In some parts of our region, a panel of esteemed architects reviews design plans for new buildings before they go up. But in most areas, anything goes — aesthetically speaking. Kojo looks at how design review has shaped the Mall and the federal landscape in Washington, and asks whether similar pre-screening could turn mediocre architecture into award-winning construction elsewhere in D.C. and the region.


  • Roger Lewis Architect; Columnist, "Shaping the City," Washington Post; and Professor Emeritus of Architecture, University of Maryland College Park
  • Thomas Luebke Secretary, Commission of Fine Arts; Editor of "Civic Art: A Centennial History of the Commission of Fine Arts" (Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 2013)

100 Years Of The U.S. Commission Of Fine Arts

Roger Lewis Design Review Cartoons


  • 12:06:44

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. We can all name a few storefronts we think are ugly, office buildings that don't fit their surroundings, condo towers that are just boring to look at. A handful of communities in our region have done something about the problem of bad design.

  • 12:07:17

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThey have set up board of esteemed architects to review plans before a building goes up. One of the oldest such bodies reviews projects on or near the National Mall. Congress established the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts in 1910 to be sure the District's federal core didn't become a hodgepodge of mishmash architectural styles. The commission recently celebrated its centennial and still actively advises on plans for projects like the new Smithsonian African American Museum on The Mall and the controversial Eisenhower Memorial, but it doesn't have much company in this region.

  • 12:07:54

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe construction industry doesn't want more hurdles to jump over, and critics say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But proponents of design review say it can prevent eyesores and turn B-minus designs into A-plus architecture. Joining me to look at the benefits and pitfalls of design review is Roger Lewis, architect and "Shaping the City" columnist with The Washington Post. He's also professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. Roger, good to see you again.

  • 12:08:25

    MR. ROGER LEWISThank you. Glad to be here again.

  • 12:08:27

    NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and editor of the book "Civic Art: A Centennial History of the Commission of Fine Arts." Thomas Luebke, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:42

    MR. THOMAS LUEBKEGreat to be here. Thank you.

  • 12:08:43

    NNAMDIGood to have you here. You too can join the conversation, give us a call 800-433-8850. Do you think we should have a board of publicly appointed architects review the design of new buildings before they go up? 800-433-8850. You can also send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to Roger, explain the concept of design review, if you will. How does it work in the city of Alexandria where you serve on an architectural review board?

  • 12:09:16

    LEWISWell, and I might add Tom also was involved in the city of Alexandria. He was city architect while I was on that board, and he and I worked together before he joined the CFA. The concept is fairly simple. The area that I -- my design review board in which I sit deals with as a part of Alexandria that's essentially the redevelopment of Brownfield, Carlisle used to be a railroad yard.

  • 12:09:43

    LEWISAnd when the master plan and zoning overlay was adopted by the City Council back in the late '80s, they decided, rather than have every project come back to the City Council and go through review at that level, that they really needed to have a separate body that could look at projects one at a time and particularly scrutinize them for their aesthetic quality. The staff of the city did the compliance check.

  • 12:10:12

    LEWISThat is checking about zoning and building code compliance. But we the design review board was set up by the city to specifically look at what I would call the aesthetic merits and quality of projects, including the streetscape, not just the buildings but also the streetscapes. We didn't worry about the cars being parked. We didn't look at whether the elevators were going to work or not.

  • 12:10:34

    LEWISWe look strictly at what it was the public would see, what was visible. That -- and the design review process always envision that there would be a couple of design professionals on this board, but also, there's a City Council representative. There's a citizen representative. The board isn't just architects.

  • 12:10:51

    NNAMDIJust architects. It's made up of other people. But how do you think it's worked so far to shape the look of that city?

  • 12:10:57

    LEWISWell, I think, again, the purview of this -- of the design review board is a particular area of the city, not the whole city. There's a separate board that deals with historic Alexandria, the Old Town. I think it's worked fairly effectively. I think there were some challenges. We've had -- we had a master plan that was done in the late '80s, which had some flaws. I think we don't need to go to that.

  • 12:11:22

    LEWISBut I think we have succeeded, as you said at the top of the show, in motivating developers and the architects they hire to design projects to raise their aspirations and do a little better than they would have if we not had design review. One other thing, it's not an adversarial process. The notion of the design review board in Alexandria is that we work really collaboratively with applicants during each phase of design.

  • 12:11:49

    LEWISThat's another important part of it. We don't look at something after it's all been done and say, oh, forget it, go back to the drawing board. We tend to work along the same phases that people actually design projects, so schematic review and a review of developed design and a review of the final design. It's been successful in my opinion. I think it's actually one of the -- you could argue that it's a bit of a template for how other jurisdictions might conduct design review.

  • 12:12:16

    NNAMDITom Luebke, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts reviews designs on and near The Mall -- it was established, as we said earlier in 1910 -- initially gave advice on where to place public statues and fountains, monuments in the District of Columbia. But tell us a little more about what the commission does today.

