Architect David Adjaye: Beyond the Monumental

He Has Turned His Eye Toward Georgetown, Designing a Residential Building That Could Change How We See the Town

Everyone agrees it’s monumental. That’s not always a compliment, though, even in Washington, D.C.

Occupying the last available site on the National Mall, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture opened last September, the ribbon cut by Barack Obama.

In the heat of the 2016 presidential campaign, the building and its contents caught Washington’s — and the world’s — attention as few cultural entities have done in decades (the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which opened in 1993, comes to mind). Despite extended hours, the free timed tickets immediately “sold out” for at least two months. More than five months later, in winter, there are still lines.

Faced not in marble, granite or concrete, but in a lattice of 3,600 patterned, bronze-colored aluminum panels, the museum is semi-transparent, its façade broken by nine irregularly placed cutouts that frame views of the Washington Monument, the White House, the Lincoln Memorial and the Mall.

The latticework is meant to recall the wrought-iron balconies fashioned by slaves in Charleston and New Orleans. Light plays on this textured, textile-like surface, modulating its color from brown to copper to gold.

In addition, the museum’s website explains: “the openness to light is also symbolic for a museum that seeks to stimulate open dialogues about race and to help promote reconciliation and healing.”

On the other hand, as Christopher Hawthorne wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The museum’s skin — has that typically benign architectural term ever been more charged? — allows it to stand apart from the Mall’s white-marble monuments like a rebuke.”

And the $540-million museum has received its share of rebukes in turn — not only for its architecture, but for its visual obstruction of the Washington Monument (despite the height limit that required half of it to be underground) and for its very existence.

The architectural team that got the job in 2009 was called Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup. Phil Freelon was the architect of Baltimore’s Reginald F. Lewis Museum, which focuses on Maryland’s African American history, and the late J. Max Bond Jr. designed New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Credited with both the museum’s latticed façade and its overall exterior form — a ziggurat-like stack of three sharp-edged levels, relating to a West African crown or headdress, the obelisk shape of the Washington Monument and the notion of past, present and future — is the lead designer, London-based architect David Adjaye.

And, if all goes according to plan, one of Adjaye’s new projects will grace the streets of Georgetown near the waterfront.

Adjaye: Don’t Call Him a ‘Starchitect’

David Adjaye turned 50 two days before the Sept. 24 opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The building’s acclaim has secured him a place among international “starchitects,” brought him new, high-profile commissions and perhaps helped trigger his knighthood, announced Dec. 31. He is to be properly addressed Sir David Adjaye OBE (Order of the British Empire, to which he was appointed in 2007).

To all appearances, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

Born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city (no longer its capital), to a Ghanaian diplomat, Adjaye lived in several other countries before his family settled in Great Britain when he was 9. He studied architecture at London South Bank University, worked with David Chipperfield in London and Eduardo Souto de Moura in Porto, Portugal, then got his master’s at the Royal College of Art. After a partnership with William Russell, he formed his own firm, Adjaye Associates, in 2000. Among his major works in the U.S. is the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, which opened in 2007.

Having won the commission for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the team of architects — Adjaye in particular — fought an uphill battle.

“There were so many attacks on our design that it felt like a bloodbath at times,” said Adjaye in an interview in British GQ. “I had the whole canon of the African American community throwing questions at me like, ‘Who are you? Why should you do this?’ ”

During the seven years it took to design and build the museum, Adjaye completed the Moscow School of Management, Guangju Pavilion in China, a mixed-use development in Harlem’s Sugar Hill district and, in 2012, two Southwest branches of the D.C. Public Library, Bellevue and Francis A. Gregory, eye-catching inside and out, each in its own way.

In 2014, he married American Ashley Shaw-Scott, a former model with graduate degrees from the London School of Economics and the French business school INSEAD. British Vogue covered the wedding. Their son, Kwame, is now two years old.

Adjaye Associates has offices in London, New York, Berlin and Accra, Ghana. Among the firm’s current projects are the Latvian Museum of Contemporary Art and a new building for the Studio Museum in Harlem. More museum commissions are sure to come. (Though Adjaye was a finalist for the Obama Presidential Center to be built in Chicago, that project went to Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.)

Oh, yes, and Adjaye is the architect for the Four Seasons Residences in Georgetown, on the site of the West Heating Plant. The Georgetowner sat down with him and commercial real estate owner Richard Levy last month for an interview at the Four Seasons with the old heating plant in full view.

Old Gov’t Property to Become Luxe Condos

Everyone agrees it’s monumental. Then things get ugly.

Designed in 1941 by William Dewey Foster — co-designer, the same year, of the State Department’s headquarters — the West Heating Plant at 29th and K Streets NW was delayed by wartime shortages and completed in 1948. Defunct since 2000, it has been recently called, in writing: “hulking,” “fortress-like,” “monolithic,” “a monstrosity,” “a post-WWII eyesore,” “one of the ugliest boxes in the city,” “a blight,” “this albatross,” “an ecological disaster” and “a pile of concrete that resembles Soviet scraps from the statuary kilns of communist kitsch.”

Like the earlier Central Heating Plant in Southwest, designed by Paul Cret, the West Heating Plant originally steam-heated federal buildings by burning coal. It was later converted to oil, then natural gas. Still on the two-acre site are much of the coal yard, a coal-breaker house, a crane, skip hoists, conveyor belts, coal scales and bunkers. The oil tanks, visible behind the 29th Street wall, were added in the 1970s and the coal and ash house was demolished around 2005.

