The Catholic University of America

June 19, 2014 

Students Envision Post-Height Act D.C.

  Professor Lavinia Fici Pasquina (second from left) with her architecture students. 

In fall 2013 students in The Catholic University of America’s School of Architecture and Planning were asked by their professors Lavinia Fici Pasquina, associate professor and director of the ETM (Emerging Technology and Media) graduate concentration, and Daniel Gillen, lecturer, to challenge Washington, D.C.’s famous 1910 Height Act, which limits the height of buildings in the nation’s capital, by creating a multi-purpose skyscraper near the National Mall. The resulting work was on display from May 22 through June 10 at the District Architecture Center.

When it was passed, the Height Act mandated that buildings could not be built above 130 feet, or the width of a building’s street. Though there have been recent changes permiting occupancy of penthouses built above the current height limits of buildings in D.C., skyscrapers are still prohibited.

As a result the exhibit —TALL DC: New Monumentalism — stirred conversations regarding the century-old law, with one crtitc saying “the ‘creative destruction’ that extremists and architects engage in is just destruction at its core, the assertion of this generation’s power to destroy what previous generations created.”

Professor Pasquina challenged the students to envision a new skyline for D.C. She described the studio project as “an architectural challenge around the current and unique law governing construction in Washington, D.C.- building height limits. We simply posed the following question to the students: ‘If the height limit of D.C. was ever lifted, what would you do?’”

Student Ryan Nugent worked with team members Mani Kordestani and Rayan Hakeem on a design project they called “Tiber” — a building created to reflect the Tiber Creek that once flowed through the District of Columbia. He described it as representing “two centuries of built-up pressure bursting forth through the building.” He said the Tiber model is meant to evoke a time when Constitution Avenue was not a road, but rather Tiber Creek.

Another team composed of John Abowd, Elizabeth Esposito, and Brittany Fernald took a similar approach in allowing the stories of the District to shape their building. Titled “EVE: Elevated Viewing Experience,” the building serves as a viewing platform for some of Washington’s most famous attractions: the White House, the Washington Monument, the United States Capitol, and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

“The building responds to the elements we want it to,” said Abowd, “The model will change and react to any part, of any city. We want to emphasize, and respect what surrounds it.”

Exhibit models  

The focus of preserving the city’s current monuments and memorials is also the idea behind the third project, titled “Iceberg,” a model built to avoid casting shadows on D.C.’S monuments by team members Marie Hunnell, Azita Soltani Far, and Nina Tatic. The model was produced by extruding the mass of the existing Herbert C. Hoover building upward to the tower’s height of 1,000 feet. The final shape was created by slicing out portions of the building blocking sunlight, resulting in three separate elements that bring sun, shade, or reflections where needed to the surrounding area.

Though many Washingtonians do not expect to see drastic changes anytime soon, Professor Pasquina hopes the students gained something more from the experience. “We thought that the concept of ‘going tall in D.C.’ would be a great opportunity for the students of CUA not only to have a better appreciation of the history of this great city, but also to become aware of the various factors that influence building codes, while testing their creative minds and architectural skills to build something iconic in our nation’s capital.”

The students said they hope to elicit continual conversations regarding the Height Act, to preserve what is best about the city, and yet still allow growth within its architecture. “Our goal is to get people talking; a conversation starter,” student Marie Sheehan said, “We went against what’s deemed ‘historical,’ yet still respected the historical values of D.C.”

Nugent concluded, “We’re not just designing buildings; we’re designing ones with a story to tell.”



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