  • 12:12:33

    LUEBKEWell, we actually manage quite a big caseload. It's about 700 cases every year. As you point out, the original legislation was really about guiding the public spaces and public art in the city, and over time, that came to include a whole lot of things, including public buildings widely through the District of Columbia but also things like the design of coins and metal.

  • 12:13:01

    LUEBKESo, in other words, the fundamental focus is really on national symbolism and how do -- how does that get expressed artistically. And then in terms of -- that became to be applied to all the architecture in the city. So we have that. We have other areas, the old Georgetown historic district, as well as something called the Shipstead-Luce Act, which requires that we review private development in certain areas of federal interest.

  • 12:13:28

    NNAMDICan the commission reject designs, or is it an advisory body?

  • 12:13:32

    LUEBKEMostly, the jurisdiction is advisory. There's a few exceptions to that. One is in the case of national memorials, which come now under something called the Commemorative Works Act, which was passed by Congress about 25 years ago. So there is an approval authority, and we also have another part of this national symbolism that the commission looks at is overseas war memorials and battlefield monuments. And so those overseas properties also have a review approval authority.

  • 12:14:02

    NNAMDILet's take a look at a very contemporary example of the commission's review process. We have discussed it here on the broadcast before. Roger Lewis has caused me to know a lot more about it than I had ever planned to. The Eisenhower Memorial that will sit across from the Air and Space Museum, the controversial design by architect Frank Gehry is headed to the Commission of Fine Arts next month. What will be the commission's role in altering or endorsing this contentious design?

  • 12:14:33

    LUEBKEWell, of course, it's not just a one-shot deal here. This is a project that has been in the making for I'm thinking five, six years. There's been a number of reviews all along with not just the commission but other groups, the planning commission and others to first to approve the site, then, you know, other issues about the scale. So this is actually sort of closing out what we expect to be the concept design of the memorial.

  • 12:15:03

    LUEBKEAlready the commission has green lighted essentially the idea of these big columns and the tapestries. What's coming -- what we expect to come to us in July is actually the design of the central elements of the memorial, which is really statuary inscriptions and the place where people will really come and have that direct experience of the memorial.

  • 12:15:25

    NNAMDIFrom a procedural standpoint before I get to Roger, explain what's going on because, last week, apparently the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to scrap the design and start over with new members of the Eisenhower commission. Is that a hiccup in the process? How does that work?

  • 12:15:43

    LUEBKEAnd I'm not sure -- I wish I could tell -- I'm not sure it was a full house...

  • 12:15:47

    NNAMDIIt might have been a committee vote.

  • 12:15:48

    LUEBKEI think it was a committee vote.

  • 12:15:49

    NNAMDIProbably a committee vote.

  • 12:15:50

    LUEBKESo under the Commemorative Works Act, these memorials have to be authorized, and they usually have I think sort of standard seven-year authorization period. The truth is that these are so -- they take a long time to do just because of all the issues. Typically, these memorials always seem to take about 10 years. So it's very normal to not be done after seven years.

  • 12:16:11

    LUEBKEThere's some opposition obviously to this design, which, you know, comes from various quarters. But -- so whether that prevails or not, we don't know. At the moment, they have an authorization I think that's been extended through the end of this -- of September. So, as far as we -- we're sort of obliged to continue to review what they come forward with.

  • 12:16:34

    NNAMDIAnd, Roger, we know, of course, we've had Susan Eisenhower on this broadcast. We know of the Eisenhower family's opposition to this. But over and above where we stand in terms of the procedure, if the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts in fact approves this, does it mean that it necessarily goes forward?

  • 12:16:51

    LEWISNo. I mean I think as Tom says there's lots of hurdles, not the least of which is raising the money, having enough money to do it. I think the -- I think there's no question in my mind the Commission of Fine Arts probably will approve it because I think they basically have already bought into the fundamental concept going back to the earlier review. And I've actually had conversations with a couple of members of the commission whom I personally know.

  • 12:17:20

    LEWISI think the -- I think it's hard to know what could happen, and I think it's worth pointing out that the opposition isn't homogeneous that is there, as we've discussed, there are people who are worried about this design because it isn't, quote, "neoclassical" or traditionally styled. There are others like myself who thinks there are some basic urban design as well as architectural issues.

  • 12:17:45

    LEWISThere are others who are very unhappy about the actual methods of commemoration and the interpretive elements, the metaphoric dimensions. I mean there are lots and lots of things that have raised points of opposition and objections. I think at this point it's hard to know what's going to happen. I do think that there is that some of the problems with the memorial -- this will be final say on this...

  • 12:18:14

    NNAMDIFor now.

  • 12:18:14

    LEWIS...actually precede the design. I mean I've long felt that the first mistake was made way back when they decided to take this huge four-acre site and make it just the Eisenhower Memorial, which, of course, tempt -- would tempt me as the architect and Gehry and any other architect to say, well, I've got to take control of this whole site. What they should have done is made a wonderful park in which there could have been a Gehry-designed memorial and maybe another one to Truman and another to somebody else. I mean that's my biggest beef.

  • 12:18:44

    NNAMDIDon't tempt me. Tom Luebke?

