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April 27, 2010 Southwest

Post: Southwest ‘Takes Turn for the Better’

Charles Goodman's River Park townhomes in Southwest.

The Post’s Lisa Rein has a piece in today’s paper about the revitalization of Southwest. More than 50 years ago, the area underwent a massive transformation, representing at the time the largest urban renewal project in U.S. history.  The effort to create a “modernist Utopia” in the nation’s capital was led by the likes of Chloethiel Woodard Smith, Charles Goodman, I.M. Pei, Morris Lapidus, Keyes, Lethbridge and Condon, Marcel Breuer, Edward Durell Stone and Harry Weese. This mid-century modern redevelopment effort was even highlighted in a exhibition at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. While it received a lot of attention and many appreciate the modernist architecture in the area, many critics believe that the goal the architects and planners sought was not achieved.

“Southwest, in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, is a mix of federal workers, the elderly, professionals and public housing. It was targeted by the federal government for wholesale urban renewal in the 1950s, with blocks of brick rowhouses almost entirely torn down. Thousands of residents were displaced,” Rein writes. “New modernist architecture replaced the old, with vast stretches of concrete, high-rises and minimal stores. It was the opposite of the style favored by today’s city planners, who believe that Washington should be remade into walkable neighborhoods with dense development around Metro stations and first-floor retail.”

Hud Building

Marcel Breuer's brutalist HUD building. Photo by Cecille Chen.

Even Smith, who was one of the key visionaries of Southwest, acknowledged the design’s shortcomings. “Despite the good qualities of Smith’s design, there were serious problems in the overall redevelopment scheme,” Catherine Zipf writes in “A Female Modernist in a Classical Capital. “As her own worst critic, Smith was the first to point them out, asking publicly if the Southwest was ‘a place where someone wants to live? I don’t think it is. In many ways we went too fast and didn’t experiment enough with the architectural possibilities.'”

Today, Smith’s Waterside Mall has been replaced by new office towers and a new Safeway. As Southwest continues to evolve, hopefully the positives of the work of these modern masters can be preserved while at the same time breathing new life into the capital’s mid-century modernist enclave.

Despite the good qualities of Smith’s design, there were

serious problems in the overall redevelopment scheme. As

her own worst critic, Smith was the first to point them out,

asking publicly if the Southwest was “a place where someone

wants to live? I don’t think it is. In many ways we went too

fast and didn’t experiment enough with the architectural

possibilities.” Absent from Capitol Park were commercial,

cultural and community spaces, all of which were

concentrated at the Waterside Mall, at 4th and M Sts., SW.

Smith lamented the lack of simple amenities, like bookstores,

calling her development “lonely” and “isolated.” While she

herself accepted plenty of blame, she also pointed out that

Washington’s strict zoning rules had caused the

compartmentalization of different spatial uses into large

areas. Capitol Park, flaws and all, won several awards,

including an AIA Award of Merit in 1960, but Smith was

determined to resolve at least some of these problems in her

next project, Harbour Square

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