The Southwest Urban Renewal Area in Washington, D.C.


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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.

The two figures most responsible for giving the Southwest its exceptional qualities were John Searles, head of the Redevelopment Land Agency, who doggedly pushed for a visionary approach and unusually high development standards. Chloethiel Woodard Smith played no less an important role. Her innovative schematic proposal of 1952 set the tone for later work. She designed three of the residential complexes, more than any other architect involved, and she developed the master plan for the southern half of the area, introducing superblocks, with an extensive network of pedestrianways that entailed integrating the new work with the waterfront. She established design parameters for the whole area with her first project, Capitol Park (1957-63), which broke from convention in mixing high-rise apartment slabs, set on pilotis, with clustered row houses of varied design that frame an intricate array of pedestrian paths and courts. Moreover, Smith was adamant that the whole area not appear to have been done by a single team (as Lafayette Park would have been had Herbert Greenwald lived to implement all of the Mies-Hilberseimer-Cauldwell plan or as the Southwest itself would have been had William Zeckendorf constructed his 1954 master plan designed by I. M. Pei).
Image (left): Chalk House West, 1962-66. Morris Lapidus, Harle & Liebman, architects. Photo: Richard Longstreth, 2006.
Instead, through competitions and other means, the Southwest secured major work by the national capital’s pre-eminent modernists – Charles Goodman and Keyes, Lethbridge & Condon, as well as Smith – and by luminaries from New York – Morris Lapidus, as well as Pei – and from Chicago – Harry Weese. The landscape architects who participated were all nationally prominent. Dan Kiley worked on two of Smith’s projects; Sasaki, Walker & Associates designed the waterfront park, a pioneering development of its kind; Robert Zion worked with Pei on a complex of four apartment blocks; Washington-based Eric Paepke did plans for three other housing complexes; and the park intended as a center for the whole area was the work of Wallace, McIarg, Roberts & Todd.
Image (left): Waterside Park, 1968-72, Sasaki, Walker & Associates, landscape architects. Photo: Richard Longstreth, 1991.
The Southwest never got the recognition it deserved. Well before the last units were completed, the whole endeavor came under fire for the wholesale clearance it had incurred, dislocating thousands of low-income, mostly black, residents in the process. By the late 1960s, the Southwest became more an example of social engineering run amok than a poster child for urban regeneration. Even today, many planners regard the area as a “failed” experiment. Yet from the start, the redevelopment attracted an array of people who have embraced its distinctive physical qualities. It also set a precedent locally as the first instance where new housing was planned for people irrespective of race or ethnicity. (Thurgood Marshall was an early resident, as was Vice President Humbert Humphrey.) In recent years, the Southwest has drawn a new generation eager to live in a stunning modernist environment.
Image (left): River Park, 1960-63, Charles Goodman, architect. Rendering, by Helmut Jacoby, 1960. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
At the same time, the Southwest is now a threatened area. Zoning for its blocks ignores the implemented plans of the 1950s and 1960s, allowing for considerably denser development. Already one of Kiley’s major spaces in Capitol Park has been lost for two medium-rise apartment blocks that insult the spatial order around them. Another portion of the same project is threatened by new construction and insensitive alterations to the adjacent apartment slab. Sasaki’s waterfront park may be destroyed. Two projects, Tiber Island and Harbour Square, have received local landmark status, but residents in some other compounds are wary of such protection, fearing a rise their assessments. The current municipal administration seems to regard the copious amounts of planned open space in the Southwest more as a potential cash cow emanating from new commercial development than a singular and distinguished area worth protecting. In the months and years ahead, it is likely to be the scene of prolonged, heated debates.
Image (right): Harbour Square, 1960-66, Chloethiel Woodard Smith, architect. Photo: Richard Longstreth, 2002.
1The residential tracts of the redevelopment area lie to the south of the concurrently constructed I-395. For a detailed history, see Richard Longstreth, “Brave New World: Southwest Washington and the Promise of Urban Renewal,” in Longstreth, ed., Housing Washington: Two Centuries of Residential Development and Planning in the National Capital Area (Center Books on American Places) (Chicago: Center for American Places and University of Chicago Press, 2010), 255-80, 353-65. To the north of the freeway lie blocks that were extensively, but far less imaginatively, developed with federal buildings.