A Parisian Anacostia

Yesterday, Kojo Nnamdi hosted classical architect Nir Buras on his show, talking about (among other things) narrowing and urbanizing the Anacostia River so it more resembles the Seine‘s course through Paris.  Such a massive public works undertaking would be under the guise of a new iteration of the L’Enfant and MacMillan plans for the city.

Buras hit on a wide variety of topics – some of which I agree with, some I do not, and some that raise serious concerns about his ideas.   They include the interface between city and water, hydrology and flooding, the supposed superiority of classical design, and a desire to make everything revolve around Paris.

Thoughts on the various topics:

Urban Waterfronts

Buras is certainly correct in noting that DC’s waterfronts are woefully underutilized.  I know I’ve had those thoughts myself, and think there are many opportunities on the shores of the Anacostia to help the city engage the water that flows through it.  We see some good examples of this here and there within the region – Georgetown’s waterfront, Alexandria’s waterfront, and even the SW DC waterfront (something’s just fun about grabbing a beer at Cantina Marina).  Still, there’s a far greater opportunity that we’ve missed.  Given the pending redevelopment of Poplar Point, this condition is poised to change in the relatively near future.

The problem with Mr. Buras’ idea is that he’s promoting Paris as the ideal, when he admittedly notes the dimensions of the Anacostia are more similar to the Thames in London.  He specifically calls to narrow the river from ~1000 feet wide to ~500 feet wide.  Instead of making the urban design meet the natural conditions of the land (as L’Enfant did so well, siting the Capitol atop Jenkins Hill, keeping his grid within the relatively flat plain below the fall line, etc).  Similarly, he dismisses Amsterdam and Venice as problematic for engineering reasons.

Having the city meet the water is a great idea.  Re-creating Paris is a solution looking for a problem.


Buras mentions the Anacostia serving as a barrier – and rightfully notes the barriers also imposed by both the SE/SW freeway and 295 – yet this major infrastructural idea gets little treatment from Buras compared to the idea of narrowing the river channel.  In my mind, removal of the freeway is a far more important decision, yet it’s not nearly the sexy idea.

Ecology and Hydrology

JD Hammond summed it up succinctly: “I do worry about flooding.”  So do I.  I’m no hydrologist, but some of Buras’ answer to astute questions from callers don’t leave me with a lot of confidence that he’s fully assessed the impacts of such a decision.  One points out the damage done to New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, particularly noting how man’s manipulation of the Mississippi River and various wetlands didn’t help that city – it hurt it.  Man’s engineering can’t replicate nature.  JD Hammond emphasizes this point as well, looking to Los Angeles and the concrete gutters that serve as rivers.

The other thing is that I can’t quite tell exactly where Mr. Buras proposes to narrow the river.  Presumably, he’s talking about the region between the confluence with the Potomac and the area around RFK Stadium – any further upstream, and the river is quickly surrounded by both the National Arboretum and the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens – trying to force the river into an urban condition amongst such natural parks is boneheaded.

Classical Architecture

Perhaps the most tedious bit of Buras’ talk was the rambling was his talk on the superiority of classical design.  For one, conflating classical aesthetics and architecture with good urban design is annoying.  I’ve got nothing against classical architecture, but I happen to rather like modern architecture as well.  I’m far more interested in good design, regardless of the style it fits into.   As it relates to the city, I’m more interested in how those buildings fit into and function within an urban environment.

Holistic Understanding

I find it curious that Buras talks of having a holistic understanding of architecture and urbanism, while the hydrology of his proposal shows a profound lack of any sort of holistic understanding of water systems and their intricate feedback mechanisms.

All in All…

Buras raises an intriguing idea.  I certainly support the idea of crafting a new vision for DC, guiding it as the city’s previous plans have done.  I appreciate the fact that Buras is focused on the city, not just the Federal elements (as some other plan proponents have done). I absolutely embrace the desire to have DC interface with her rivers and waterways in a far more productive and beneficial fashion.

However, the focus on classical design (to the point of exclusion, it seems, of all else) troubles me.  Likewise, the details of the plan that were the focus of the Kojo interview (narrowing the river by half) look to be an attempt to force Paris upon DC.  Also, the lack of concern over the hydrologic impacts is both troubling and a step in the wrong direction – as we embrace sustainability in terms of design, we should apply what we’ve learned about rivers and their ecosystems rather than just throw up something that looks good.

There needs to be more to a plan than just good-looking classical design elements.


6 Responses to “A Parisian Anacostia”

  1. Waterfront Precedents « city block Says:

    […] city block A work in progress… « A Parisian Anacostia […]

  2. tsarchitect Says:

    Oh my God, that lecture is a textbook example of Classicists not understanding the Modern beliefs that separate them from real traditionalists. So many points… I could write an essay.

    It’s also hypocritical, with all that blather about going to the people, but forcing them to use classical precedent.

    And the line at nature/humans. 100% Cartesian nonsense. And City Building versus Urbanism? Walter Gropius wants his Baukunst/Stilarchitektur distinction back.

    I need to get back to work…

  3. North of Tilden: In the name of the Father, the Builder and Community Spirit — ЦARЬCHITECT Says:

    […] residential and educational facility behind St. Ann’s Catholic Church. Going before the HPRB, Moses of the Anacostia Nir Buras presented a handsome traditional home that would stand west of the Covenant of the Bon […]

  4. Four ways to improve McMillan Two « city block Says:

    […] through mediums like this.  Comments and criticism will make this a stronger plan.  My personal initial reactions to the plan have shaped my view of it, but only through a robust dialogue will the plan evolve […]

  5. paris on the anacostia - mammoth // building nothing out of something Says:

    […] to its newly narrowed banks, summarized here, is attracting a bit of attention here in DC (also here, here, and here). 1As commentator “Capitol Dome” notes at Greater Greater Washington, […]

  6. McMillan Two gets some feedback — ЦARЬCHITECT Says:

    […] still thirsty for information, you can look at the earlier reactions: City Block’s initial thoughts and then a look at precedents.  Straßgefühl kinda-sorta liked it before; and Spencer Lepler was […]

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