Get our free newsletter
Let’s say a developer wants to build an office building in D.C. He hopes to attract prestigious, deep-pocketed tenants: a law firm, a lobbying shop, maybe a tech company. He calls an architect in New York, someone who’s won glitzy awards and been profiled in the Times.
The architect comes down on the Acela for a meeting. The developer listens politely as he runs through a few ideas. Then he stops him and explains: D.C. is not New York. Progressive architecture sticks out like a sore thumb—or a red flag for the zoning and preservation boards—here. Also, because of the height limit, developers build out to the edges of the lot to make the numbers work better. Any design with a distinctive shape comes at the cost of square footage.
He points at a glistening wall across the street: “Can you design me something like that?”
Ask and it shall be delivered. Since the beginning of the boom, the type of building known as a glass box has become ubiquitous around D.C. Not just offices, but even some theaters (the Shakespeare Theatre’s Harman Center) and museums (the Newseum) are glass-box affairs. One reason is technology. Unlike the glass buildings of a few decades ago, the new ones aren’t plagued by heat loss and moisture problems, and the daylight they let in earns points toward LEED, a green standard that’s required for many large structures.
The opening in 2014 of CityCenter, designed by the UK’s Norman Foster and D.C.’s Shalom Baranes, seemed like the height of Washington’s glass-box obsession. But turn to the real estate news today, and what’s on the boards? CityCenter’s Phase 2, a super-glassy hotel. A corporate headquarters (for Fannie Mae) resembling two giant ice cubes. A Dupont Circle office building with a facade that ripples and dissolves into shards.
Glass boxes are never eyesores, but that’s only because they never take any risks. The architect Adolf Loos, setting the course for Modernism in the early 20th century, famously wrote that ornament is a crime. The crime of the ornament-free glass box is its relentless blandeur. Its unwillingness to cause offense is, itself, slightly offensive.
Builders of glass boxes like to tout their “transparency,” but as critics have pointed out, glass buildings usually aren’t transparent; they’re just glassy. The notion that buildings made of stone or brick follow the architectural styles of their era while the glass box somehow transcends style is wrong. Glass boxitude is its own style—self-consciously democratic, yet politically flexible. (The Cato Institute operates out of a glass box, as do the LGBTQ nonprofit Human Rights Campaign and the lobbyist law firm DLA Piper.)
Designs for the new generation of glass boxes do show innovations on the formula. The New York firm SHoP wants to add greenish copper fins and skywalks to Fannie Mae’s HQ. Architect Joshua Prince-Ramus of REX would use concave panes of glass, with no mullions, for his M Street building. When the hotel at CityCenter, by Herzog & de Meuron, was first unveiled, it had a facade like a glass quilt with delicate fluting.
But I’m skeptical that these variations amount to the revolution in building type some press coverage has implied. Look at what happened at CityCenter. Updated images of the hotel show a more ordinary building: The convex panes and fluting are gone, presumably to cut costs or meet a tight construction schedule. Fannie Mae is getting hammered by the Federal Housing Finance Agency over the cost of its new HQ. Value engineering seems to be on the horizon. Maybe Prince-Ramus will be able to pull off his own special effects, but will they be as ethereal as those in the renderings?
The sad thing is that any of these talented architects could have given us something much more interesting. Glass boxes aren’t their specialty—they’re just what D.C. demands.
Elsewhere in the world, ironically, the fetish for glass seems to be over. Although much improved from the 1970s, glass curtain walls still absorb heat in summer and lose it in winter, and the light that floods into them can be excessive, which is why you often see sun screens on the outside. Some architects are switching back to opaque materials—London has an emerging style dubbed “Brickism.” New technology is also making it possible to build tall buildings out of wood, which will have great environmental benefits (to learn more, visit the “Timber City” exhibition at the National Building Museum right now).
D.C. is slowly catching on. To redevelop its clinic on 14th Street NW, Whitman-Walker Health has tapped Annabelle Selldorf, a New York architect known for her use of terra cotta. The developer EastBanc hired the acclaimed Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura to design a small brick-and-concrete residential building in Georgetown.
Other developers and institutions in D.C. should follow their lead. New approaches to building with brick, ceramic, concrete, wood, and stone aren’t just fashionable—they’d suit our historic, midrise city to perfection. Think of all the street-level details to enjoy on walks around town, instead of flat, boring glass: brickwork patterns, glazed terra cotta, columns of warm wood.
One reason for the initial appeal of the glass box was that it formed a clear hyphen between the solid buildings on either side of it, a welcome breathing space. That’s still true, but the balance between heavy and light buildings in D.C. has shifted. If it shifts much further, we’ll be in trouble. Imagine endless curtains of glass stretching down Washington’s avenues. Who wants to live inside a hall of mirrors?