  • 12:18:46

    LUEBKEI was going to, you know, agreeing with Roger on that the way it's set up is that there are sites that are designated as possible memorial sites, and this is one of them. There's a whole four -- whatever it is -- six-acre site. And Roger is absolutely correct to some extent that designation and you get the assignment it really leads to, you know, you're going to take control. It becomes a scale issue.

  • 12:19:06

    LUEBKEAnd, you know, the review bodies are not necessarily in a position to say no this is too big or this is too much. We're actually -- remember, we're always operating by the authority that's given by Congress. Congress authorized the memorial to exist and eventually where it gets located. So this is the -- one of the fundamental questions of design review is that you've got take what you get. You work with it.

  • 12:19:33

    NNAMDIDesign review is what we're discussing, and our guest is Thomas Luebke. He is secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and editor of the book "Civic Art: A Centennial History of the Commission of Fine Arts." Roger Lewis is also with us. He is the architect and "Shaping the City" columnist of The Washington Post, professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. 800-433-8850 is our number.

  • 12:19:56 is our email address. Which neighborhoods or buildings do you think would have benefitted from architectural design review? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Tom, what trends are you seeing in the design of new memorials on The Mall? It's my understanding that there's growing interest in incorporating photographic representations.

  • 12:20:18

    LUEBKEYeah. That's something that, you know, we have just launched this new book, which examines a whole century of work in this field, starting, you know, after the McMillan Plan of the early 20th century basically talking about how the design of this federal monumental core has evolved with the advice of the commission and others over those, really, 11 decades, you know, 10 decades plus.

  • 12:20:45

    LUEBKEThe -- it starts in the Beaux-Arts era, which is something, I think, probably most people understand what that means, a traditional, classical approach. Starting in the mid-century when modernism came through, it really -- they were really struggling for what was the appropriate way to commemorate. And there wasn't that much commemoration.

  • 12:21:01

    LUEBKEI think there was such a belief in the future and what -- the promise of modern design. That we -- the beginning is really the Iwo Jima Marine Corps Memorial, which is strictly based on a photograph. That's an unusual thing. And it really blossoms in the late last part of the 20th century. For example, the FDR Memorial, which is really a vignette of spaces, which really are almost like photographs, come to life like in a tableau.

  • 12:21:30

    LUEBKELately, you know, almost all of these memorials often have a very strong components derived from photography. Certainly, the Martin Luther King Memorial, the figure of King was directly derived from a photograph by a photographer named Bob Fitch. It comes up over and over again. Photographs are literally being incorporated, first, in the Korean War Memorial. We have a new Disabled Vets Memorial going on at the base of the Capitol area that's got a lot of photography. So it's a new thing.

  • 12:22:02

    NNAMDILot of photography, too, in the book "Civic Art" -- don't be fooled by its mundane title -- "A Centennial History of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts." It is, in fact, the book that's full great photographs, of great history. Pretty heavy book, if you know what I mean, literally. But it's the kind of book that I think a lot of people will find really interesting in understanding how these projects develop.

  • 12:22:24

    NNAMDIThe Commission of Fine Arts was also involved in revering plans for the Smithsonian's new National Museum of African American History and Culture under construction on the Mall. How did the design review process change the building that's now under construction near the Washington Monument in the American History Museum?

  • 12:22:40

    LUEBKEWell, that's a great question because we -- I've sometimes called that project the poster child of how the process is supposed to work. We -- and by the way, the commission is not the only group that's involved in a sense of fairly extensive review process for historic preservation. And certainly, the planning -- National Capital Planning Commission and other groups weigh in on this.

  • 12:23:01

    LUEBKEBut broadly, they started with a national or international design competition. They came up with a very, I think, strong winner, which is David Adjaye and Associates in consortium with a couple of other firms. Strong design based on a sort of tiered -- they call it the corona. But it's sort of derived from an idea of a, you know, Rubin headdress that David had found. And it's a very compelling, iconic shape.

  • 12:23:32

    LUEBKEI think that the review process, really, just was very effective in getting the design team to bring out the very best of what was already being designed. And so it started out a more articulated base. And in the end, the result has been -- that this corona now has three tiers and floats on a glassy base. It's just a little bit more, I think, precisely where it was going to go. It's a very elegant idea that, I think, has been pushed forward.

  • 12:23:59

    NNAMDIWant to go to the phones because Don in Hillsboro, Va. has a question that I think Roger can answer. Don, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:24:07

    DONHi. I wanted to point out the difference between an area like the Carlyle Development and Washington, where -- in Washington, the moment of conception of the design of the city was a moment when collegiality, a collective image was the assumed beginning point, regardless of style. The idea was that things would look good together.

  • 12:24:37

    DONIn Carlyle, it was a decision that was made that that's how it would go, but made during a period when self-expression in architecture is more of the vogue than collective image. But I think it's the strength of Washington design review process that it's based on two periods of major design of the city when that collective image was of the highest ideal.

  • 12:25:16

    NNAMDIWell, do you think it's any different now, Roger?

