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DC in Skyscrapers

May 16, 2014

A group of Catholic University architecture students and their rabble-rousing professors have proposed a set of skyscrapers for a prime DC location: smack dab in the middle of the National Mall on the site of the Department of Commerce building at 1401 Constitution Avenue NW (map). The proposals are meant to challenge the way Americans think about monuments and urban development.

TALL DC: New Monumentalism, an exhibition that will debut at AIA|DC on May 29, showcases the three proposals that flout the 1910 Height Act in favor of modern, dramatic skyscrapers that would transform DC’s downtown.

The Height Act restricts any building in DC that is even half as tall as those proposed, and the students’ project is meant to be provocative, said one of the professors, Daniel D. Gillen, an architect who specializes in computational design. Gillen, who taught the class with Catholic University professor Lavinia Fici Pasquina, grew up in Northern Virginia and was shocked to see how little the city center had changed when he returned last August after 15 years away.

“It was exactly the same as I’d left it,” he told UrbanTurf. “When I was a kid, we used to spill our drinks on the subway carpet. I came back and it’s the same orange carpet.”

Gillen envisioned a project that looked at how DC could evolve, both with regard to the Height Act as well as comprehensive urban development strategies. The class decided to focus on the idea of modern towers that are about 120 percent taller than the 555-foot Washington Monument. The Height of Buildings Act of 1910 means buildings in the District max out at 130 feet. By contrast, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, currently the tallest building in the world, is 2,717 feet tall.

“I had a sort of overwhelming feeling that DC is a static object, so I thought, ‘Let’s try to look a little bit at urbanism and what the effects of breaking through the Height Act would be,’” he said. “The students were looking both at what constitutes a monument in terms of their forms as well as what they stand for, and then evolving that to the current market.”

The projects were designed to play off of DC’s biggest monuments, including the Capitol and Washington Monument. One team created bulging, atrium-like viewing spaces where occupants could look at the historic monuments at an unusual vantage point: from above. Another used a particular type of solar analysis to limit the shadows cast by the building.

Gillen said these types of projects are rare at American schools, because they’re seen as impossible. As for the provocative nature, well, Gillen questions that too.

“The fact that it’s even deemed controversial is really surprising to me,” he said. “These things are possible. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. … There’s a risk aversion in people’s minds in America toward construction and building, and after seeing what I’ve seen, there’s no need to feel that way.

“There are construction methodologies that can create buildings that are amazing. This project is a way to expand our minds a bit. What could be possible? Do we have to limit ourselves?”

As Published by Urban Turf – 5-15-14 – Lark Turner
Image – Catholic University of America School of Architecture and Planning in cooperation with AIA|DC with support from ABC Imaging.

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