Credit: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

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There is a tense moment in Red, John Logan’s play about the painter Mark Rothko, when the artist and his assistant prepare to prime a canvas. This is the boring part of an artist’s actual workday, but in Red, the priming takes on a special gravity, as master and student savage the canvas with ochre paint. At Arena Stage this winter, in the moment before the actors threw themselves and their brushes at the raw surface, the silence in the Kreeger Theater was palpable, an intense, terrifying void. Thanks to Bing Thom.

“In order to hear good sound from performances or theater, the most important thing is the gap between the words or the gap between the music,” says Thom, 71, the architect who rethought Arena Stage—down to making sure Arena patrons don’t hear airplanes flying into Reagan National Airport, as they did for decades, when the space should be completely quiet. “In the gap, you create the suspension for what’s to come. If you’re not able to create silence in the space and exterior noise comes in during the gap, the whole presentation is lost. It could be the hum of a light switch, an ambulance, an air conditioner coming on. It’s the pace of the delivery. The pace of the delivery, you create by the gaps.”

With Arena’s Mead Center for American Theater, which opened in 2010 on the waterfront site the company has occupied since 1960, Thom may have been looking to create those gaps. But in his architectural practice, he’s always filling them in. The Hong Kong–born, Vancouver-based architect is credited with an approach to design and planning that has elevated “Vancouverism” to a term of art within the industry. Thom stands for a notion of high urban density and reliance on mass transit, a philosophy that arrived in D.C. with Mayor Anthony Williams’ administration but has been in vogue in the City of Glass for more than half a century.

Thom has worked in Vancouver for most of his career. He knows what he’s talking about when it comes to theater design: His Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, completed in Vancouver in 1997, features a 41-ton acoustic canopy that can be adjusted to accommodate different kinds of performers. The facade of Thom’s Sunset Community Centre appears to open directly onto Main Street in South Vancouver, promoting transparency. In the urbanizing suburb of Surrey—Vancouver’s Rosslyn—Thom designed both the vibrant, massive Central City mixed-use development as well as the swooping Surrey City Centre Library, which opened last year. Thom anticipated the population of British Columbia’s fastest-growing city would outgrow a new 65,000-square-foot library in as soon as five years, so he got the city to agree to an 83,000-square-foot building instead.

Now, Thom is looking to fill the gaps in the District’s Southwest quadrant, left by some of the 20th century’s most important architects.

Arena Stage was Thom’s first project in the District. The city announced his follow-up in April: Along with the firm Wiencek + Associates, Bing Thom Architects will design the new Woodridge Library on Hamlin Street NE. Then there’s the Randall School project at 65 I St. SW, blocks away from Arena Stage in Southwest. Miami real-estate mavens and art collectors Don and Mera Rubell purchased the site in 2010 from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and they intend to build a hotel and art museum there. (The Rubells also own the nearby Capitol Skyline Hotel, where Thom recently opened his second office.)

Bing Thom’s model for a museum and hotel at the site of the Randall School at 65 I St. SW.
Courtesy Bing Thom Architects

While the Rubells raise money for the project, the Randall School remains another gap in a quadrant that has a wealth of them. “When you talk about the city, the gaps to me are the public spaces,” Thom says. “The developer will always look after the private space. Who looks after the public space? It’s the difference between a good city and a bad city.”

With two large projects in Southwest—and more, Thom hopes, coming down the pipeline—the architect is looking to alter the fabric of Washington. In Southwest, he envisions tearing through cul-de-sacs and reconnecting a once-fully-expressed urban grid. Thom sees retail going in, but any developer will say you need that. Thom is the guy who’ll tell you that he’ll see I-395 buried before the end of his lifetime.

“My client is more than the person who pays me,” Thom says. “My client is society and the public.”

The time for the public to take an interest in Southwest is now—technically, through Sept. 10. The National Capital Planning Commission is currently accepting public comments on its newly unveiled Southwest Ecodistrict draft plan, an initiative launched in 2010 with 17 federal and local agencies. Over the summer, the NCPC kicked into full campaign mode. “How many people are familiar with the Southwest area, south of the National Mall, where all the federal agencies are located?” asked NCPC’s Diane Sullivan at an information session on the plan. “It’s a lot of concrete. I don’t need to spend a lot of time describing it.” Later, she added, “You don’t have to look hard to see what’s wrong with this picture here.”