  • 12:25:18

    LEWISWell, first of all, hi, Don. I know this caller very well.

  • 12:25:22

    NNAMDIBoth of you do, clearly.

  • 12:25:24

    LEWISThe -- first of all, I think -- and Tom might want to say something about this too. Carlyle, actually, in my opinion, did not especially promote self-expression architecturally. In fact, the Carlyle design review process involves the implementation of a very specific, a very prescriptive master plan that shapes the buildings.

  • 12:25:49

    LEWISThere are specific guidelines and rules about how facades can and can't be made. So, actually, Don, the -- if you look at Carlyle, I don't think all the architecture is that great. But there -- it is of a piece, in a way. There is a kind of ensemble sensibility there that is the result. Don't you agree, Tom?

  • 12:26:08

    LUEBKEAbsolutely. It's...

  • 12:26:09

    LEWISSo it's a very -- it's a different language than the more classical -- classically inspired language here. So I think that's worth noting that we -- and we did in the Carlyle design review process with several buildings, encouraged the architects to reach farther, and some of them did. And we did get some fairly respectable buildings out there.

  • 12:26:35


  • 12:26:36

    LUEBKEWell, I think Don is correct. You know, some of it just depends on how -- is there a shared vision, and how is it implemented clearly? And I'm glad Roger mentioned it because the design guidelines were very much driving how these things were implemented regardless of style. But in the end, it kind of drove things in a certain direction.

  • 12:26:54

    LUEBKEIn the case of the -- what we call the monumental core of Washington, you know, there is the McMillan plan which laid out a very impressive colossal kind of Roman classical idea which was carried forward all the way through the '30s largely because -- in a lot ways is because of the advocacy of the chairman of the commission, who was a guy named Charles Moore.

  • 12:27:16

    LUEBKEFor example, the whole Federal Triangle development is done away like the Carlyle Development. And now there's very strict design guidelines which set up the envelope and the lines of the cornices and everything else. And each individual architecture from the Gothic commissions to do these buildings did them all in a slightly different style, but it's very coherent.

  • 12:27:34

    LUEBKEWe'd lost, to some extent, that sense that this monumental classicism was the way to go. It sort of peters out by the end of the '30s, and modernism, you know, after the war, really, becomes the received style. So Don's absolutely right that, you know, there was this sort of a period in modernism where things were done a certain way. We're -- I think we're in a completely different period again.

  • 12:27:58

    NNAMDIDon, thank you very much for your call. The Carlyle Development, of course, is in Alexandria, Va. 800-433-8850 is the number to call. We're going to take a short break. If you were on the Commission of Fine Arts, what would you do with that security screening building at the foot of the Washington Monument? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:30:09

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're taking about design review with Roger Lewis. He is the architect and the columnist who writes the "Shaping the City" column for The Washington Post. He's also professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. Also joining us in studio is Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, editor of the book "Civic Art: A Centennial History of the Commission of Fine Arts."

  • 12:30:32

    NNAMDIYou can call us at 800-433-850 or send email to Roger, can you give us an example of project you think would, oh, look better if it had been subjected to design review?

  • 12:30:47

    LEWISWell, I think -- let me preface this by saying -- making a clarification about the Commission of Fine Arts. The Commission of Fine Arts essentially has jurisdiction over federal projects or projects that affect federal -- the federal interest. So is that...

  • 12:31:04

    LUEBKEThat's actually somewhat true.

  • 12:31:06

    LEWISBut, but...

  • 12:31:06

    LUEBKEWe actually have public projects...

  • 12:31:08

    LEWISYeah, but, well...

  • 12:31:08

    LUEBKE...district and federal.

  • 12:31:09

    LEWISWhat I think it's important for listeners to remember is that the great majority of buildings built in Washington are not subject to Commission of Fine Arts.

  • 12:31:18

    NNAMDIAllow me to interrupt for a second because before we go to projects that would have done better had they been subjected to design review, we have a caller who has a question or comment specifically about the Commission of Fine Arts. He is John in Arlington, Va. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:31:34

    JOHNThanks, Kojo, and thanks for your great show. My comment is for Tom, and it specifically relates to the process by which CFA works. I'm in the development business, and our experience in dealing with CFA, one of the frustrations is that there aren't actual standards that CFA uses in evaluating projects.

  • 12:31:57

    JOHNI think this puts developers in a tough position and architects in a tough position. It also puts staff, such as Tom and (word?) in a tough position where they might give us guidance when we initially bring in a project for review. But then when we actually present it to the commission, it depends entirely on sort of the opinions of the members.

  • 12:32:20

    JOHNAnd in effect, this has forced us and other developers to do -- and this may be seen as a desirable outcome or not. But we have now realized that when we go to present before the CFA, we cannot use local architects because they don't have the necessary star power to sort of impress the commission. And we've had a much better track record, and this is something we've heard from other developers when we use particularly foreign starchitects.

  • 12:32:53

    NNAMDIHere is Tom Luebke, foreign starchitects.

