‘Tall DC’ Project Envisions a DC With Skyscrapers

by Lark Turner

'Tall DC' Project Envisions a DC With Skyscrapers: Figure 1

A group of Catholic University architecture students and their rabble-rousing professors have proposed a set of skyscrapers for a prime DC location: smack dab in the middle of the National Mall on the site of the Department of Commerce building at 1401 Constitution Avenue NW (map). The proposals are meant to challenge the way Americans think about monuments and urban development.

TALL DC: New Monumentalism, an exhibition that will debut at AIA|DC on May 29, showcases the three proposals that flout the 1910 Height Act in favor of modern, dramatic skyscrapers that would transform DC’s downtown.

The Height Act restricts any building in DC that is even half as tall as those proposed, and the students’ project is meant to be provocative, said one of the professors, Daniel D. Gillen, an architect who specializes in computational design. Gillen, who taught the class with Catholic University professor Lavinia Fici Pasquina, grew up in Northern Virginia and was shocked to see how little the city center had changed when he returned last August after 15 years away.

“It was exactly the same as I’d left it,” he told UrbanTurf. “When I was a kid, we used to spill our drinks on the subway carpet. I came back and it’s the same orange carpet.”

Gillen envisioned a project that looked at how DC could evolve, both with regard to the Height Act as well as comprehensive urban development strategies. The class decided to focus on the idea of modern towers that are about 120 percent taller than the 555-foot Washington Monument. The Height of Buildings Act of 1910 means buildings in the District max out at 130 feet. By contrast, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, currently the tallest building in the world, is 2,717 feet tall.

“I had a sort of overwhelming feeling that DC is a static object, so I thought, ‘Let’s try to look a little bit at urbanism and what the effects of breaking through the Height Act would be,’” he said. “The students were looking both at what constitutes a monument in terms of their forms as well as what they stand for, and then evolving that to the current market.”

Here are the three proposals:

'Tall DC' Project Envisions a DC With Skyscrapers: Figure 2

The EVE: Elevated Viewing Experience

This building, designed by John Abowd, Elizabeth Esposito and Brittany Fernald, creates public atriums for performances, events or business activities.

  • Maximum height: 1,200 feet
  • Design features: Parametrically defined window apertures bulge and orient towards existing monuments creating public atriums

'Tall DC' Project Envisions a DC With Skyscrapers: Figure 3

You can check out a video visualization of this tower here.

'Tall DC' Project Envisions a DC With Skyscrapers: Figure 4


A fluid-looking building by Rayan Hakeem, Mani Kordestani and Ryan Nugent used historic floodplains to drive home the idea of bursting through the Commerce building’s courtyard.

  • Maximum height: 1,041 feet
  • Design features: Computational facade systems allowed an inherently non-linear building to be constructed of all planar surfaces.

'Tall DC' Project Envisions a DC With Skyscrapers: Figure 5

The Iceberg

This design by Marie Hunnell, Azita Soltani Far and Nina Tatic, offers up a cluster of buildings intended to minimize shadows on existing monuments.

  • Maximum height: 1,000 feet
  • Design features: Clusters use reduced volume in heavily shaded areas, while computed solar paths eliminate shading cast on existing monuments throughout the year.

'Tall DC' Project Envisions a DC With Skyscrapers: Figure 6

The projects were designed to play off of DC’s biggest monuments, including the Capitol and Washington Monument. One team created bulging, atrium-like viewing spaces where occupants could look at the historic monuments at an unusual vantage point: from above. Another used a particular type of solar analysis to limit the shadows cast by the building.

Gillen said these types of projects are rare at American schools, because they’re seen as impossible. As for the provocative nature, well, Gillen questions that too.

“The fact that it’s even deemed controversial is really surprising to me,” he said. “These things are possible. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. … There’s a risk aversion in people’s minds in America toward construction and building, and after seeing what I’ve seen, there’s no need to feel that way.

“There are construction methodologies that can create buildings that are amazing. This project is a way to expand our minds a bit. What could be possible? Do we have to limit ourselves?”

Images via Catholic University of America School of Architecture and Planning in cooperation with AIA|DC with support from ABC Imaging.

This article originally published at https://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/tall_dc_project_from_catholic_university_challenges_height_acts_limitations/8494


  1. alexander.r.tomlinson@gmail.com said at 8:55 pm on Thursday May 15, 2014:
    Interesting project for the students to analyze DC. Some feedback for the students should they take this project further: 1. Don't listen to individual naysayers about what DC should or shouldn't be- this is an area that needs to be studied. We aren't just architects, we are also citizens, and we are allowed to question the public realm we live in. Instead, listen to what the context (DC's urban typology) is telling you. 2. I'd argue this kind of scale will never be appropriate for DC in our lifetime, as height is only a product of two things: economics and ego. Simply put, DC does not have the land values to push this city to this height...yet. This isn't to put a damper on the project- what this project needs a statement that says why height of this magnitude is necessary (outside of its provocative "wow" factor). 3. I believe this kind of proposal goes best with an urban planning proposal, as projects of this scale will never go under construction in a vacuum. You may have already done a study of the city, but without this study shown together with the work make this tall building a hard pill to swallow. In all, these are very interesting projects and respond to the city in different massing. Some try to hide their mass, others try to provide context where there is none. An interesting study, and great to see architects questioning their surroundings!
  1. mcdmanco@yahoo.com said at 5:29 pm on Friday May 16, 2014:
    Provocative? Absolutely. Stupid, on some many esoteric and practical levels? Stunningly more so. The provocateurs couldn't even find the professional energy or courtesy to do anything more than conjure up these CAD images. Crawl back up into your Ivory Tower.
  1. jcthompsondc@gmail.com said at 7:16 pm on Monday May 19, 2014:
    When they built the Washington Monument, people called it the "Stump on the Potomac". It was NOT well received. When the "temporary" Eiffel Tower was built, it was LOATHED by most Parisians. These are now loved & cherished. People resist change, but change is the only constant in the world. I give it a HUGE "thumbs up" - if anything like this ever came to pass, it'd change that stuffy, stuck in the past syndrome DC is stuck in. Here's a challenge: Visit London and note the differences between it and DC. Then come back to DC. The 21st century is here & the old NIMBY's will (thankfully) move into retirement homes in the suburbs or die out. Time for DC to step it up & move forward with real plans to become a competitive city on a global scale. 😃

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