If the present Southwest is concrete gray, the new Southwest is supposed to be sustainability green. The Ecodistrict plan, which envisions a total overhaul of a 110-acre area of the quadrant, is just the first step of an overarching transformation. The federal program, steered by government planners and architects looking to rethink Federal City, is bolstered by a separate push by private developers and architects looking to build the next Georgetown waterfront. Working in the area between them is Thom, who has already delivered one architectural gem in Arena Stage; his preliminary designs for the Randall School project look just as ambitious.

There’s only one problem. The last time Washington brought in architects to save the city, we got Southwest.

In the 1930s, the landscape architect Elbert Peets, a co-author of the famous civic art and architecture treatise American Vitruvius and a planner for the U.S. Housing Authority, pitched a plan for Southwest.

According to Tom Luebke, the secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, the plan was one of the early signs that something about the D.C. neighborhood had gone wrong. While Southwest boasted a very active waterfront at the turn of the century, development soon moved north and west. Maps from the era tell the story: As economic activity in the area decreased over time, fewer and fewer boats made it into the illustrations. The working-class neighborhood was growing poorer, and Peets wanted to do something about it. He meant to turn the tide by filling in vacant spaces and other incremental changes—the kind of recommendation that might win over the urbanist bloggers of Greater Greater Washington today.

“Progressively, there are waves of plans through the ’40s that start to get more and more invasive and massive,” says Luebke. The Southwest of the 1950s was a “perfectly normal urban condition,” he says: plenty of rowhouses, lots of vacant storefronts. “The planning became much more important than design at some point. They just decided to bulldoze everything south of the Mall down to the Waterfront,” he says. In the 1940s, Congress authorized the Redevelopment Land Agency to do exactly that; it evicted the neighborhood’s home and business owners through voluntary payouts and eminent domain, displacing some 23,000 residents. Southwest became unrecognizable. “It was like Dresden,” Luebke says.

Louis Justement and Chloethiel Woodard Smith were two prominent architects who guided this effort. The Justement-Smith plan preserved almost nothing of the neighborhood’s 19th-century character, with a few exceptions, like the Maine Avenue Fish Market and Saint Dominic Parish. The 1950s also saw New York City developer William Zeckendorf pushing plans to build a cultural center where L’Enfant Plaza stands today, and where Victorian rowhouses had previously stood. (That cultural hub eventually materialized, but not in L’Enfant Plaza: Foggy Bottom got the Kennedy Center instead.) Tellingly, a map showing plans for Southwest that Zeckendorf drew up with architect I.M. Pei didn’t depict commercial activity along the Waterfront. They hadn’t considered it.

“Not only is it a large urban renewal in Southwest, but the government took the land, so the land did not go initially to developers,” says Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, who describes himself as “an amateur student of the built environment.” Architects like Smith, Pei, Harry Weese, Morris Lapidus, and Charles Goodman—many of the starchitects of their day—replaced Victorian rowhouses with so-called superblocks, “which was a terrible idea,” Wells says. “It was all RFPed out to architects.”

So was a great deal of D.C. at the time. Weese is best known for designing the first Metro stations (and setting the cavernous feel of the entire system). Smith would have been better known for her “Ponte Vecchio,” a bridge that would have spanned the waterway between Southwest and East Potomac Park had it been built. Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum in New York City is beloved by many; his headquarters for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Southwest, not so much.

Consider L’Enfant Plaza—that lowlight of the Green Line, that armpit of federal Washington—whose history is marked by starts and stops, with one developer after another handing off the baton. Three architects deserve the bulk of the blame: Pei, who gave D.C. the National Gallery’s East Wing, planned the whole mess. His associate Araldo Cossutta contributed the plaza’s North Building and South Building. Vlastimil Koubek added the East Building (the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel) and West Building (now the U.S. Postal Service headquarters).

Koubek did more to set the look and feel of Washington than anyone since L’Enfant: He shepherded the renovation of the Willard Hotel and planned Rosslyn. He also gave us the backbone of the L’Enfant Promenade on 10th Street SW. Rarely does anyone ever stop to curse his name, though. The architecture in the plaza is so totalistic, so overwhelming, that it goes without saying—and often without much thought—that it is hostile to humans.

