idea, and they made this spot, where we are, the fulcrum. Then the angle turns, and the bridge heads off across the river to create an axis so that when you cross the bridge, you’re looking right at the Custis-Lee Mansion, Robert E. Lee’s home.
Look beyond the bridge and talk about Rosslyn.
Rosslyn in the 1960s was the first attempt around here at an urbanized suburb, and the idea was to separate pedestrians from automobile traffic with elevated walkways to connect buildings. It was an idealistic notion that was a total failure in practical terms. It just turned out to be not very pleasant to walk above the cars. The planners reduced the ground level to a strange “no place” zone with odd little stores. My favorite over there is the church with the gas station underneath it.
What do you think of the twin towers that were USA Today’s headquarters before it moved to McLean?
I love them. They are among the best modern office buildings in the Washington area. If you use the same kind of strip-ribbon window for buildings in downtown DC, it really doesn’t work. It emphasizes the city’s horizontality and wide streets, and it gets monotonous real quick.
If you use them in shaped buildings like those two towers, there’s an aeronautical elegance to it that’s appropriate because of all the planes that pass by here. Look at the way those curves catch the light.
Is Rosslyn doomed in architectural terms?
No, Rosslyn’s architecture is gradually improving, and I hope with it the skyway system will also improve. They’ve tried a lot to improve its street-level parts here and there and with the new buildings that overlook the river. Even so, it’s no great shakes. One of the frustrating things about Rosslyn originally was that you’d know the river was there, but you’d run into a wall and you couldn’t get there. Now you can. And the quality of the architecture has improved over the years, starting with the USA Today buildings.
What else do you like there?
If you wanted to ask which county best took advantage of the Metro system, Arlington by far leads the rest. Metro’s Orange line goes out there, and at each station, the county very intelligently concentrated residential and commercial development. They planned from the very beginning—there was a lot of citizen participation. They increased land value and increased the tax base and did what you should to encourage rapid-transit use. Arlington really carried the ball.
So they did some things right.
Rosslyn is an anti-city city. But Arlington planners didn’t make the same mistake twice when they started out in other places. They have ground-level retail, they have mixed use, they have apartments right next to the office and government buildings, they tried to make the streets wide. They put little parks in the right places. Not to say the architecture was anything but average to quite bad, but the planning was terrific.
You’ve had a lot to say about how the federal government closed off Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. Let’s head over there.
I’ve watched this from when it was closed down in 1995 by President Clinton. What we’re seeing now is a product of a design competition and of multiple forces at work. There were many, many clients; chief among them was the Secret Service, which has always wanted to cordon off Lafayette Park.
Is it a success to you?
I’m ambivalent, because it is a quintessentially eerie place now. The White House is really cordoned off from the city. It is supernaturally quiet, like a memorial to a street. The White House has become this unreal place. We’re looking at the real thing, but it seems more like a prop. It’s a backdrop for television.
What would you have done?
I would have tried extremely hard to find a way to keep the street open to traffic.
Let’s drive down K Street.
This is the K Street canyon. It’s mostly dominated by modern buildings that went up in the ’60s and early ’70s with a great variety of façades—different kinds of windows and different depths.
Do you think these all work together?
Most of the buildings are bummers, with some notable exceptions. But what keeps it together is the overall sense of order. The uniformity of height gives the street a sort of calming dignity even with the architectural mediocrity. The street itself is very wide, like many in Washington, and like others is lined with trees. The green canopy imbues this busy urban landscape with a welcoming softness that’s typical of Washington at its best.
So K Street is passable, almost in spite of itself.
Are there buildings that pop out?
One of my favorite commercial buildings downtown is this little one on the northeast corner of Connecticut and K. Despite what I said earlier about ribbon windows, these are great. Look how the aluminum frames break up the ribbons into nice little pieces. And the light-green color of the glass, which is so characteristic of the time and the modesty of the limestone façade.
So it doesn’t pretend to be anything more than it is.
