How DC’s architecture shapes the city

D.C. is easily the most storied and historically significant city in the country, especially in a government context, and with that comes a bevy of important architecture. But what does the shape of a building matter beyond its use? What effect does architecture have on the daily lives of citizens? To learn more about its impact, we spoke with Gavin Hughes Daniels, Principal and Co-founder of Wingate Hughes; Deane Madsen, freelance writer and founder of BrutalistDC; and Ken Biberaj, managing director at Savills North America.

ABERMAN: What does architecture mean to you? How do you apply in your daily life?

DANIELS: Architecture means everything to me. I’ve been on a journey for 10 years now with Wingate Hughes Architects. In a lot of ways, Jonathan, we bring optimism to our country, to as many people as I can. I believe architecture has a real power to enable people to see things in a different way, and to inspire them to be better people and do more.

ABERMAN: Deane, what about you? I noticed when I was reading your bio, you’re a photographer. You’re a founder of BrutalistDC, which is a type of architecture. You seem to be a pretty strong observer and critic of architecture, as it were.

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MADSEN: Sure. Yeah. I did a Masters in Architecture at UCLA, and then transitioned into architecture journalism, and have been observing and writing about the architecture of Washington, D.C. for the last eight years or so. And the city has a wonderful collection of brutalist buildings, and I might be the only person in the room that thinks that. But there is some value to all of that concrete that we have here in D.C., in addition to the other, more readily known and widely appreciated neoclassical buildings.

ABERMAN: We’ll come back to brutalism and neoclassical architecture when we continue our conversation. Those are two, I think, signifiers that maybe people don’t realize are the themes of a lot of the buildings that we see everyday. Ken, you spend a lot of time these days, helping people find the right real estate, and get themselves located here in the region. How does architecture relate to what you do?

BIBERAJ: Well, it’s one of these things that, at Savills, we’re solely focused on representing tenants in the market. And when we develop the criteria of what we’re looking for for tenants, it’s not only about the economics or the location, it’s really about the environment you’re creating to attract and retain talent. And the workforce today is really in a position to appreciate some grit, some character, something unique about the physical space.

So from the moment we’re walking down the street to see a building, expectations and opinions are already being formed by what the building looks like on the outside, what the landlord has done to preserve the character of the interior lobby. And then as we walk through the building, it’s not only just about that individual office that you’re going to occupy every day. It’s about the entire ecosystem that your employees are going to inhabit for you. So a lot of this is now more important than maybe ever before, and something that we’re putting as a deal point as we evaluate options on behalf of tenants.

ABERMAN: So why does look and feel of a place matter so much, guys?

DANIELS: The look and feel matters, of any place, because it can directly affect your mood. It can affect your attitude. A lot of times, one of the things we really work on at Wingate Hughes is to try to let architecture get out of your way. You’ve all been in spaces that are too small, that don’t quite feel right, that something’s off, and you can’t quite tell what it is. When the space gets out of your way, or when the space makes you feel a certain way, something good can happen, and great architecture can do that. I love Deane’s point on brutalism. Brutalist buildings get out of the way, and they are true and authentic to what they are. They were built with all the exposed pieces to them, much like a lot of the trends that we see right now in current interior architecture.

ABERMAN: Well, let’s talk a little bit about that, definitionally, so our listeners can get inside the tent with you. Brutalist, neoclassical. We see a lot of neoclassical buildings here in town without realizing. Deane, what is neoclassical architecture? And then let’s talk about Brutalist, so people can start to get an idea of the terms we’re using as we continue our conversation.

MADSEN: Sure. So, neoclassical architecture kind of takes cues from ancient Greek temples and the kind of ruins that you might see, like the Acropolis, are kind of form givers for places like the National Archives, the Lincoln Memorial, and to some extent, the Jefferson Memorial. There’s a strong tradition in Washington architecture memorials, especially of drawing from classical precedent, with oversized columns that are repeated in several rows. And those types of forms are the kinds of things that the founders of the city deliberately chose as signifiers of the seat of government.

ABERMAN: Well, neoclassical, when I think about it, having just recently come back from Italy, for example, neoclassical harkens back to the Renaissance, harkens back to early Romans, to ancient history and ancient democracies. And so, it’s not surprising when we sit in an imperial capital like Washington, D.C., that you’d have a lot of neoclassical architecture. But now, let’s talk about: architecture seems to be migrating away from signifying an imperial capital to something different. How does Brutalism fit into that?