Meanwhile, the pleasures of Southwest go unnoticed. Thom is quick to point to the work of landscape architect Dan Kiley, who designed Benjamin Banneker Park and planned rich courtyards and pavilions throughout residential Southwest, some of which still exist. The landscape architect Hideo Sazaki, who co-designed President John F. Kennedy’s grave site, has a footprint in Southwest: the waterfront park. Courtyards large and small, at midlevel apartment buildings designed by Smith, Lapidus, Weese, and Pei and lined with now-mature trees by Sazaki and Kiley, make the neighborhood verdant and unique, Thom says.

But as Southwest failed, those courtyards, envisioned as public spaces that would bring the neighborhood’s residents together, became neglected or inaccessible. “With the built utopian design, what didn’t work is they thought that having a labyrinth of interconnected pathways behind the buildings and such would get people walking to each other’s neighborhoods and homes and all that,” Wells says. “And what has happened over time is that it’s all been closed off and locked and gated.”

The failure of urban renewal in Southwest, however, also inspired Thom’s career. “I came to Washington as a student of architecture on a scholarship in 1964,” Thom says. “[What I saw at L’Enfant Plaza] changed my life, because I took one look out there and I said, ‘This can’t be the way to build cities.’”

L’Enfant Plaza was still four years from dedication the first time Thom came to the District, in 1964, on a student trip to see buildings by Pei and Goodman. The plans for the plaza horrified him. But much of Southwest charmed him, in particular the courtyards that today are still on lockdown.

Washington was by that time already a very different city than Vancouver. That’s where Thom spent his formative years, and where he now lives today with his wife, Bonnie Thom, in a condo he designed himself. The two met not long after Thom emigrated from Hong Kong to Vancouver at the age of 9. High-school sweethearts, they met at the library, which he brings up when discussing his sweeping designs for the highly praised Surrey City Centre Library in British Columbia. His principal affectations are a twice-daily meditation routine and a 35-foot yacht. He is also the rare architect willing to fire a shot across the bow at a potential client—as he did just last year, when he publicly opposed a plan by a big Vancouver developer to bring a casino to the city.

After receiving his master’s at the University of California-Berkeley and spending a year under the wing of the esteemed Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, Thom returned to Vancouver in the early 1970s. In 1972, Thom joined the practice of Arthur Erickson, whose name is closely linked to Vancouverism. (The other principal Vancouverists are urbanist and city philosopher Jane Jacobs and Erickson’s protégés, James Cheng and Thom.)

Thom’s visit to Washington as a young man registered with him, he says. Even that early into his career, he was already a devoted student of Jacobs, whose work took in Canada long before it turned heads in the U.S. He likes to tell a story from his student days, about confronting an acolyte of Robert Moses, the champion of Manhattanization who favored highways over public transit. Thom says he stood up and interrupted the lecture, which was about the practice of urban renewal—which often means relocating current inhabitants. “How can you do this?” he asked. “There are people who live in these communities.”

That’s what happened in Southwest, before I-395 and a “magazine of architects,” as Thom likes to put it, displaced thousands of Washington households. The urban-renewal program that followed led the best architects of the day to rethink how people lived. “I don’t know of any other small neighborhood in America where there was such experimentation, all within 10 years, of different ways of living in medium to high density,” Thom says.

It’s funny, then, that Thom’s hope in Washington revolves almost entirely around taking the architecture of urban renewal—really, the single greatest urban-renewal program of the 20th century—and making it work.

Thom is a boater, so when Arena Stage’s artistic director, Molly Smith, approached him about redesigning the theater 12 years ago, he came to Washington and walked the Waterfront. He began drawing diagrams and doing the math: Twenty-two different streets had been interrupted in Southwest and in near Southeast as a result of superblocks and other Modernist moves such as cul-de-sacs. He showed his drawings to Anthony Williams, then the mayor, who asked him to join his commission on the Anacostia River waterfront, where Thom worked closely with Andrew Altman, then the director of the D.C. Office of Planning.

