PAUL GUNTHER IS AN OPINIONS CONTRIBUTOR TO ARCHITIZER. HE HAS worked at the NEW YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY, MUNICIPAL ART SOCIETY, AND THE AMERICAN CENTER IN PARIS. MOST RECENTLY HE SERVED AS PRESIDENT OF THE INSTITUTE OF CLASSICAL ARCHITECTURE & ART AS IT EXPANDED ACROSS THE COUNTY IN FULFILLMENT OF ITS EDUCATIONAL MISSION. THE VIEWS EXPRESSED HERE ARE HIS OWN. INTERESTED IN CONTRIBUTING TO ARCHITIZER? EMAIL EDITORIAL@ARCHITIZER.COM.
Paris is still one of the densest capitals in the world. Apart from La Defense, the city's district of towers, the density emerges from evenhanded zoning rules. Haussmann’s progressive 19th century intervention anticipated the city’s overall look and function while paying deference to grounding landmarks and neighborhood cohesion alike. Paris's design still functions despite former President Sarkozy’s Grand Paris Corbusier-inflected plan demanding skyscrapers. Urban planning that hails towers as the de facto measure of progress, as opposed to organic contextual evolution, ignores culture as a potent stimulus of prosperity.
Paris's demography is worth remembering at a time when growth and demand for affordable housing leads directly and erroneously to the fail-safe of ever-growing height. While larger floor-to-area ratios on small footprints serve the immediate interests of developers, they do not always accomplish the goals of increased density and civic wellbeing.
Today, with California Republican Congressman Darrel Issa, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, calling for legislation to renounce the 200 years of the urban plan defining the District of Columbia, it is time to sound the alarm and turn again to the current example of France. Yielding federal zoning authority to local elected officials (reliant as they inevitably are on self-interested donations) to allow the elimination of height limits is the very definition of the short-term fix at the expense of long-term stability. This kind of urban planning damages the sense of place and historical continuum on which it relies. At stake is nothing short of our collective identity. To allow towers along the National Mall is an unconscionable sellout of the Republic's founding soul. No single generation should be so sanctioned.
Aerial view of the National Mall. Photo by steeleman204
The Washington Monument. Photo by Josh Carolina
As first laid out in classical permanence by George Washington's Revolutionary fellow traveler Pierre L’Enfant in 1791, and as refined and extended in 1901 by the Congressional McMillan Plan, Washington DC stands as a cornerstone of sound planning. The city’s character is enforced by the very worthy National Capital Planning Commission, which opposes the proposed amendment to the Height Act of 1910. Such opposition does not negate changes to the city’s design, as made manifest recently with the National Park Service’s 2010 master plan for renewing the National Mall. Rather, it challenges design professionals and builders to imagine such change in ways that do not destroy the sense of place that renders the real estate valuable to begin with. There are huge swaths of the District in urgent need of new construction, and due contextual deference need not be an impediment.
Furthermore, those sounding the alarm recognize that, like in Paris, there can be some dedicated zone for large-scale development in response to contemporary demand. Of course, this zone must be sensibly planned. Opposing parties also recognize the possibility of retrofitting rooftops with real estate and replacing outdated mechanical systems. Unlike the McMillan blueprint, there are today no formal stylistic restrictions, even as some advocate for them as exemplified in the ongoing controversy over Gehry’s proposed Eisenhower Memorial. In sum, growth and change are well embedded.
Yet, height alone as a de facto measure of progress is rightly called into question. This Congress must not be allowed to destroy such an essential definition of national identity.