  • 12:32:57

    LUEBKEForeign starchitect. It's hard to -- there's lot there. Of course, the caller is correct. There aren't standards in -- the commission is actually an expert panel. And therefore, they take their own advice. These are professionals who have had, you know, of national recognition, appointed from various places all over the country. It's possible. I don't think that there's any kind of a sense that local architects are a problem. They're looking for the very highest quality, whatever that means.

  • 12:33:32

    LUEBKEThe caller is also correct in that we -- the staff may meet in consultation with people, you know, applicants like a developer on projects. We can't always anticipate what the commission members will think. So, you know, it's an advisory panel on, you know, for aesthetics and to say that there could be standards would mean, well, what is that? We have to develop design guidelines for every property. It's not really practical.

  • 12:34:01

    NNAMDIRoger, I'd like to try to make a distinction between what John describes as starchitects and what design review boards in general and a Commission of Fine Arts might be looking for. If I'm a developer or a property owner and I know my project is going to be subject to design review, how does that influence the architect I pick and the time and resources I spend on that design?

  • 12:34:22

    LEWISThis is really a very critical question. In fact, I got an email from someone this morning who I think shares John's concerns about, you know, the potentially capricious and arbitrary findings or recommendations of a design review board. First of all, there's no question that for a design review to work, the process has to be very well structured and properly managed. It can be a disaster. It can onerous. It can be wasteful and very costly if it's not done the way it should be done. And we don't have a whole lot of models because, again, most jurisdictions don't engage in design review.

  • 12:35:00

    LEWISI continue to believe that Alexandria did most of what they needed to do pretty much the way it needed to be done to ensure that we would not have an adversarial process that bog down projects and that would, in fact, be collaborative and constructive. The notion -- I think we mentioned it earlier. The notion is that if there is a design and review process, it will motivate clients, developers, those people that we work for, we, architects, to have the -- be motivated to find people that they think can get the job done and get it through the review process.

  • 12:35:38

    NNAMDITo come correct in colloquial terms.

  • 12:35:40

    LEWISYeah. Now, there is no question that as was pointed out, the CFA -- each project has its own context and its own set of objectives and criteria, which is different, as we pointed out, than what's going on in Alexandria, where in this Carlyle/Eisenhower East area that I helped oversee, we have very definite standards and design criteria.

  • 12:36:04

    LEWISIt seems to me that what generally needs to happen though is if the team comes in, the developer and the architect comes in at the very outset and meets with the design reviewers, not just the staff or not just the people who are managing and administering the process, and they have a conversation just like we do with our clients when we begin any project, that if you do that -- if the design review process basically parallels the actual real world design and development process, you're in for success.

  • 12:36:37

    LEWISIt seems to me that that's the only way design review works. In Montgomery County, I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say when they come in for what's called site plan review, which is essentially design review, they can't come in until they have spent $200,000 doing an immense amount of work including engineering. The review is late. It's obstructive. It's costly. It's inefficient. All I'm saying is it's got -- you can do it right or you can do it wrong.

  • 12:37:04

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, John. Move on to Anne in Mount Rainier, Md. Anne, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:37:14

    ANNEHi, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call.

  • 12:37:16

    NNAMDIYou're welcome.

  • 12:37:17

    ANNEI'm calling from Mount Rainier, Md., in the Gateway Arts District in Prince George's County. And I was hoping your guests could give us some advice in how we should think about our design problem with the Route 1 Corridor. And let me characterize the problem quickly. We have a historic -- in the streetcar suburb. We have an incredibly diverse community, and we have a desire to retain that diversity. And we also have a desire to be contemporary and creative and an opportunity for some large, new commercial building. So I'm wondering...

  • 12:37:59

    NNAMDISounds like you could use the design review board, but go ahead.

  • 12:38:02

    ANNEWe do. We have one in Mount Rainier which is wonderful, and I love the work that they do.

  • 12:38:07


  • 12:38:08

    ANNEBut it's a two-mile stretch. So I'm wondering, how should we think about it? How -- what could be the benefit of looking at that and those factors from a design perspective?

  • 12:38:21

    NNAMDINow, Tom Luebke, you're not currently on the clock, but please go ahead and work.

  • 12:38:25

    LUEBKEWell, I think it's an interesting question the caller raises. And I think this goes also back to Roger that to some extent, the design review process raises the expectation of quality, that you really are -- and underneath that, again, this is very important in Alexandria and Carlyle was that there was some kind of a shared vision that was empowering. There was a shared vision which is articulated, and then it is set up to empower the implementation of that vision.

  • 12:38:54

    LUEBKESo in Carlyle, you know, this goes back to the late '80s, a very substantial plan with some help with the design guidelines, and it's been carrying on now for 25 years. In the case of downtown Washington, the McMillan Plan really established an extremely compelling and grand vision which was carried toward literally in that style for three decades. I think that, you know, in Mount Rainier, I'm not familiar exactly with what's been done.

  • 12:39:16

    LUEBKEBut, of course, the underlying thing would be to have a sense of where you're going and really to create a vision that is attractive to developers and creates certainty that what they're going to do is going to be matched by their neighbors. And they're not going to be the one guy coming in and doing a nice quality building with something awful next door. So it's a little bit of you got to get the, I think, horse first.