MADSEN: Well, that’s an interesting question. I think brutalism was kind of an offshoot of that impetus to provide stature to the government through building. And in many cities, Boston, D.C., especially, the government was taking these new forms of concrete, which is readily available material at the time, and using that to create massive buildings to house thousands of government employees over millions of square feet of building space.

ABERMAN: So the Federal Trade Commission building downtown, or the Pentagon would be examples of this type of architecture.

MADSEN: Yeah, the FBI building to some extent, the HHS building and HUD. So, the Hubert H. Humphrey building, those two in particular are by an architect called Marcel Breuer. At the HUD building, Marcel Breuer was using precast concrete to create a repetition of forms that he had also done in several other headquarters buildings around the world. And this is something that allowed for efficient construction, and mass production, in ways that could make a big building quickly and relatively cheaply, which is something that the government was interested in. And that was actually the first building of its kind in D.C.

ABERMAN: So, Gavin, I think about what I’ve heard so far. Sounds to me like a lot of the architecture, the older architecture that surrounds us, occurred because it was a government town in a lot of ways, to signify that it’s a seat of power and so forth. Comparing our city to, say, New York, you know, where there has been for years, architectural innovations, various cutting edge things. Now we’ve got condominiums rising into the sky in slivers and so forth. What’s happening in D.C.? How is architecture developing in D.C.? Are we becoming more like a New York, or are we still an imperial capital?

DANIELS: What’s fascinating about D.C. is the community based feel of D.C., and the individualistic nature of D.C. We have a lot of buildings that can stand on their own. And together, they all go together to form this amazing community we have. I was just in Houston last week, and thinking about all the different pockets of development that Houston had. You might have a beautiful development that has some townhomes, has your different retail amenities. Little bit of office, maybe. And then you have ten miles to the next one. Here, it all comes together, and you’re within blocks of that next, quote-unquote community. D.C., I think is continuing to look like D.C., it’s not starting to look like anywhere else. Because we have so many different cultural influences that have come to this city since its beginning, and left their imprint here. And I think that’s an important tradition that we need to continue.

ABERMAN: I agree with that. I do wonder, Ken: I know you spent a lot of time in the suburbs with your job. I wonder how this is going to play out, where we’re now having neighborhoods pop up next to metro stations. I was on the toll road just the other day, driving into D.C., and it looks like there’s going to be some in downtown area Reston, and a downtown area just everywhere there’s a metro. Well, do they have a different character or what? How is this going to unfold?

BIBERAJ: I think there’s a couple of things to think about in this region. Because of height limits in D.C., D.C. doesn’t go up like New York would. It kind of goes out. So when you look at the last 10 years, one of the things I think you’re going to see is new neighborhoods in D.C. Navy Yard, Noma, have have really exploded with new architecture, new businesses, a new ecosystem and identity of their own. That then kind of continues outward to what’s happening at national landing with Amazon, and Tysons and Reston really coming into their own as their own ecosystems where people are going to live, work and play in those areas.

So, I think it’s incumbent on a lot of public-private partnerships and dialog and discussion between all stakeholders, about how you create that kind of environment and don’t rush to just build towers to occupy, but actually be thoughtful about the community that you’re creating. And I think that’s one of the larger macro trends that’s happening in real estate in general, because this is a very strong tenant market. We have millions of square feet that have delivered, and are slated to deliver. It’s the fact that companies are listening more to their employees about what they want, in terms of an ecosystem in space, whether it’s more light, natural, this environment that they actually inhabit. And now, landlords are being very responsive to the tenants.

ABERMAN: Sounds to me like we’ve got to get it right for our economy and our community to really grow properly. What’s your thoughts on that?

BIBERAJ: Well, I think diversity is one of the things that we should always be keeping in mind, right? The workforce is changing in D.C. It’s not just a government and legal town. We’re seeing a ton of innovation. Stuff that has actually really been here for a long period of time. I mean, the Internet started in northern Virginia, tech companies had been here, but they’re getting a lot more attention, both from landlords, developers and the community at large. I think appreciating the diversity of talent that’s coming here is really important, especially for them to react on the architectural side.

ABERMAN: How do you do that? I mean, how does architecture signify diversity?

DANIELS: There’s a lot of things that go into that. At Wingate Hughes, we really look at the workforce, look at the goals and the mission of the company, and think about what you want to get out of your day every day. Employers are starting to look more for how their staff can grow personally. When you have a staff that’s learning every day, they’re collaborating, they’re communicating, they’re working together, they’re innovating, they’re learning for themselves and focused on that, then great things happen for your company.

