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Soon, the first tenants will move into the latest fancy-schmancy apartment building to open in Shaw, the Bailey Flats at 926 N St. NW. The building’s elevation on N Street is unassuming: two four-story bays on either corner flank a recessed central bay with a stack of balconies above the main door. The facade is (what else?) gray, with one bright note—the green of the balcony railings.
Walk around the corner onto Blagden Alley, though, and the building bursts into color. Stripes of brick in marigold, blue, and eggplant run down the wall into the alley. The bricks are actually tiles, part of a modern rainscreen hung on the building; both the component, made in Europe, and its bold color scheme are unusual to see in D.C.
Already, just from reading this, some District residents will know who designed the Bailey Flats. The architect’s name is Suzane Reatig, her buildings stand out, and they are not universally beloved. In fact, some people really, really hate them. When an early version of this design was published on local blogs in 2012, commenters called it “awful,” “hideous,” “non-contextual,” and that old D.C. chestnut: “too tall.” After the brick rainscreen went up last fall, PoPville readers were divided; their comments ranged from “Beautiful!” to “institutional looking.”
Reatig may be the most polarizing architect in the District. Her style—strictly rectilinear, short on ornament, and long on glass and concrete block—won’t win everyone over. But some of the criticisms made about her work, like that it’s flimsily built, are unfounded. And with nearly 20 projects to her name in Shaw, Reatig has made modernism an integral part of a residential D.C. neighborhood for the first time since I.M. Pei came to Southwest in the 1960s.
The first major commission Reatig got was back in the early ’90s, not long after she opened her own studio in suburban Maryland. A Christian LGBTQ congregation asked her to design them a church. The site was at 5th and Ridge streets NW in Shaw, then mired in the crack war and gun violence. Members of the congregation—mostly white, young professionals—wanted to express a sense of welcome to their neighbors, who were wary of gentrifiers. But congregants wanted to feel safe, too. They were reeling from the AIDS epidemic. Reatig’s job was to design a church that met and balanced these competing needs on a tight budget.
The building that emerged from that brief is a high, vaulted cube of glass resting on a base of dusky-pink concrete blocks. The blocks wrap around the cube; on 5th Street, they form a low wall that tracks the incline of a set of outside stairs, then flows into a masonry volume adjoining the glass one. The rake of the wall and the sharp way it forms a niche for the second-story door complement the gentle curve of the roof.
As on N Street, there’s a surprise around the corner: a wide, low arch and chunky column mark the church’s Ridge Street entrance. After the lightness of all that glass, the feeling of compression here is oddly reassuring. Ducking into this little alcove, human-scaled and solid, brings home the meaning of the word “sanctuary.”
The Metropolitan Community Church earned Reatig a lot of attention when it first opened, and it still may be her best building. It has hints of James Stirling and Aldo Rossi, a postmodernism that has faded from her work now, except for her habitual pops of color. (Reatig’s electric railings remind me of Stirling’s lime-green ones at the Sackler Museum at Harvard.)
Since that time, Reatig’s architecture practice has thrived thanks to an improbable partnership. After her success with the MCC, a friend put Reatig in touch with another local church that needed help working through some zoning issues. The church was the United House of Prayer for All People, and Reatig’s relationship with its leaders has grown into one of loyal client and trusted designer.
Which is more surprising: that an institution so fond of lion-headed gates, domes, and mock minarets in its own buildings ushered a tide of spare modern architecture into D.C.? Or that a young progressive architect and Israeli immigrant found her best patron in an African-American church?
As UHOP purchased lots around Shaw for both affordable and market-rate housing, becoming a major landlord in the District, the church called on Reatig again and again. Most of her work in Shaw has been for UHOP, although she has developed a few projects herself. Late last year, she published a monograph, A Clear View, surveying her Shaw buildings and arguing that their ample windows promote openness and social connection in a changing city. Plotting Reatig’s career on a map of the neighborhood, you can see that gentrification began much longer ago than people assume, and that development by UHOP has been, at once, a bulwark against it and a contributing factor. Untangling that would require another article.