Thom also worked with the Office of Planning on the approach to the Waterside Mall, the hulking commercial project designed by Chloethiel Woodard Smith where the Waterfront Metro station and development now stands. The demolition of the hulking and little-loved mall, which occupied 13 acres between 1962 and 2007, opened up 2.5 million square feet of development. Thom served as a consultant on the project and on the decision to stitch together 4th Street SW. The Waterfront Station development is currently the beating commercial heart of the quadrant. Thom says he’ll implement some of the same ideas for the Randall School.

What else would Thom’s Southwest look like? If he had his way, the cul-de-sacs would go, he says, because the neighborhood lacks thoroughfares. (He designed Arena Stage as a shortcut between the Waterfront Metro and the marina. People can walk right through.) Ferries would crisscross the channel, and he still sees room to build Smith’s Ponte Vecchio bridge.

As for the superblock apartment buildings, Thom acknowledges their drawbacks. “This idea of tall buildings, on stilts, far apart, with parks in between, is to give you privacy,” he says. “But that divorces that sense of neighborliness. They’re gated communities, but vertical. They’re tense or scary spaces, like the corridor of an apartment building.”

A lot of the buildings, even some of the superstructures, should be preserved, Thom says. In revising Arena Stage, for example, he had to maintain the two pre-existing Brutalist theaters, designed by Weese—so he shrink-wrapped it all in a glass curtain wall. He’ll do something similar with the Randall School, if tentative designs are any indication, preserving the historic brick façade while building a cantilevered glass structure above it. He describes the portion of the development that will host a museum as “the necklace.”

The architecture of Southwest is too “masculine,” Thom says, but the original concepts can be rescued. Luebke agrees. “I don’t think there’s anything about the architectural design itself. Closing the grid—which of course is the circulation, the capillary system that gives life to this city—the grid has been drastically interrupted in the Southwest area,” Luebke, of the CFA, says. “Then the insertion of these big infrastructure pieces: the highway, the trains, to some extent these big mega-buildings. Waterfront Mall is a perfect example of this big development they put in the middle of 4th Street. There are planning problems that can be fixed.”

For his part, Wells says Thom is in a better position to make lasting changes in Southwest than some who have come before him. Southwest wasn’t ready for whatever the Corcoran College of Art + Design had in mind for the Randall School when the institution bought it from the city in 2006. The local Advisory Neighborhood Commission demanded serious concessions from the Corcoran to approve the sale of the vacant school, which had served as a homeless shelter and artist studios because artists and homeless people had moved in. This quid pro quo would have included free classes for neighborhood residents and a major art festival on the Corcoran’s dime.

“That particular ANC had a track record for a while of assuming any new developer had to pay a toll. That particular one took it to a pretty high level,” Wells says. “They are rethinking that approach, to where they’re starting to go back to that most important thing—the project, not the payments….I don’t see that friction being there this time.”

Today, there are much bigger forces working in Southwest than rent-seeking ANCs, but they’re still there, too. Still, at the end of July, ANC 6D did an about-face on a project that will do more than any other single development to change Southwest’s image. After first opposing it in June, the commission voted to support the proposal put forward by developers Hoffman-Madison Waterfront—the plan for the Southwest Waterfront.

With the Mall on one side and the Waterfront on the other, Southwest should be the most desirable real estate in D.C.

It may yet turn out to be. In July, President Barack Obama signed into law a bill enabling D.C. to go forward with its plans for the Southwest Waterfront, a $2 billion facelift beginning to be completed by 2016. EE&K, a design firm with offices in D.C. and the master planner for Hoffman-Madison’s 3.2-million-square-foot development, intends to turn Maine Avenue SW into a destination, like Pike Place in Seattle, complete with a market square and a city pier. “That in and of itself might create the weight of commercial activity that it will start to jump-start the neighborhood,” Luebke says. “As that comes online—it’s big, these are 13-story buildings on the Waterfront, there’s a 3,000-seat performance venue—it becomes another part of the city. It becomes a real draw.”

Southwest is also a draw for the feds. On the National Mall, space for new memorials, monuments, and other civic features is at a premium, and almost gone. The Monumental Core Framework Plan, a joint blueprint adopted by the NCPC and the Commission on Fine Arts, addresses the future needs of the Mall in part by opening up Southwest to civic spillover.

“What we’ve been working for on the federal side is to make better connections to the city so it feels like less of an isolated place,” Luebke says. “The single most important goal of the Framework Plan was to try to create a connection down out of the Mall, over the freeway, down to the Waterfront.”

