Chinatown isn’t strictly Chinese anymore. The success of the MCI Center and new Washington Convention Center have turned this small ethnic enclave between G Street and Massachusetts Avenue and 5th and 8th streets NW, into a boomtown of commercial development.
Looming above the Friendship Arch, the colorful, Chinese gateway over H Street is the biggest newcomer to the neighborhood, Gallery Place. The mega-complex boasts 1 million square feet of offices, condos, retail and movie theaters in architecture that is among the most garish in town.
Across and up Seventh Street, once derelict storefronts are now filled with the kind of restaurants and stores found in the suburbs. National chains such as Hooters, Ruby Tuesday, Ann Taylor, Radio Shack and Starbucks have replaced the area’s once seedy atmosphere with the commercial gloss of a shopping mall.
In addition to the retail is a new office block at Seventh and I streets, and similarly large-scale architecture in Chinatown is on the way. Due to start construction on Sixth Street between G and H are 11-and 12-story office buildings that look reminiscent of K Street downtown.
All this high-rent development is squeezing out Asian residents along with Chinese businesses. “There’s been a large exodus of Asian Americans from the District over the past 10 years,” says Neel Saxena of the Mayor’s Office on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs. The most recent census tract data for the District reveals that the Chinatown area had an Asian population of 491 in 2000, down from 526 in 1990.
Yet despite its transformation from ethnic enclave to developer’s paradise, Chinatown has never looked so “Chinese.” Banners and marquees decorated with Chinese calligraphy adorn the new office blocks, shops and restaurants. Asian motifs are inscribed on sidewalks and building facades. Chinese-style lanterns top the street lights.
The atmosphere feels forced and fake, since most of the buildings and businesses have nothing to do with Chinese culture. Still, the ethnic branding continues as a requirement of building in Chinatown.
Architectural designs must meet the approval of the Chinatown Steering Committee, an advisory group of local residents and property owners established in 1983 at the request of the District government.
The committee acts as a neighborhood design review board to make sure proposed structures and streetscapes incorporate culturally correct “Chinese” imagery before building permits are issued. “It’s a way of keeping Chinatown as a unique district,” says committee member Peter Liu, a Washington landscape architect.
As to what types of chinoiserie pass muster, Mr. Liu says, “there are many ways of doing it. Our decision is based on the community’s impressions of the design. It’s subjective.” Sanctioned designs range from almost indistinguishable zodiac symbols in the sidewalks to the gaudy, pagoda-style pavilion over the Metro stop at Gallery Place.
The mandated “Chinese” elements make for some pretty strange architecture.
Along Seventh Street, the Gallery Place pagoda adjoins a stretch of “Victorian” storefronts in an attempt to join Eastern and Western design. The unrelated, brightly colored facades are so stylized and superficial that they resemble cheap stage scenery.
Above the storefronts, the bulk of Gallery Place appears as defensive as China’s Great Wall, but without the benefit of historical recall. The few flourishes in the flat facades of precast concrete and strip windows are yellow, slablike balconies under a green cornice and neon-lit doodads marching up one side.
Near the top of the Seventh Street facade, a big bay window sticks out from the pale facade like a giant green wart. At night, it lights up the side of the building with more visual fireworks.
The cartoonish, mismatched elements of the mixed-use building reflect the lack of a clear design direction. The busy, befuddled architecture may stem from the involvement of four architectural firms on the project (the Washington office of HKS Inc. served as the architect of record). Too many cooks apparently spoiled this ambitious urban recipe, concocted as a joint venture between Western Development Corp. and the Akridge Cos.
More cohesive is the 11-story office block designed by the Washington office of Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum for Akridge on the northwest corner of Seventh and I streets. Crisply outlined in precast concrete and glass, the modern architecture is a fine complement to Techworld Plaza next door.
At night, its glassy corner glows with white stripes of light, a fitting image for this building, which houses the headquarters of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
The only “Chinese” elements here are restrained but superfluous. They include decorative latticework around the entrance canopy and red banners inscribed with Confucius-like proverbs in Chinese.
“The challenge of working in Chinatown is to design something thoughtful but not kitsch,” says architect Bill Hellmuth. The firm’s proposed office building for Akridge on Sixth Street next to the MCI arena, he says, will incorporate Chinese-inspired louvers around the parking garage.
Other architects responsible for office buildings in Chinatown are also intent on a more nuanced interpretation of Eastern elements. “We tried to reflect some of the design principles behind traditional Chinese architecture,” says Frank Durkin of Hickok Warner Cole Architects in Washington.
Mr. Durkin and his team designed an 11-story office building for developer Trammel Crow Co. at the southeast corner of Sixth and H streets that is just starting construction.
The contemporary architecture attempts to translate Chinese post-and-beam construction into metal and glass, with a corner tower suggestive of a huge lantern.
But that wasn’t exactly what the Chinatown Steering Committee had in mind, according to Mr. Durkin. “They told us it wasn’t Chinese enough,” he says. “They were looking for very literal symbols such as dragons and bright reds and greens in abundance.”
The superficiality of such elements underscores the absurdity of current design policy in Chinatown. The scenographic addition of pagoda roofs and calligraphic decorations to office buildings and restaurant chains cannot mask the metamorphosis of this urban area. Nor can they make bad architecture better.
The city should recognize the development realities and drop the requirement for imitative Asian design, which no longer has cultural relevance in much of this district. Change, after all, is part of the natural evolution of cities, particularly in ethnic neighborhoods such as this one.
Chinatown, in fact, wasn’t always Chinese. The area was first settled by German and Jewish immigrants in the 1850s and 1860s. Until the 1930s, the city’s Chinese residents mostly lived on Pennsylvania Avenue. They moved to the current Chinatown after being displaced by the building of the Federal Triangle. In establishing their businesses, Chinese merchants transformed the area’s late-19th century buildings with native signage and ornamentation.
Today, contemporary versions of those decorative trimmings continue to be imposed, regardless of a structure’s ownership and use. The result is an ersatz ethnicity, far removed from cultural authenticity.
Chinatown now feels as artificial as a Disney theme park. It’s time the architecture in this neighborhood got real.