The Southwest Urban Renewal Area in Washington, D.C.
By Richard Longstreth
Though little known nationally, the residential complexes in Washington, D.C.’s Southwest Redevelopment Area in Washington, D.C., collectively constitute one of the finest fully integrated examples of architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design in the North America from the post-World War II era.
Image (left): Tiber Island, 1961-65, Keyes, Lethbridge & Condon, architects. Photo: Richard Longstreth, 1991.
Broadly conceived in 1952, the endeavor was intended to be an exemplar of how U.S. cities could regenerate themselves through bold new developments that would lure middle- and upper middle-class households back to the metropolitan core – a major objective of the 1949 housing act. During the first half-dozen years, however, the initiative became mired in politics between the Redevelopment Land Agency, which had the funds, and the National Capital Planning Commission, which favored a more conservative approach and had ultimate authority. Conflict arose, too, with the D.C. Housing Authority, which wanted the targeted area for public housing. In addition, there were myriad challenges that arose owing to the scant precedent that existed for so sweeping a plan to transform so large a district within a major city through the power of eminent domain. Not until 1957 was ground broken on the first residential project and not until 1969 was this aspect of the plan fully realized.1
The results were extraordinary. No other urban renewal scheme – government-sponsored or otherwise – could boast of such a rich array of housing designed by a small galaxy of ascendant talent in architecture and landscape architecture. Lafayette Park in Detroit (1956-65) was comparably ambitious, but only a segment of its original plan, developed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Ludwig Hilberseimer, and Alfred Cauldwell, saw realization, and other segments, while of considerable interest, are not of the same exceptional design standard. Philadelphia’s Washington Square East (best known by its historic name of Society Hill) was likewise of epic scale, but in contrast to most urban renewal scheme, entailed saving much of the existing urban fabric, with exemplary new design planned as infill. Outside the domestic sphere, perhaps only Boston’s Government Center matches the Southwest’s combination of being a highly varied ensemble with most of its components attaining a high caliber of architectural and urban design.
Image (right): Capitol Park houses, 1961-63, Satterlee & Smith, architects. Photo: Richard Longstreth, 2006.