Under the new framework, the Mall would no longer serve as the bright-line distinction between Southwest and the rest of Washington. While there are no plans in place at the moment, the next Mall museum could feasibly land in Southwest. The National Museum of African American History and Culture considered it before deciding on a parcel just west of the National Museum of American History. And adopting a more expansive notion of the Mall might ease the way forward for the proposed National Museum of the American Latino, a potential Smithsonian museum that has seen some resistance simply for the fact that there doesn’t appear to be any place to put it.

“There’s actually museums and memorials considering this area for their development projects,” says Sullivan of the NCPC. “NCPC a long time ago said this would be a wonderful area for new museums and memorials, but people were reluctant to come here. And now I think all of this has put this area on the cusp of change.”

In addition to pondering value and purpose, look-and-feel, and community, planners are once again turning to utopian solutions for the neighborhood. The latest plan asks: Why isn’t Southwest the greenest project in the city?

The area encompassed by the Ecodistrict—all told, 15 blocks roughly bound by Independence Avenue, Maine Avenue, 4th Street, and 12th Street—would by 2030 be unrecognizable. Some of the more conservative parts of the plan are bike lanes and the replacement of impervious surfaces with structures like planters, which would promote stormwater runoff. But renderings from the public-review draft also include LED street lighting, photovoltaic energy sources, greywater irrigation, green roofs, even green walls—along with aspirational residents visiting would-be farmers markets along a streetcar line. Turning 15 blocks of Southwest D.C. into Vancouver isn’t impossible. But decking Maryland Avenue and parts of the Southwest Freeway and restoring the urban grid with air-rights development would be a much bigger project than, say, the streetcar on H Street NE.

“NCPC’s planning work in Southwest has largely concentrated on the area within the Ecodistrict boundaries because of the predominately federal ownership and presence,” says NCPC Executive Director Marcel Acosta. “We share the goal of the District and the community to provide better transit, walking, and biking access and connections within Southwest and to adjoining neighborhoods,” he adds.

The last time such an ambitious architectural program was tested? Right here in Washington.

Not all the big strokes of Smith, Pei, and their peers can be erased. A lot of those cul-de-sacs, for example, can’t be removed without removing the homes that attend them. And Thom, for one, wouldn’t want to redevelop every superblock. He says he’d start by encouraging residents to unlock the courtyards. What about placing a daycare in a central block-sized courtyard? Simply opening these spaces up might foster some new uses, he says.

It’s certainly possible the public efforts to save Southwest won’t work. The most conservative parts of the overarching plan for the neighborhood are virtually untested in the U.S.; the most elaborate elements are extraordinarily expensive. The fundamental vision—to make Southwest a “showcase of sustainable urban development”—is hardly the first time the neighborhood has been thought of as a proving ground. Even if the new Southwest avoids corner-cutting and greenwashing, there are still the philosophical challenges: Do you impose new ideas or expose overlooked ones? Build a new urban grid or tweak the old one?

“The [NCPC] brought me on to ask, ‘Should we save these mid-century Modern experiments as examples?’ There’s not a lot of it done like what’s done in Southwest,” Thom says. “It’s in a way a very interesting laboratory for future generations. But it has enormous financial ramifications for eight to 10 square blocks of very valuable parts of the capital. More people need to engage in this discussion.”

Whatever a discussion of Southwest’s future yields, Thom appears to be one of the figures who will help forge it. “Bing Thom seems to have fallen for the D.C. area. He has offices at the Skyline Inn. Those offices are not just for the Randall School,” Wells says. “He seems to want to design more in D.C. I think the whole city—he has interest in the whole city.”

But Thom isn’t just interested in building a bright new Washington. He believes that what happens in D.C. could influence the next great era of urban planning, especially in the world’s architectural frontier, China. He says he’s talked to skeptical Chinese authorities about working on city design in the rapidly industrializing country. (He has long dreamed of building an opera house for China, and may see one through in Shijiazhuang.) There, he says, planners and architects are making many of the same mistakes they once made in Washington.

Southwest could be instructive either way: as a model city, or as a cautionary tale.

“It would be a wonderful place to take young Chinese architects,” Thom says. “They’re building these awful places. You could show them, ‘Hey, you’re repeating this.’”