  • 12:39:39


  • 12:39:40

    LEWISWell, this -- I remember the movie "The Graduate" when Dustin Hoffman is told plastics. The word here that we've been using is plan. What -- Anne, what you -- the way to get what you want is, in fact, to have some kind of definitive plan. That doesn't mean inflexible but a plan that can help guide the decision making that's going to occur over 10, 20, 30 years and doing what you want to do in Mount Rainier.

  • 12:40:09

    LEWISIt is an area I'm familiar with since I've traveled Route 1 on the way to College Park 3,000 times. I know what's happening. It is -- it's -- you do have an opportunity. But, I think, what's too often the case -- I grew up in a city without a plan, Houston, Texas. If the -- you know, if you don't have a plan, you're going to get incrementalism. You're going to get fragmentation. You're going to get things that don't work together. You need a plan.

  • 12:40:31

    NNAMDIYou mentioned earlier -- and, Anne, good luck to you.

  • 12:40:33

    ANNEThank you so much.

  • 12:40:35

    NNAMDIYou mentioned earlier, Roger, that, of course, a design review board is not made up exclusively of architects. How are the members of a design review board selected? What makes someone qualified to impose his or her taste and aesthetic sensibility on someone else's project?

  • 12:40:49

    LEWISWell, it's a good question. As Tom remembers, there was a period when the Commission of Fine Arts, there were no architects on the commission.

  • 12:40:57

    LUEBKEThere might have been only one, but, yeah.

  • 12:40:58

    LEWISThere was a period when it was a little shy of the talent and expertise that we owe -- I think has to be there. That's another part of the process of creating design review that can be problematic. I mean, if you don't have people on a design review committee or a board who are objective, reasonably objective, who come without an agenda, who are informed, who are open-minded, but also willing to say what needs to be said, you can be in trouble with this process.

  • 12:41:32

    LEWISI think most of the committees that work -- 'cause I've been also on some privately created design review committees -- are a mix of some people who are respected design experts or design professionals, as well as some people who can represent a shareholder's other interests. And I -- that's certainly been the idea in Alexandria where we've always had the planning director of the city is a member of the design review board. There's always a citizen on the design review board and usually two architects. I think the composition of the reviewer entity is critical.

  • 12:42:11

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue this conversation on design review. If you have called, stay on the line. We'll get to your calls. If you haven't called yet, the number is 800-433-8850. What design standards would you like to impose on any new construction? You can also send email to or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:44:27

    NNAMDIWe're discussing design review with Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and editor of the book "Civic Art: A Centennial History of the Commission of Fine Arts," and Roger Lewis, a "Shaping the City" columnist for The Washington Post. He's also professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland, College Park. Roger, let's get back to talk about places or development that you think would look better if they've been subjected to design review.

  • 12:44:53

    LEWISWell, one's not far from here, the Mazza Gallerie building. My office used to be just a block up Wisconsin on the Maryland side of Western Avenue. And I remember when that building was built, when it was first built, it was essentially a big cube, blank walls. It belonged out in the suburbs. I mean, it was the result of some suburban thinking, but it was a kind of block or box building, retail building that you would expect to find in a suburban shopping mall.

  • 12:45:21

    LEWISThere were no storefronts or doorways in at the sidewalk level. It was -- it's been remodeled, I think, three or four times. Now there are a few more windows. But that's a -- I'd like to think or I would like to think that that building, if it had been scrutinized by a competent set of design reviewers, might have been configured differently, certainly in terms of its facades and its porosity at -- along the sidewalk. I think there are -- we should also point out, though, that people are -- we designers and critics and -- are also influenced by what's going on in the world of design.

  • 12:45:59

    NNAMDIEven with design review...

  • 12:46:01


  • 12:46:01

    NNAMDI...architectural trends can change...

  • 12:46:03


  • 12:46:03

    NNAMDI...leaving us with literally concrete reminders of bygone styles, otherwise known as eyesores. Is the FBI building an example of that, Tom Luebke?

  • 12:46:12

    LUEBKEYou know, there's so many opinions about that building. It definitely belongs to a particular period of modernism, late kind of period of modernism. It's called brutalism, not necessarily because it feels brutal, but because it is a French term for raw concrete, beton brut. You know, it's -- any -- you know, interesting -- probably with any review group, certainly the Commission of Fine Arts, these are professionals that work in the context of what's out there, their living, breathing professional practice.

  • 12:46:41

    LUEBKEAnd it -- you know, in the early part of the 20th century, it was all Beaux-Arts neoclassicism. In the middle of the century, it was -- there was a real strong belief in modernism, which really carried all the way through into the '70s. We had a very interesting period of post-modernism, you know, several decades back. You know, one man's masterpiece is the next man's, you know, castoff eyesore.

  • 12:47:04

    LUEBKEThe old Executive Office Building took 18 years to build. In the 1870s, it was considered, you know, a horrible wreck by the time it was finished. So, you know, it -- these things do change, and that's one of the things we have to contend with. We have what we have, and we have to pick and choose over time.

