In 1964, the federal government displaced almost 6,000 families in Southwest D.C. through slum clearance, hiring the likes of Marcel Breuer, I.M. Pei, and Paul Goodman to tackle the area’s—and by extension America’s—urban decay. For Bing Thom, a young Canadian architect visiting D.C. at the time, it was a career defining moment that served as both inspiration and cautionary tale.
“It was a kind of magazine of architects trying to solve the problem,” recalled Thom, now heading up Bing Thom Architects in Vancouver, and the architect of the recently completed and highly praised Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater that sits across the street from Pei’s housing complex.
More than forty years later and in part due to the success of the Arena Stage expansion, Southwest D.C. is on an upswing and Don and Mera Rubell of Miami’s Rubell Family Collection foundation have commissioned Thom to design an ambitious gallery and mixed use development on the site of an abandoned school purchased earlier this year from the Corcoran Gallery of Art for $6 million (The Corcoran purchased the Randall School after a museum expansion by Frank Gehry fell through).
The move has whetted the appetite of D.C. art lovers, who sustain themselves on world-class, yet somewhat conservative, museum collections. The privately owned and operated Rubell Collection, known for cutting edge contemporary art, will be something of an anomaly in a town where the government holds the museum purse strings.
Plans are still in the very early stages. The architect and the couple are just getting to know each other, but the vision includes galleries and retail integrated into the repurposed school, topped with a hotel and mixed-income residences. The main floor area ratio is expected to come in at 490,000 square feet with at least 25,000 feet devoted to the gallery space and includes nearly 200 hotel rooms and 200 housing units, of which 20 percent will be set aside for middle to lower-middle income residents. The project will focus on community, outreach, and education and weaving the new arts center into the existing neighborhood. “I think we’ve burned through the age of excess,” said Thom. “It’s got to do with fulfilling a social mission.”
The positive reception of Thom’s Arena played heavily into the Rubells’ choice of him as architect. “There wasn’t anyone who had won the hearts of the community like he has,” Mera Rubell said by phone from Miami, where the couple lives most of the time, although they also own the Capitol Skyline hotel designed by Morris Lapidus in 1960 on a site adjacent to the project.
In line with both the client and architect’s desire to be sensitive to community, the project is being developed in partnership with Marilyn Melkonian, president of Telesis Corporation, who sits on several housing boards and is founder of the National Housing Trust, where she still serves as chair. Melkonian foresees a future for the neighborhood not unlike that of New York’s East Village, where public and middle income housing butt up against boutiques and galleries.
For their part, the Rubells said the loan of 30 Americans to the Corcoran for a show next fall and featuring the work of 30 African-Americans from the last three decades, indicates their awareness of D.C.’s rich artistic diversity. Though Mera Rubell said the show merely hints at the kind of art they will bring to the Southwest neighborhood. She said that the nature of contemporary art will dictate what lands in the gallery three years from now, when, if all goes as planned, they hope to be open.