No, and it’s a very attractive little urban building. The way it meets the street down at the corner works because it’s one of those odd-shaped angles of Washington, as so many are.
Let’s head over to Pennsylvania Avenue.
We’re coming up to the Federal Triangle. It’s so big, it is almost hard to escape. More than any other building—not the Capitol, not the White House, not all the other neoclassical buildings—it is the Federal Triangle that casts Washington in a neoclassical light. That’s why a lot of architects come here and say, “This is a conservative town. I’ve got to put some columns in this building or something.”
Is it hard for architects to deal with the city’s rules and regulations?
Washington is among the most regulated cities on the planet, and the federal and local districts overlap each other in the most astonishing ways. Developers come in, and they think they have to hire somebody who can play the game. And the easiest way to play by the rules is to make something that’s compatible, that’s unobjectionable, that’s in every way sort of lacking in ambition.
So here we are in Freedom Plaza, where 14th Street meets Pennsylvania Avenue. We can see the Capitol to the east; the Treasury Building is to our backs. Is there anything here that breaks that unambitious mold?
The Warner Theatre renovation. The interior was preserved and restored in a way that makes it an active theater now. And then the addition to it takes up that entire block of E Street. To give the whole thing a more urbane feel, the architects broke it down into three pieces—there’s the theater building, then that middle façade that’s like a very pretty quilt with green glass accents, and then the piece at the 12th Street corner that reverses the order a bit, combining glass and stone in a sort of shadow-box effect.
I’ve always thought that this is a design that does a wonderful job of being contemporary and yet complements the existing façade of the Warner Building in a very nice way.
So what’s ugly?
The JW Marriott Hotel was done by an award-winning modern architect from Philadelphia, and yet, let’s face it, it’s horrendous. The only good thing about this project is that it saved the National Theatre. It made an urban composition—you can see the effort there—with projected elements in a color that reflects the theater’s limestone façade.
Beyond that, it’s a very big, very undistinguished building. It looks like a hotel in a suburban mall. Too bad, because it’s the one disaster around Freedom Plaza.
Pick out another building that you really like.
I like the Willard hotel. It’s an outrageous piece of architecture from an outrageous era, the turn of the century and the end of the Golden ’90s. It has vigor, it has commitment, it has humor, it has a lot of texture, it’s got chutzpah. It’s a ballsy building.
We’re looking down Pennsylvania Avenue. Do you think it works in an architectural way?
Yes and no. It certainly frames the vista to the Capitol in a most splendid way. But the Federal Triangle is a planning mistake of huge dimension because it lines the southern half of the “nation’s main street” with institutional buildings, federal buildings. When these buildings were built, it was against the law to put stores in them. And so for tourists on the Mall, it acts as a wall separating them from downtown: “Wow, look at those columns. Where should we go?” And they don’t come this way.
Here we are at the FBI building at Ninth and Pennsylvania.
It’s one of the funniest buildings in Washington. It always looks to me like the building is about ready to move out, like a huge tank, to attack the Capitol. It’s a street-killing building; it takes up an entire block. Yet there were supposed to be stores on the avenue. J. Edgar Hoover nixed them and said, “No stores in my building.”
Let’s continue down Pennsylvania Avenue and stop at Sixth Street. The Newseum is almost finished. What do you think of it?
It has a lot of promise. It’s meant to be theatrical, and I hope that works. Love the contrasting glass panels. I mean they’ve got a translucent wing, and behind that, nice horizontal ribbons with that glass façade.
Do you think it works with the Canadian Embassy right next to it?
The Canadian Embassy is strong enough to hold its own. When I reviewed it, I called it an almost masterpiece, and I stand by that. Good design is about contrast too, not just fitting in. We overemphasize the politeness factor way too much here in DC.
Now turn and look at one of my favorites.
The National Gallery of Art?