The key to that, from our standpoint, is to provide enough diversity of spaces. I think EverFi is a wonderful example, up on the west side. Wonderful leading tech company, education tech. This is our second office that we’ve designed for them. The array of spaces that we’ve given them, not just for conference spaces, you see, it’s not just about there being room label to certain things, so I know how to use it. It’s about giving them an array of spaces that they can figure out how to use, that they can apply different types of use to. That gets you more motivated.

ABERMAN: So architecture, in your context, is about setting the right mood, or socializing people, employees, to act the way you want to act. Which makes enormous sense to me having managed organizations. If you want somebody to collaborate, you don’t put them in a bunch of cubicles that are really dark. But pulling it back, Deane, you know, BrutalistDC, you’re looking at architecture, it seems like more of a bigger place-making thing, right? I mean, if the buildings are large, if they hulk over, if there’s nothing to look at in the ground floor, it alienates people.

MADSEN: Sure. And since you mentioned activated street level, the FBI building is kind of a wonderful example of how crucial that is to have, in the sense that there was actually an activated storefront retail level planned for that building that was later scrapped, with security concerns. Now, that building is seen as impenetrable, and that’s largely by design. But it’s viewed as this kind of hulking monster on Pennsylvania Avenue. And until recently, it was viewed as a tear down. Whether or not that will still be the case remains in question, with the current administration.

However, I think that it’s important to note that it’s such a big building, there’s so much embodied energy in the concrete that was used to construct it, that that is energy we won’t be able to get back. Producing concrete is a chemical process, and you can’t recycle concrete. So, I would propose that an adaptive reuse for a structure like that would be a much better use of resources, which we now find are limited, to produce a better living condition and the city of the future.

DANIELS: Deane, I think you make a great point. You hit on a real trend that we’ve seen in D.C. People are rediscovering buildings, rediscovering the beauty that a building already had that might have been covered up for years. We see that at Uline, we see that the Hecht warehouse, we see it at any building that I’ve designed, and around the city, where people say, oh! There’s brick behind that drywall. Well, let’s pull that out. I want to see it. I want to get back to the authentic, real nature of the building. And there were so many buildings that have been beautifully designed, that all of a sudden air conditioning and other mechanical, electrical and infrastructure of the building took over in a disgusting way, just to make the building serve, quote-unquote, modern needs. Now, we have better ways to do those things, and it’s allowed us and enabled us to go back and rediscover the beauty.

BIBERAJ: I mean, just to piggyback on that, one of the things that you’re noticing in a lot of the buildings are an immediate rush to amenities. Landlords are putting roof decks, taking advantage of space that may have been underutilized, adding gyms, conferencing, coffee shops. So the building itself is becoming its own ecosystem or community. And tenants in the marketplace are expecting that. So there’s a rush to amenities being provided, and tenants having a lot of leverage in demanding, basically, of landlords to provide even more to them.

ABERMAN: I would argue, hearing your discussion today, that what we’re seeing is a return to architecture as being in existence to service the individual, rather than architecture being in place to educate people to be citizens. Does that feel right?

DANIELS: I think it does. You could ask a lot of people to describe neoclassical architecture, and they might get close to it. They might have a feeling of it. But I think gone are the feelings of: this type of architecture is supposed to mean this type of thing. Architecture and design are so fluid right now, and we have a culture that is more educated in design than ever in our history of humanity. We have more people that understand, and have a better sense of design acumen, than we’ve ever had before. And I think that’s a positive thing.

ABERMAN: And it’s interesting, they get it by osmosis, right? I mean, very few people are getting the training, but we know. Why is that?

MADSEN: I’m not sure I know the answer to why people more people are getting it. But I just wanted to say a quick anecdote that, yesterday, I was scrolling through Twitter. And Metro had posted an influencer using the Metro itself as a backdrop for a fashion shoot. Which is really interesting in a lot of ways. Like, we’re experiencing architecture in different ways. And Metro is this beautiful example of the grand scale of Washington architecture, and it’s all underground. Thus, the stations are longer than the Washington Monument is tall, and they’re beautiful. And here, we have an appreciation for its aesthetic being used in a new way. And I think that’s just going to become more of the norm, as people find buildings as places to find themselves within the larger urban context.

BIBERAJ: And just one thing on that, I read an article that Deane wrote, actually in, I think, Architectural Digest, about a hip hop architectural camp that took place in D.C. And as I read that, I was just struck by the nature of what we’re crowdsourcing, where we’re asking more people, we’re spreading and trying to engage the community into really having a culture. But I thought that was a great piece, and it’s exciting to diversify who is at the table in making these decisions, and thinking about architecture and design.

