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May 18, 2014

Patrimony at Risk

Dear Preservationists:

An article by Lark Turner in describes the “tall city” project that “envisions a city with skyscrapers,” “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. 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 [421 7th Street, NW] 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.”

Turner quotes Daniel D. Gillen, one of the architects who taught the class at Catholic University, about his motivation for designing the class. Gillen, Turner writes, “was shocked to see how little the city center had changed when he returned last August after 15 years away.” Gillen said, “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. . . .’ 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.”

When I read the article, 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 (Patrick Cockburn, The Independent, “Islamic fundamentalists in Syria have started to destroy archaeological treasures such as Byzantine mosaics and Greek and Roman statues because their portrayal of human beings is contrary to their religious beliefs. The systematic destruction of antiquities may be the worst disaster to ancient monuments since the Taliban in Afghanistan dynamited the giant statues of Buddha at Bamiyan in 2001 for similar ideological reasons.”

Whether the ideology is motivated by religion, or just by a devotion to the idea that a city must be renewed by eliminating what makes it unique, by tearing down or redesigning and “renovating” what makes it special to its residents, the “creative destruction” that extremists and architects engage in is just destruction at its core, the assertion of this generation’s power to destroy what previous generations created.

Gary Imhoff


DC’s Future Library
Dorothy Brizill,

On Monday, May 19, at 6:00 p.m., the DC Public Library will host a community forum to discuss the future of the District’s central library, the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Library. The meeting will take place in the library’s Great Hall (lobby) at 901 G Street, NW. Designed by Mies van der Rohe and opened in 1972, the landmarked building is in dire need of repair and renovation. Cost estimates range from $200 to $250 million. At the community forum, the architectural team selected for the project, Martinez + Johnson Architecture and Mecanoo, will present its preliminary design plans and seek community reaction and input (see

Although the future of MLK has been hotly debated since 2006, several key issues still remain to be resolved, including whether two additional floors will be added to the existing building, whether the project should proceed as a public-private partnership, what facilities and/or attendant uses (e.g., home for the District’s archives) or amenities (e.g., a coffee shop or meeting space) should be included in the building if the goal is to construct a twenty-first century library. A major issue is how the city can and should fund the project, since, to date, only $103 million of the $250 million needed for the renovation has been funded in the city’s FY2017 and FY2018 capital budgets, and the city is approaching its debt ceiling, which will severely limit fundng for all capital projects in the District.

If you cannot make the May 19 community forum, the Friends of the MLK organization will host a meeting on Tuesday, May 20, at 6:30 p.m., in Room A3 (basement) of MLK. The library system’s new executive director, Richard Reyes-Gavilan, will speak about his vision for the future of the DC Public Library system and the renovation of MLK Library. Architect Francine Houben of Mecanoo Architecture will also present the preliminary new design plan for DC’s central library.


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