When I first came to Washington, the first day I was here, I walked from the Washington Post in downtown to the Washington Star in Southeast. It was January 1964. I was a young journalist looking for his first job at a daily paper. I just happened to walk past the National Gallery of Art, what’s now called the West Building. It was a crystalline January day, and I looked up at the cornice of this building against the sky, and I fell in love with it.
I spent hours down here. It’s one of the great art buildings of all time because it follows a very classical pattern of room arrangement, and rooms are scaled to paintings. And they are skylit, so you still feel the passage of a cloud over the sun.
It must have been jarring when the East Building went up in 1978.
It’s a radically different concept in terms of arranging interior spaces and in terms of style. And that’s mainly to the good. Their unifying factors: Both are sheathed in the same Tennessee marble—gorgeous, pink marble—and they’re both formed with great craft. So it’s wonderful to be inside either one of them if you want architecture that has a tactile feel and you know was engineered and constructed with great care.
How did you get from cub reporter to architecture maven?
I became the art critic of the Washington Star, and since it did not have an architectural critic, I was also the architecture critic. By the time I got to Washington, I was already a haunter of museums.
Let’s drive toward the Capitol. You can no longer even walk across the west promenade. Would you say that this is the biggest sacrifice to security concerns?
Probably yes. The promenade has the most explicatory and exhilarating view of the city. Now it’s fenced off.
But a visitors center is being built.
It’s a disaster. It’s going to hugely falsify the experience of visiting the Capitol.
Let’s turn around and head west down Constitution Avenue past the federal courthouse. Do you like the Michael Graves addition to that building?
I like it—but I don’t love it. The courtrooms are really wonderful, and the space between the old and the new is very good. It’s got the Graves poetic touch, with the curves, the big cylindrical corner. Graves’s windows tend to be kind of poetic.
How about if we drive up Seventh Street, get out, and take a stroll?
The revival of Seventh Street is one of those miracles of urban development you wish for but don’t expect. We’re here between G and E streets on Seventh. The Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, which Congress created to promote redevelopment there, had a lot to do with reviving this strip. Not only do you have ground-floor retail and a lot of apartment units, but there also are arts uses. So the Shakespeare Theatre was put here. And you have the Zenith Gallery.
Most of this is traditional architecture.
Really strong contemporary architecture often gets hidden in Washington. When modernism started its comeback here in the early ’90s, a lot of it took place in office interiors. The Woolly Mammoth Theatre here is so inventive. From the outside, it’s just like a 19th-century building. When you go inside, it’s really very welcoming contemporary design—exposed brick walls and steel beams.
Mark McInturff designed it. He’s one of the best architects in the Washington area, but his projects tend to be private, so his work is very hidden.
This is a wonderful theater. It doesn’t look like Rockefeller Center or the Kennedy Center or the Paris Opera House, but it looks like a really hard-hitting, contemporary theater.
Let’s walk back up to the corner of Seventh and G.
On the east side is a block of buildings that was renovated in the 1980s. Towering behind it is a new apartment building designed by Philip Esocoff, a local architect. He’s not an out-and-out techie—all glass and steel or dramatic new shapes. In some ways, he adheres to tradition. He loves masonry construction, but he does it in such inventive ways that you know it’s a building built today and designed with a sensibility of today.
Here we are at the corner of H and Seventh, which I call China block and most call Chinatown.
No, definitely not Chinatown. On the east side of Seventh Street, up the street from Verizon Center, there’s a strip of national chain stores. What we’re seeing here is architecture as sign language or as salesmanship.
But aren’t they trying to reflect the Asian flavor at least in their design?
They’re trying but not very successfully. This is cynical, manipulative, a kind of fake architecture, Disney World. It’s just fake façades.
This has the street life you like. You’ve got action; you’ve got commerce.
It’s just a very uninteresting retail block. It’s the same thing you see from one end of the globe to the other, and it’s done in fake architectural style. It reminds me of the new Silver Spring.
Let’s talk about Silver Spring.
In 1945 it was a fresh, new idea—the kind of strip shopping center at the crossroads outside of Washington. That was cool and successful. But part of the story of the suburbs is they expanded so fast and were so much driven by the single-family home and the automobile that they wiped out the traditional centers.
