Extending Modernism in the Monumental City: Washington’s Southwest Waterfront Development

The subject of this studio will be the design of a mixed- use urban waterfront development in an exceptional sector of the city of Washington DC. Between the Mall and the Washington Channel, Southwest Washington is an area of the city entirely the product of the urban renewal efforts of the 1960\’s. Usually demonized as the destruction of viable urban fabric and the substitution of failed experiments, residential urban renewal as it occurred in the Southwest, is a notable exception. Our subject will be the vehicle to investigate the extension and redefinition of this legacy of modernism in a city largely characterized by monumental classicism and historic patterns of urbanism. BackgroundA long-established residential neighborhood for workers on the commercial waterfront, with a dense street pattern, row housing, and impromptu alley dwellings, the Southwest steadily deteriorated with the decline of commercial waterfront activity. Fueled by the embarrassment of its unsavory condition in the shadow of the Capitol and its potential as a residential area for government workers near to the Mall, planners in the 1950\’s considered two options: block by block renovation, restoration, and open space development (the chosen plan for Georgetown experiencing a similar decline), and wholesale demolition and reconstruction. They chose to rebuild.A seminal plan for complete reconstruction, developed by architects Louis Justement and Clothiel Woodward Smith, laid out a utopian vision for a better life enabled by a new urban framework of architecture and open space. The area north of the new Southeast/Southwest expressway adjacent to the Mall was designated for new government office buildings. South of the expressway, a looser network of housing quadrants with a discontinuous street pattern and continuous green space replaced the established grid of streets. The plan was further elaborated by the developer William Zeckendorf , realtors Webb and Knapp, and architects I.M. Pei and Harry Weese, who proposed a major connector between the Mall and the waterfront called the 10th Street Mall, and a waterfront park available to the neighborhood as well as the city.Despite a few exceptional buildings prompted by President Kennedy\’s Design Excellence Initiative in the 1960\’s such as Marcel Breuer\’s HUD headquarters, the government area, including the 10th Street Mall, has an oppressive and over-scaled presence highlighting the struggle to create a modern monumentality. The through highway creates a formidable barrier between office and residential areas, and the connection between Mall and waterfront was never completed. The residential area was far more successful and contains a number of exemplary housing and open space experiments which make the district a laboratory for design thinking of the 1960\’s in a city dominated by historic building and housing types. Capitol Park (Satterlee and Smith with Dan Kiley \’59), River Park (Charles Goodman \’62), Tiber Island/Carrollsburg Square (Keyes Lethbridge Condon \’65), and the Arena Theatre (Harry Weese \’61) all embodied the idealism of modernism characteristic of the times. The mix of blocks of 3 story town houses and mid rise \”towers,\” underground parking, and a continuous network of green space worked remarkably well. The resulting mixed social, economic, and ethnic community has been one of the few success stories of the urban renewal era.Site and ProgramThe Waterfront area remained largely neglected, however, no longer a working waterfront and not developed as a park, and today is regrettably underutilized. Extensive surface parking and roadways overwhelm an active Fish Market, a few restaurants, and marina; and separate the residential community and visitors from easy access to the waterfront. Today a strong market demand for waterfront housing close to the government core for young professionals, government workers, empty nesters and ret