Letter from Washington DC: the projects getting the green light in a city of red tape

White buildings next to a body of water
John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Steven Holl, under construction: Holl was tasked with adding 10,000 sq m to the already sprawling centre. Not known for his subtlety, the architect has managed to design a handful of low-slung white appendages that enhance the existing structure without stealing the show. They flank a grassy landscape of gingko trees, pools and performances spaces
(Image credit: TBC)

Every presidential election throws Washington DC into demographic flux. Politics aside, though, the city is also welcoming young families and graduates by the trainload as it gradually repositions itself as a great all-rounder of a place. With breakneck gentrification and a foodie revolution introducing Washingtonians to New York-style living, you’d think the city fabric would be turning itself inside out.

Yet it’s remarkably difficult to get things built here. Red tape is a fact of life, as are conservative old-timers galvanised against change. It took a new baseball franchise to kickstart the redevelopment of the crumbling Navy Yards, and David Adjaye’s lauded National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened last year, was a century in the making.

In a bureaucratic city characterised by government office space, local designer/developer Brook Rose saw potential in a rare landmark warehouse once used to manufactured some of the first rotary gyrocopter engines. Meanwhile, New York architect Steven Holl’s Obama-era infrastructure project will open in much less certain times, no less for the arts. Two blocks south of the National Mall, Detroit-based SmithGroupJJR has transformed a landmark transport warehouse into a museum to rival the Smithsonians in splendour. 

What does go up tends to be overwhelmed with mirrored glass. Yet there are exceptions. While planners have greenlit a redesign of Constitutional Gardens by Rogers Partners and PWP, as well as a delicate glass office complex by REX Architecture, there have been a handful of exemplary projects come to fruition.

Long building with glass tunnel around top

Museum of the Bible, SmithGroupJJR, opening November 2017:  Conceived to house some 40,000 biblical artefacts, one for each square metre of space, the non-sectarian Museum of the Bible launches later this year, opening at the original train portal, decorated, fittingly, in stained glass displaying a portion of the Great Isaiah Scroll

(Image credit: TBC)

Tall red brick building

Museum of the Bible, SmithGroupJJR, opening November 2017: Jerusalem-stone columns punctuate the 12m-high flatiron, where much of the collection of scriptures, stones and antiquities sit beneath a backlit mock-fresco ceiling. Further up a floating stairwell, a two-storey rooftop addition blanketed in a glass curtain wall houses a theatre and ballroom with views over the Capitol

(Image credit: TBC)

White & brown building with large windows

Rosedale Residence, Kube Architecture, 2017:  Let the Obamas have Kalorama, with all its media scrutiny and hopped-up security. Two miles northwest, on the last available plot of a 280-year-old heritage area, Kube Architecture has built a 600 sq m house bordering three acres of parkland and literal white-picket fences

(Image credit: TBC)

Blue sofas looking out of large windows into wildlife

Rosedale Residence, Kube Architecture, 2017: Named for the Rosedale Conservancy, the family home is made of two offset saltbox structures, modern barns that nod to the neighbourhood’s rural history. It’s just 15 minutes to Georgetown or the National Mall, but the clean, wide-windowed build, stepping down to rolling lawns, is miles outside town in spirit – and as self-contained as can be, with an outdoor pool and two-storey indoor basketball court

(Image credit: TBC)

Stone buildings overlooking green

National Gallery of Art extension, Hartman-Cox, 2016: Last year the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, an annex originally designed by IM Pei, added an impressive 1,200 sq m of exhibition space to an already cavernous plan, with two new galleries and a sculpture terrace, inaugurated with a highly distinctive electric-blue ‘cock’ sculpture by Katharina Fritsch

(Image credit: TBC)

Stone building with sculptures & fountains in front

National Gallery of Art extension, Hartman-Cox, 2016: The expanded spaces, designed by local architects Hartman-Cox, will allow for the exhibition of larger sculptures and installations, like Calder mobiles and epic Rothko canvases

(Image credit: TBC)

Monochrome building with large windows

The Helicopter Factory, Brook Rose and Mike Burton, under construction: Developer Rose partnered with Baltimore architect Burton of Urban Design Group to split the weathered-brick space into two large flats and repurposed a newer annex into 13 townhouses, landscaping a courtyard between the two types

(Image credit: TBC)

Stone & glass building surrounded by grass

Woodridge Library, Bing Thom Architects, 2016: This public library located in fast-gentrifying Woodridge, a residential neighbourhood in northeastern DC, is business in the front, fun in the back. A contemporary yet subtle street presence in grey precast concrete belies an interior flooded with light from the lattice-topped indoor-outdoor penthouse

(Image credit: TBC)

Birdseye view of a study library

Woodridge Library, Bing Thom Architects, 2016: An oculus in the third floor directs it downward into the atrium, accessed by wide stairs and swooping balustrades. The stacks stick to the perimeter and wide, round bookcases echoing the oculus, leaving most of the floor to circulation. Double-height glazing on the back wall faces a deep terrace and the open green of Langdon Park

(Image credit: TBC)

5 storey red brick building with outdoor pool

Rock Creek, NADAAA, 2015: NADAAA from New York and Boston, effectively doubled the volume of this 1920s brick house and added as much glazing as the structure would allow. All that remains now is a narrow, classical façade in the vernacular red brick and the grandeur, familiar to this forested neighbourhood north of the city

(Image credit: TBC)

Wooden interior of home

Rock Creek, NADAAA, 2015: The interior was recast in light laminated plywood panelling, flooring and built-ins. It rises to a vast skylit play loft that carries natural light down through the home – not that any more is needed for all the deep, wide window bays and multi-level voids connecting the common rooms

(Image credit: TBC)

Abstract wooden staircase

Rock Creek, NADAAA, 2015: At its heart, a zig-zaggedy spiral staircase with jagged wood balustrades like teeth. Creatively carved wood peek-a-boos between rooms add interest

(Image credit: TBC)