The preceding details come from the application for landmark status, which also contains this gem: “Complaints had been made about pollution from the West Heating Plant as early as 1971 by Martha Mitchell, wife of Attorney General John N. Mitchell. Mitchell, who lived in the Watergate (2600 block of Virginia Avenue NW), contacted the District of Columbia government regarding the black smoke coming from the plant, not knowing that it was run by the federal government and helped heat her husband’s office at the Justice Department.”

Unlike most industrial structures from the 1940s or earlier, the West Heating Plant — six stories and 93,000 square feet — is neither dark nor grimy, at least from a distance. Rising from a stone base, its finely detailed beige brickwork gleams yellow in the sun above the tangle of highway ramps where the Whitehurst Freeway, Rock Creek Parkway and Interstate 66 intersect. Its older sister is Art Deco, but this plant is Moderne, streamlined, with vertical windows (admittedly grimy) 72 feet high. Subtle design elements modify its general toaster-on-its-side appearance.

The West Heating Plant is what’s called a contributing structure in the Georgetown Historic District. Its designation as an individual landmark, advocated by the D.C. Preservation League, was voted down 4-3 by the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board in April of 2015.

To the east of the site is the spot where Rock Creek joins the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, which runs just north of the plant (locks nearby are currently being restored by the National Park Service). Steps lead up to what was once the dry dock for the canal, decommissioned in 1924.

D.C.’s first zoning ordinance, in 1920, designated the area along the waterfront as industrial, resulting in a preponderance of such insalubrious facilities as flour and paper mills and plants for cement making and meat rendering.

This was the waterfront that Richard H. Levy remembers from his childhood.

The Levy Group and Georgetown

“When I was growing up, below M Street was sort of a dangerous area,” Levy said. “It was funky” (in the smelly sense, not the hip one). He liked working with wood and spent time at the lumberyard.

Levy’s family had moved to Georgetown from Southwest D.C., where his grandfather was a shoemaker, prior to World War I. He and two brothers (his surviving brother, Philip, owns Bridge Street Books) grew up above his father’s M Street store, which made its way upmarket to become men’s store David Richard, named for Sam Levy’s two older sons.

After getting a B.A. from Earlham College in Indiana and a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, Levy relocated to New York, taught economics and got involved in the arts, co-founding Big Apple Circus. He moved back to D.C. in the 1980s when his father became ill. Now in his 70s, he lives on P Street.

Levy’s real estate development firm, the Levy Group, purchased the two-acre West Heating Plant site from the General Services Administration at auction for $19.5 million in June 2013. The other partners are Four Seasons Hotels and the Georgetown Company of New York, founded by Marshall Rose. Former Washington, D.C., mayor Anthony Williams is also on the team.

Their plan: to spend $100 million (and counting) to turn the site into 60 to 80 residential condominiums managed by Four Seasons that, at a recent estimate, would sell for about $2,000 per square foot. Also comprising a public park, the project would, in Levy’s words, “reset the market for high-end condo living” and “unlock” the C&O waterfront.

With help from former New York Times and New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger, the development team narrowed a list of 18 firms to eight, then three: Adjaye, Yale School of Architecture Dean Deborah Berke and former Yale School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern.

The deans got beat. According to Levy, Adjaye’s solo presentation was “basically a seminar that was accessible to everyone in the room and won hands down.”

The initial design, in 2013, was for a building that retained some of the West Heating Plant’s structure and façade. After structural analysis determined that little of the deteriorated building’s fabric could be saved, the developers put forward a second proposal, based on razing the entire plant, at the end of 2015.

In the new plans, the size of the building — now horizontally oriented and faced with marble — was reduced from about 220,000 square feet to about 170,000. The main entrance moved back to 29th Street. A bridge over the canal, linking the new building to the Four Seasons, was gone. The park, over a parking garage, had been redesigned by former Harvard chair of landscape architecture Laurie Olin, who had come out of retirement to replace Ignacio Bunster, designer of the 10-acre Georgetown Waterfront Park, after Bunster left WRT Design.

While praising the park, the Georgetown-Burleith Advisory Neighborhood Commission responded lukewarmly to the new building design, approving two resolutions. One stated, “The massing of the building and the height of the structure are inappropriate to the location and out of scale with the historic district of Georgetown,” and the other questioned the appropriateness of the demolition.

Then, the following February, the Old Georgetown Board voted to oppose razing the West Heating Plant, putting the new plans in limbo, barring the overruling of the board’s decision by the Mayor’s Agent for Historic Preservation. For this to happen, the project would have to be deemed “of special merit.”

Strongly critical of the new design — not because it would require the plant’s demolition, but because it is “completely out of context” — is former Citizens Association of Georgetown president Ray Kukulski. “That building would be as out of place in Georgetown’s historic industrial waterfront as a wedding cake on a carpenter’s workbench,” he remarked.

The latest version of the project was to be presented at a CAG meeting at the House of Sweden in January. That meeting was postponed and has now been rescheduled for March 9 at the Four Seasons. The new design is said to return to a partial-preservation approach.

Known primarily for his public and nonprofit work, Adjaye said he has moved more into the commercial sector in recent years, operating in “a sort of blur between the two.” The West Heating Plant project, with its park component, appears to fall into this category. By creating an “elevated belvedere that will become a destination,” his vision involves “retooling your perception of this place and why you would come here,” he explained.

Pending the necessary approvals and environmental remediation (also ensuring that an underground sewer line is protected), the project could be completed as soon as 2020.

“The architect is making a mighty effort to recognize the value and strength of what’s there now,” said former ANC 2E member Tom Birch, who lives on 29th Street. “I can see the West Heating Plant from my bedroom window and it will be nice to have a David Adjaye-designed building to look at.”

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