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'Surprises, Conflicts, Competitions.' How 12 Architects Are Designing The Wharf

The Wharf is the center of the DC commercial real estate universe at the moment, by virtue of its location—right on the Washington Channel, a short walk from the National Mall—and its scale as the second-biggest mixed-use project in the country. And while Monty Hoffman is the man with the vision, he’s given 12 different architecture firms the task of making his vision a reality.


Leading the team is Stan Eckstut of Perkins Eastman. Stan is the master planner—or “master architect” as he puts it—for the 3.2M SF project, and he laid out the guidelines early on for how the overall project should look and feel.

Perkins Eastman also designed the subterranean parking garage and podium on which everything in Phase 1 is being built, the Parcel 2 mixed-use residential/retail/theater block, the 800 Maine Ave SW office building and the Dockmasters building, as well as the District Pier food and beverage pavilion. It was also the architect for the design of the wharf's public realm, along with a host of landscape architects.

Once the architects from around the region and country were selected, Stan led meetings with representatives from each firm, as often as once a week, to make sure everyone was on the same page.

“We’re building so much at one time, and therefore everyone is more intimate with each other,” Stan tells Bisnow. “It’s a big family—and that’s the vision—it's a family of architecture. No one’s resisted. I’ve been on projects with architects coming with the chip on the shoulder. This is better.”

A rendering of Vio, The Wharf's 112-unit condo building

The Wharf might have the most architects ever involved on one project in the DC region. Gary Handel, the founder of Handel Architects, who’s designing the VIO residential building (above), says the team reminds him of the one he worked on at the World Trade Center, where he designed the National September 11 Memorial.

Projects with 10 or more architects are certainly rare, he says, and they’re usually transformative for the city. Taking part in the design of The Wharf reminded him of helping design London’s Canary Wharf in the ‘80s.

Hiring 12 architects to design more than a half-dozen buildings at the same time can have some logistical challenges. But PN Hoffman principal Shawn Seaman tells Bisnow the potential headaches were worth the risk, considering the ultimate goal of The Wharf.


Shawn says he didn’t want it to be a project, but instead a neighborhood. He says a lot of the failings of the previous development in Southwest DC was that it was conceived of at one time and designed similarly. "It didn’t have the visual interest and excitement that people were looking for an international city’s waterfront.”

Here are the firms working on the buildings (this isn’t even touching on landscape architects for the multiple public spaces in the project):

  • BBGM: InterContinental Hotel
  • Cunningham Quill Architects: Capital Yacht Club
  • FOX Architects: 1000 Maine Ave
  • Handel Architects: Parcel 4 (VIO and apartments)
  • Kohn Pedersen Fox: 1000 Maine Ave
  • McGraw Bagnoli Architects: Municipal Fish Market and Pier 4
  • MTFA Architecture: St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church
  • Perkins Eastman: Master Planner, Parcel 2 apartments, 800 Maine Ave
  • Rockwell Group: Parcel 2 concert/events hall
  • SK&I Architectural Design Group: 525 Water
  • SmithGroupJJR: Parcel 5 hotels (Canopy by Hilton and Hyatt House)
  • WDG Architecture: Parcel 4 (VIO and apartments)
Rendering of The Wharf's promenade in D.C.

When Stan envisioned the master plan for the site, he wasn’t thinking about tourists. He wasn’t thinking about designing for the federal government. He wasn’t thinking about the concert-goer checking out a show in the 6,000-seat Wharf Hall. He says he was thinking about the single person who walks to the water’s edge with a cup of coffee.

“The design day wasn’t a beautiful sunny day,” Stan says. “It was a Wednesday afternoon in March. If it’s raining and cold, the place still has to function as a real city.”

That’s probably why Stan prefers the renderings of the street-level retail, like at the Promenade above and along Water Street and Jazz Alley, rather than the aerial views that everyone in DC commercial real estate has seen over a dozen times by this point.


The retail spaces will be part of a two- or three-story base of each building designed to a pedestrian scale, Shawn says. Hoffman-Madison Waterfront has already announced a list of eight restaurants that will be coming to Phase 1, and 30% of the retail space is still available, according to the latest figures provided to Bisnow.

One of the points of focus, Shawn says, is teaming up nationally recognized architects with local teams. So Handel was paired with the architect of record for VIO, WDG Architecture, and Kohn Pederson Fox is teamed up with local firm FOX Architects to design the trophy office building at 1000 Maine Ave SW.

And while Stan laid out guidelines for designing each of the buildings, he would have been disappointed if the architects had followed them to a T.

“The more architects break the rules, the better,” Stan says. “I want them to invent as much as they possibly can.”


That’s what John Crump of SmithGroupJJR did when designed the dual-flag hotel at Parcel 5 (above), with a Hyatt House in one tower and a Canopy by Hilton, with a rooftop bar that will be one of the first occupied penthouses in DC after the Height Act was modified, in the other.

John and his firm were actually hired by The JBG Cos when it had the development rights to Parcel 5. But when JBG sold its interest to Hoffman-Madison, SmithGroupJJR was retained and brought into the fold as one of a dozen architects.

“We sort of pushed the guidelines to refine the buildings with more nautical references to sailing ships,” John says. “Just conceptually, people might recall the things that used to occur in the Washigton Channel. That led to a serrated façade on the Canopy side, this big, strong, angular movement that faces the park.”


Shawn tells us he wanted to retain the grit the area had when it was the city’s working waterfront. Cargo ships would come right where The Wharf will sit to deliver tobacco and other goods from the south.

“There was a gritty port with lots of character, which we would be so happy to have today,” says Mary Fitch, executive director of the Washington Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. “I think it’s a really clever idea to use a lot of different architects, because a project like this could look instantly monolithic. If you’re using all sorts of architects with different palates of color, it can look different with a lot of different scales.”

Stan says part of getting The Wharf to feel like a real neighborhood is to design contradictions and congestion into the fabric of the project. Perhaps that’s why he says the most challenging part of designing the multibillion-dollar mega-project was getting the approvals.


“None of us go to places that work well, we go to places that are congested and broken,” Stan says. “We’re designing for people who live and work here. It’s full of surprises, conflicts, competitions anywhere we can. That was a big leap of faith to everybody.”

Now we get to see if that leap will pay off. 525 Water St SW (above), designed by SK&I, will deliver later this year, and the rest of Phase 1 should be ready before 2017 is over. Then, the architects who have been working together on one of the largest design teams the DC area has ever seen will be able to behold the product of their collaboration.

“I think all of the design firms want this to be successful,” John says, “because it’s something we’re going to show off in all of our portfolios.”