  • 12:47:20

    NNAMDIThey do change, and contemporarily I read somewhere you said that it was glass for a while, and then it went back to something else, and now we're into glass again big time.

  • 12:47:29

    LUEBKEYeah. We are certainly seeing that in the private development, yes. So back to the classical period, you know, neoclassical. We had a lot of, you know, temple-form buildings, a lot of limestone and marble. The mid-century modernist stuff was often glass or concrete with glass. You know, the post-modern stuff went back to more historicist examples, and we're definitely seeing now what I would say is, you know, a modern sort of expressionistic modern revival. I mean, it's all over the place, and it's very sculptural. So we -- it's just a -- it's what every age kind of...

  • 12:48:05

    NNAMDIThe other thing that seems to have changed, Roger Lewis, is the popular conception of a building's function and its relationship to its surroundings. Now we want to talk about buildings that kind of fit in with the walkable cities that we're talking about.

  • 12:48:21

    LEWISWell, I think that's -- that is a sensibility that -- for example, when I was a student in an architectural school in the '60s, it wasn't even talked about. I mean, I never heard the word historic preservation or context when I was studying architecture in the '60s. Yes. I mean, I think one of the -- one of -- among the many things that are on our agenda as designers is making walkable communities and neighborhoods.

  • 12:48:45

    LEWISPart of that is driven by some of the pressures of worrying about energy consumption and reducing the carbon footprint, et cetera. I mean, we can talk about environmentalism here as a factor. We should point out also that technology is a -- has a huge influence on how we architects think and what we design and how we build. All of these things are changing.

  • 12:49:12

    LEWISFor example, all the glass you see now is partly enabled by the fact that glass technology has advanced tremendously in terms of what glass can do and how strong it is, how big you can make it and how it will cut out all kinds of radiation, and, you know, they're making smart glass now. So you're going to see that.

  • 12:49:32

    LEWISI think the other thing that people be should be reminded of going back to Washington's monument, of course, if you walk down the Mall, you will see really essentially an ensemble of buildings that track pretty well these architectural trends. I mean, you've got everything from the, you know, Hirshhorn Museum, which is a concrete doughnut in form, to the East Building of the National Gallery, which is -- has some very large areas of glass but also some very large cubic forms, et cetera.

  • 12:50:06

    LEWISIt's the -- of course, the Vietnam Memorial is perhaps the most totemic or the most important sort of anti-traditional intervention on the Mall. And we love that. I think that -- I think one of the wonderful things about this, and I think the Europeans are much better at handling it than we are, which -- handling the notion that over time, your architecture is going to change. It's not all going to end up looking like it's the same.

  • 12:50:35

    NNAMDIBetty in Rockville, Md., wants to take us a little farther off the street from Friendship Heights. Betty, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:50:42

    BETTYWell, I live in Rockville. And I'm just wondering, does Montgomery County have a commission of fine arts? And if so, how in the world did we get the Strathmore building?

  • 12:50:56

    NNAMDIWas there a design review involved as far as you know, Roger Lewis?

  • 12:50:59

    LEWISNo, no. Montgomery County does not have a design review process. I've been a consultant of the county, advocating design review. I think they -- there are a lot of people up there who I think would be in favor of having some kind of design review process. But no, there is review, but it isn't the kind of design review that Commission of Fine Arts engages in. It's not -- they do not have that kind of institutionalized protocol.

  • 12:51:29

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Betty. Tom Luebke, are there ever negative consequences to design review, like more conservative architecture? Could you make the argument that the National Mall and the surrounding federal office buildings would be, I guess, less stayed if the Commission of Fine Arts did not exist?

  • 12:51:47

    LUEBKEYou know, it might actually go the other way possibly. It's hard to say. One thing is that you -- the process of review is always inextricable from political and other forms of power behind it. So Washington actually has, I think, a reputation of being somewhat conservative architecturally in other ways that, you know what?

  • 12:52:11

    LUEBKEDesign review, again, you can only deal with what comes to you. It doesn't -- you can't actually say you've got to bring -- you know, we can't -- we don't do -- the commission doesn't tell who to hire. Actually, you have to work with what you get. So you can -- you might be able to help the lower end up, but you can't really necessarily define the upper end. So...

  • 12:52:31

    NNAMDIWell, I'd like you to tell us a specific story about the intersection of design review and political power. In your book "Civic Art: A Centennial History of the Commission of Fine Arts," you tell the story of the fight between the commission and President Harry Truman over one private balcony that he wanted to add to the south portico of the White House. What happened?

  • 12:52:52

    LUEBKEWell, you know, it's a very interesting story about this very intersection of power and design of the White House being, in essence, a federal mansion from the very beginning of the 19th century. It was -- it had been renovated many times, but it had terrible problems, structural problems. Truman, when -- after he was elected in his own right, wanted to -- likes to have a balcony on the second floor to enjoy the evening breezes.

