News & Politics

Architecture Students Design a Post-Height Act DC

Students at Catholic University imagined Washington's skyline with skyscrapers. Height Act defenders compared them to the Taliban.

The "Iceberg" raises three towers above the Herbert Hoover Building. Renderings courtesy Catholic University of America School of Architecture and Planning and AIA|DC.

Earlier this year, Catholic University architecture professor Lavinia Fici Pasquina challenged her students to imagine what they would design if the District was suddenly freed of the Height Act, the 1910 that severely restricts how tall buildings in DC can be.

On Thursday, at the American Institute of Architects gallery in Penn Quarter (421 Seventh Street, Northwest), nine of Pasquina’s students debuted their visions for a Washington skyline, featuring soaring skyscrapers. The designs, which are on display through June 10, would not be out of place in New York, London, or any other global city.

Pasquina, who taught alongside local architect Daniel Gillen, says her students’ work, titled “Tall DC: New Monumentalism,” are not meant to be statements about the logic of continuing the Height Act, but they are meant to challenge what she calls Washington’s “very vernacular” architectural style, especially downtown DC’s glut of squat, neo-classical government buildings.

One project, called the “Tiber,” envisions a 1,000-foot tower rising from one end of the US Commerce Department’s three-block-long Herbert Hoover Building on Constitution Avenue, Northwest. The designers, Mani Kordestani and Ryan Nugent, say they came up with the name from the Tiber Creek, a Potomac tributary that flowed along what is now Constitution, and from the District’s origins from a mid-17th century Maryland settlement named Rome. Kordestani and Nugent say their tower, about as tall as the Hoover building is long, gets its tessellated form from the behavior of a geyser.

Last year, the DC Office of Planning proposed an overhaul to the Height Act that would have allowed 200-foot-tall buildings downtown and removing building height limits altogether in further-out neighborhoods. That plan was rejected; instead, Congress tweaked the 114-year-old law for the first time in years by allowing downtown buildings to convert mechanical penthouses to human use.

Even with that rewrite shoved back in the drawer, the new exhibit caused controversy. DC Watch, an online newsletter known for its gouty takes on local issues, compared Pasquina’s assignment to the Taliban’s destruction of giant Buddha statues in Afghanistan in 2001 and the current destruction of religious artifacts in Syria.

The “Tiber” takes its name from the creek that once flowed what is now Constitution Avenue.

“I thought of another article I had read recently about the Islamic extremists who were systematically destroying the historic artifacts and monuments that preceded the Muslim era in Syria,” DC Watch’s publisher Gary Imhoff wrote in a May 18 e-mail blast.

Pasquina says she didn’t launch the project with the stated goal of ending the Height Act, but she is a little bemused by reactions like Imhoff’s. “We have been sitting back and enjoying it after a semester of hard work,” she says.

Her students acknowledge that by designing skyscrapers for DC, they are disrupting a centuries-old architectural paradigm.

“DC is historic. Going against it was strange,” says Azita Soltani Far, one of the designers of a structure called the “Iceberg,” which envisions a mixed-use tower rising from each of the Hoover building’s three courtyards. To achieve the Iceberg’s triptych of oddly-shaped buildings, Far and her fellow students used rendering software to stretch the Hoover building to 1,000 feet tall and let the sun “melt” it away. The resulting structure is designed to minimize its southern-facing profile to avoid overshadowing nearby monuments.

Still, the prospect of a District featuring even one, two, or three skyscrapers is unnerving for a city used to low-slung buildings and epic views of national icons. The point of the exhibition is to provoke reactions.

Gillen, a Northern Virginia native who spent 15 years away from the area until returning last year, is enthusiastic about the rebukes the exhibit is getting.

“That’s what I was hoping for,” he says. “The people who are critical, I’d like to see them have a go. Can we do something poetic with the skyline? It could use a refresh.”

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.