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April 14, 2009 I.M. Pei, Richard Neutra, Southwest

Modern Capital’s Letter on Dwell’s D.C. ‘Detour’

I just received the new issue of Dwell, which contains a letter to the editor I wrote in response to the magazine’s “Detour” piece on D.C. that ran in the December/January issue. At the time, I wrote that I was surprised to see that the modernist enclave of Southwest was not mentioned in the piece. Hats off to Dwell for running the letter and including the blog’s URL.

As someone who blogs about Washington, D.C.’s modern architecture (moderncapital.blogspot.com), I was excited to see the December/January 2009 “Detour” article. While the piece touched on Richard Neutra’s Brown House, Gordon Bunshaft’s Hirshhorn Museum and I.M. Pei’s Slayton House, you overlooked a major part of the D.C. story: the mid-century modern enclave of Southwest Washington.

As the area goes through another period of urban renewal, Southwest remains the largest urban-renewal project in U.S. history. The efforts in the 1950s and ’60s to create a “modernist Utopia” led to structures by leading modernist architects, such as Chloethiel Woodard Smith, Charles Goodman, Morris Lapidus, Marcel Breuer, Harry Weese and the team of Arthur Keyes, Francis Donald Lethbridge and David Condon.

In his excellent AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington, D.C., G. Martin Moeller Jr. (your featured expert) writes that while many urban renewal projects have “come to symbolize indiscriminate destruction of neighborhoods (squalid though they may have been) in favor of drab, soulless superblocks … much of the redevelopment in the Southwest quadrant was of unusually high quality, avoiding the pitfalls that plagued many such projects elsewhere. Notwithstanding the sensitive social issues surrounding the genesis of such endeavors, several of the housing developments in Southwest are among the best works of large-scale urban architecture of their era.”

I’m sure Moeller mentioned in your discussions the significance of the modernism on display in Southwest. I just wished you had decided to write about it. Your readers missed out on a a fascinating story.