Women are still shockingly underrepresented in architecture. As a woman architect who owns her own firm, Reatig is a rarity, even more so now that she’s branched out into real-estate development. Suzane Reatig Architecture is something of a family business, with Reatig’s daughter Nooni Reatig, also an architect, directing the real-estate side. The five-person studio is in a blue rowhouse on 8th Street NW, sandwiched between the convention center and the blandly upper-class City Market at O Street. Inside the rowhouse, expanses of wood floors and white walls are punctuated by Nooni’s artworks—giant metal sculptures and neon-hued assemblies of netting and chains.
Sitting in a green wire chair in the conference room, Reatig told me her aim as a designer is to solve problems, not to make aesthetic statements for the sake of it. She believes in creating spaces that are healthy, which to her means bright, well-ventilated, and open. Many of her buildings have a courtyard at the heart. Reatig loves courtyards: The one at the National Portrait Gallery used to be her favorite spot to read the paper, before Norman Foster glazed it over. She points out that courtyards give her apartments an additional exposure, for better daylight and airflow; they also promote a social atmosphere, Nooni says, whether through residents sitting together outside or glimpsing each other from internal windows.
In many respects, Reatig, who was born in Israel and trained at The Technion in Haifa, comes across as a European architect. When she was a student, the architecture school at The Technion was under the sway of European faculty, a number of them affiliated with the Bauhaus. The rationality of Reatig’s designs, her belief in the health-giving potential of architecture, and her purposefully modest kit of materials all suggest the strong influence of the Bauhaus. (The Bauhaus also shaped the “white city” of Tel Aviv, where Reatig spent some of her childhood.)
Two common complaints about Reatig’s work are that her buildings look the same and that they look cheap. The sameness, which some might call coherence, is beyond question. The basic massing of the Bailey Flats—two piers linked by a crossbar in a U or H shape—reappears time and again. She often uses the same type of window, divided horizontally in similar proportions. As for cheapness, the windows aren’t refined: These are not buildings with exquisite details. But Reatig, who worked as a carpenter when she first arrived in the U.S., takes construction quality seriously. When she can, she exceeds code requirements to build the shell out of concrete rather than wood, to better protect against fire and insulate against noise.
Why does Reatig use such bright colors? Her answer is simple: because they bring people joy. Although colorful architecture is prevalent in Europe, Americans tend to associate it with low quality and with kids—schools, daycare centers, Ikea. That may account for the “Rubik’s Cube” criticisms of the Bailey Lofts at 7th and M streets NW, Reatig’s most controversial building.
True, it looks a little bit like someone reanimated Piet Mondrian, dropped him in D.C., and asked him to design apartments for yuppies. But viewed from 6th Street (rather than 7th, where the Mt. Vernon Square Metro station is), the primary colors don’t seem so jarring. After all, the building next door, a UHOP church, has a big gold dome and front steps covered in astroturf. Together, the buildings make an architectural odd couple that perfectly captures the Reatig-UHOP partnership. And cities need their strange blocks. You don’t have to live on one if you don’t want to.
Reatig is not a contextualist except when she has to be—and this being D.C., that’s a fair amount of the time. The funny thing is, the work she does under those constraints is very good, some of her best. My favorite Reatig project after MCC is Ridge Street Row, a set of four townhouses containing eight apartments. Brick fronts were required under historic-district rules, and Reatig designed them to float, separating them from the building itself with strips of sidelights. At the third floor, the facade tilts back sharply and becomes all glass, a bit like the mansard roof on an old building in Paris. So the houses gain height without appearing top-heavy or wrecking the block’s roofline. It’s a graceful alternative to ugly pop-ups.
Touches like that explain why Reatig has lots of fans as well as detractors. The talk she gave on her book at Politics & Prose this winter was packed, and a walking tour of her Shaw buildings on May 21 has sold out. It’s hard to imagine buildings like the Watha T. Daniel Library or Atlantic Plumbing going up without the precedent that Reatig set. Anyone who likes seeing more ambitious contemporary architecture in the District should be grateful to have her in town.