ABERMAN: Well, it feels to me that there is an architectural character that’s emerging that’s unique to this area of the city, the broader region. And we’ll have a different look and feel 10, 20 years from now. Got you for just a couple more minutes. What’s it going to look like 10 years from now, 20 years from now?

DANIELS: I think architecture 10 to 20 years from now is going to look better. I think it’s going to be more accessible to everybody. And I think that, if I look at some of the infrastructure pieces that are happening, whether it’s 5G put in, whether it’s Verizon working with City of D.C. to make sure that we have infrastructure put in for the future, we are going to be a lot more connected. There’s going to be a lot fewer breaks. And I think that there’s going to be a lot more optimism about what we can do. We have more of everything in the world than we’ve ever had before. And it’s time that we start doing more with it.

BIBERAJ: I think how we work will continue to evolve and change, with smartphones and devices and the ability to work remotely. I think that’ll continue to be captured in a sense of hospitality in the ecosystem, that landlords and tenants are receiving and providing. So that’s going to continue. I think the tenant friendly nature of the market will remain, especially here in the D.C. metro area. I think we’ve seen regional collaboration in a way that’s never occurred in this area. I think the D.C. region will continue to be a magnet for companies and for talent in a way we don’t really appreciate. Now, I think Amazon was just that first step, and I think it’s only going to continue to grow.

MADSEN: It’s interesting to try to picture the city in 10 years. My kids will be teenagers then, and I worry about what that will bring. I think the city is going to have to do a lot of reckoning with its coastal nature. We forget that we’re bordered by two rivers, and the Tidal Basin is more increasingly at high tide. So, I think there needs to be some planning around that, which the city has already started to look at. But I guess to Gavin’s point, also, about our having more and more of everything. We also have fewer and fewer resources with which to build. There is a shortage of good sand for making concrete, for example. There’s a shortage of metal that we use in our phones and everything else. And so, I think that we really need to focus on keeping the buildings that we already have, and not tearing them down when they could be repurposed.

ABERMAN: So, we may look a lot more like, when you go to Rome. It’s like peeling an onion. It’s every year and all years at the same time. Is that where you think we’ll get to?

DANIELS: We’ve been good friends with the folks over at Douglas Development. I think Norman Jamal is going to take that company even further. And they’ve been a wonderful example in the district of taking old buildings, bringing them back to life, and adding something new to them. I think we’re going to see more examples of that. We cannot just keep building buildings, tearing them down and rebuilding new ones. I think there’s going to be more of an emphasis on doing just what you’re saying, peeling back the onion, finding something beautiful, and then adding something new to it that has to do with our technology.

BIBERAJ: And because of the vacancy rate, tenants have so many options that they really want to have some kind of grit, some type of character. Right. It’s not like we’re in a market like San Francisco, where we’re just so desperate for space for tenants that any building will do. The world is our oyster if you’re a tenant in the market.

ABERMAN: It’s fascinating to me. We keep coming back to this grit, reality, authenticity. What we’re really saying is that the millennials, and millennial tastes, are shaping what is expected. Because I’m old enough to remember when pocket protectors were cool, and everybody would live on the moon, and boomers wanted modern, modern, modern. Right. And now we’re talking about authenticity. I think it’s a very interesting testimony of where we are as a community. Last thing I’ll ask, quick one, each of you, before we go. For listeners, what’s your favorite piece of architecture that you think somebody should go check out when they’re walking around town?

BIBERAJ: I think one of these things that I notice in New York all the time is that people are always walking with their head in their iPhone. And I was in York for 12 years. And now that I’m back, I love just opening my eyes and looking. There are so many monuments and statues and things in D.C. that you never even notice, or take the time to read what that’s about. I love 1500 K Street as a building, because they preserve the facade, and then they just redid the entire interior so it’s state of the art.

DANIELS: The National Portrait Gallery has always been my favorite. I love Norman Foster’s roof that they put over the atrium. And I think the inside of the building is so well preserved, and just amazing. Second to that, I have to give it to Apple and what they’ve done over at the city museum, and the way that they’ve integrated something new and fresh into an old building speaks exactly to what we were talking about. They left what was authentic and improved it, made it better.

MADSEN: I actually produced a map of 40 buildings around D.C. It would be hard to choose a favorite amongst those. But if I had to, I think my favorite building in D.C. is the Hirshhorn Museum, which is this concrete donut that lands on the National Mall right at its midpoint, and provides this awesome round counterpoint to everything else, like the Air and Space Museum next to it, and all of the larger government buildings behind it. It’s a great place to visit, a great place to take shelter when it’s raining on the Mall, and it has great art as well.