The story of the suburbs in the past two decades is that those lost traditional centers are trying to find themselves as centers again. Bethesda is an interesting example, like Arlington, where they did it pretty well. But I’m talking about farther-out places, the small towns that got overrun. It’s just very hard to go back.
Yes, downtown Herndon. But centers are what these new burbs desperately need and continue not to build. Silver Spring is interesting in that it did get overtaken, but it’s trying to re-create a center.
Silver Spring’s a real good effort to bring back the center, but despite the preservation of many historic remnants, it still lacks a certain authenticity. It still hasn’t really come together as an organic community, and it is not conducive to good architecture.
What about the Discovery Channel building on Colesville Road near Metro, with the colorful lights at night?
There are so many bad buildings in Silver Spring, it’s a hard place to do good. Even though it’s a better building than almost anything around it, still it doesn’t quite work. It’s awkward.
We’re still in the Gallery Place neighborhood looking at Ninth and G streets and the Martin Luther King Library, which the former mayor targeted for demolishing. I think it is an ugly combination of steel, brick, and glass. And on the inside, it’s not really useful. Why save it?
You’re wrong on both counts. The modernist aesthetic of the architect, Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, isn’t for everyone, but he developed it very rigorously, and he was without question one of the great architects of the 20th century.
It’s got some kind of a minimal attraction, but beyond that what does it have?
The very idea of minimal attraction is an insult. The qualities of this building are more than minimal. The proportions are really fine. The rhythm of the window bays is satisfying. The colors are appropriately muted. It reflects the city back on you in very beautiful ways to me.
I know the library inside and out. I used to come write in those reading rooms with the big windows. Because of those big panes, it’s about inside/outside. And from the inside, you get the best feeling. You’re close to the city. You can see it.
Should it be gutted and redone?
God, no. There’s something called demolition by neglect, and that’s a lot of what this was. The librarians hated it. They didn’t want to deal with it, so they let it go downhill.
Now, thank goodness, the District is committed to renovating it, and I don’t care if they use it as a library in the long term, but the idea of selling it off as some lost cause would be a shame because it’s a great public building.
Is there anything architecturally interesting about the Verizon Center?
It was advanced for its time when it opened in 1997. It seems a little not so advanced now, but in Washington, to put those tall, steel columns angled out on the southern façade—the entry façade—was something of a breakthrough, but not a very big breakthrough when you think about it.
The interesting thing about the Verizon Center is that its exterior is situational. Each façade is a little different, and the Seventh Street façade, which faces Chinatown, is a Little China thing.
What’s your feeling about our new convention center?
I’ll worry about it when expansion time comes. Convention centers are never big enough, and there’s never room to expand. There wasn’t with the last one. I made the mistake the first time around of supporting a downtown convention center, and look what happened.
Architecturally the new building is a bit better than the one we just tore down, but it should have been located out New York Avenue somewhere with a train connection. They do that in Chicago really well. The city builds a new convention center every decade, and it’s got plenty of room to do it.
What is the most endangered part of the city?
St. Elizabeths Hospital and grounds, across the Anacostia River. There’s where the push for security is having a huge effect. Not only do we have a huge new ineffective bureaucracy [the Department of Homeland Security], but we are going to locate it on one of the most extraordinary pieces of land that we’ve got, over in the Anacostia hills. We’re going to ruin that land and close it off from the public. I’d like to think it can still be stopped.
What have you learned about Washington?
Sometimes I feel like the city is being designed by bureaucrats and busybodies. On the other hand, Washington despite everything is an incredibly beautiful city. I guess the ultimate lesson is that the city comes first. It is the role of architecture to serve this high urban standard, and that very much ought to include the best contemporary work. We still haven’t got the balance quite right, but balance is what it’s all about.
National editor Harry Jaffe (firstname.lastname@example.org) has covered Washington real-estate development for more than two decades.