  • 12:53:20

    LUEBKEThis is -- the building was not air conditioned, it was a pretty reasonable idea. But this was, you know, a Georgian mansion really for all intents and purposes. And the commission said, well, you know, this probably isn't the right thing to do. They sort of waffled about it. But in the end, they sort of said, you probably don't want to do it.

  • 12:53:36

    LUEBKEAnd Truman was so incensed that he ended up then not -- sort of a bunch of the -- six out of the seven members of the commission he did not reappoint, and the whole commission turned over. The next year, he authorized work to basically have the White House demolished from the inside out and rebuilt, but, I mean, for good reasons. But it's something that gets into historic preservation policy that -- which didn't exist at the time. But we probably not have done that.

  • 12:54:03

    NNAMDIIf you go to our website,, you can get a look at photos of what the White House looked like before President Harry Truman's balcony and what it looked like afterwards. Afterwards, you see these straight-up columns with this line going right between the columns.

  • 12:54:17

    LUEBKEThat's right. We're so used to seeing it. It is an icon that doesn't sink in. But if you really think about it as, you know, (word?).

  • 12:54:24

    NNAMDIWhen you see it in the before and after pictures, Roger, you can see why the design review -- why the Commission of Fine Arts might have objected to it.

  • 12:54:30

    LEWISWell, and there, you know, there are so many cases, you know, of -- you can go into history books and see alternatives to what we now have. For example, probably most people don't realize that the Washington Monument, when it was first designed by Mills, Mills had proposed a pantheon at the base of the -- of the obelisk, you know, a circular rotunda of -- I don't remember. Well, probably ionic.

  • 12:54:56

    LEWISI can't remember whether they were ionic or Corinthian columns. I mean, it -- if you see the images, it's so, you know, shocking, but, of course, at the time, as I said earlier, it seemed like a good idea, at least to the designer. And I think most people today when they look at it would probably agree. Oh, it was good thing they didn't build that rotunda.

  • 12:55:16

    NNAMDIHere is Catherine in Arlington, Va. Catherine, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:55:22

    CATHERINEThanks very much. This is my question. Does the -- do the commissions have any influence on trying to preserve space in Washington for future memorials? It seems to me that we are gobbling up every single space, and the future generations will have no place to put things they wanted to memorialize.

  • 12:55:39

    NNAMDITom Luebke.

  • 12:55:40

    LUEBKEI think it's a great question. There's tremendous pressure for memorials. There's -- and as I mentioned before, there's a federal law called the Commemorative Works Act which controls how these are approved and where they go and a process that goes through that is taking through with various groups like the commission is involved in that.

  • 12:56:00

    LUEBKERight now, there's actually sort of ban on new memorials on the National Mall per se. And that they're trying to -- one of the key concepts is to try to distribute somebody's memorial actually more into the city. So, you know, it's a great question. There's a lot of answers to it. But the people are very concerned about it and working on it.

  • 12:56:22

    NNAMDIWe'll look into the future a little more first. The Commission of Fine Arts reviewed some of the designs for projects on D.C. Southwest Waterfront, not far from the Mall. What will we eventually see there?

  • 12:56:33

    LUEBKEOh, it's a very exciting project. I think three or 4 million square feet of mixed used right there on the Waterfront. That's area of town that was really so -- frankly, it was -- a lot of it was raised right after the, you know, the early '50s and has been underdeveloped frankly. This is very close to the heart and -- of the city and really just a third of a mile. So it's very exciting to actually see some development, not only on Waterfront but what's in between the Waterfront and the Mall in that Southwest district. So we're all -- we're actually working on that.

  • 12:57:05

    NNAMDIAnd finally, Roger, you, a crusader for design review, have been talking it up about with officials in different jurisdictions around this region. What reaction do you getting? Where might we see new design review boards popping up?

  • 12:57:17

    LEWISI'm not sure I can answer the last question because as you said earlier on the broadcast, there is -- there are people who opposed the idea of design review. It's viewed as some -- as just another layer of bureaucracy, another hurdle one has to get over. Certainly, I know a number of architects who are opposed to it because they really don't want some other bunch of architects telling them what they should or shouldn't do.

  • 12:57:43

    LEWISI think it's -- given all of the other things, the fires that political leaders are having to put out on a daily basis and the pressures of trying to administer government these days, it's not high on the agenda.

  • 12:57:58

    NNAMDIRoger Lewis, he is an architect, and he writes the "Shaping the City" column for The Washington Post. He's also professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. Good to see you, Roger.

  • 12:58:07

    LEWISThank you.

  • 12:58:08

    NNAMDIThomas Luebke is secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and editor of the book "Civic Art: A Centennial History of the Commission of Fine Art." Tom Luebke, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:58:17

    LUEBKEIt's great to be here. Thank you.

  • 12:58:18

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

Related Links

Topics + Tags


comments powered by Disqus
Most Recent Shows

The Politics Hour – October 20, 2017

Friday, Oct 20 2017Montgomery County State's Attorney John McCarthy discusses his efforts to address gang violence. Plus, D.C. Councilmember Trayon White joins us to recap the "grocery march" protesting food deserts east of the Anacostia River.