Washington, D.C.-based illustrator Matt Chase says that he "tried to envision a Manhattaned version of the National Mall—some little kid, peeking out his hundred-story apartment window, trying to catch a fleeting glance of American history before the city swallowed it whole."

Washington, D.C.-based illustrator Matt Chase says that he "tried to envision a Manhattaned version of the National Mall—some little kid, peeking out his hundred-story apartment window, trying to catch a fleeting glance of American history before the city swallowed it whole."

Iain Burke, who created this dystopian design, says "I wanted to create something that showed the overcrowding, claustrophobic feeling that D.C. will have if we turn it into any other city."

Iain Burke, who created this dystopian design, says "I wanted to create something that showed the overcrowding, claustrophobic feeling that D.C. will have if we turn it into any other city."

"What if the skyscrapers got so big that the only times we'd be able to see a view of any of D.C.'s monuments was by looking at them through those binoculars attached to rooftops on buildings?" illustrator Vidhya Nagarajan wondered.

Nagarajan used a brush and ink for the original illustration, then added color in digitally.

Illustrator David Plunkert of Spur Design describes his work as "depicting the city's tallest landmark and focal point dwarfed by high rises." The illustration was created using hand-painted backgrounds and ink combined in Photoshop.

What Washington, D.C., Would Look Like With Skyscrapers

As Congress debates D.C.'s building-height restrictions, we asked four illustrators to imagine what the city would be like if developers could build right up into the clouds.

Washington, D.C., has a height problem. For almost its entire history, builders in the nation’s capital have faced restrictions limiting how high their structures could rise. Starting with regulations established by George Washington himself and written into Congressional law in 1899, anything resembling even the stout relative of a skyscraper has been banned within the district’s borders. As the current Height of Buildings Act (passed in 1910) stands, buildings in D.C. are stunted at 90, 130 and 160 feet tall, depending on their zoning.

As a result, D.C. is a low, open city, where you can spot the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument towering above the skyline from afar. The price of such a low-density city is high, though: Both housing and office space are exorbitantly expensive in the district. The act has been a controversial matter for the city and its urban planners and architects for years.

Illustration by David Plunkert Of Spur Design

More recently, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, led by Californian representative Darrell Issa, an outspoken opponent of the act, has debated lifting these restrictions, offering a glimmer of hope to those who feel the Height Act has outlived its usefulness, depriving the city of tax revenue and growth opportunities.

We asked four illustrators—David Plunkert, Vidhya Nagarajan, Matt Chase, and Iain Burke—to imagine what Washington, D.C., might look like if no such restrictions existed, and skyscrapers were allowed to invade the city. Here's what they came up with.

[Illustration by Matt Chase]

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16 Comments

  • MajorDiarrhea

    I was hoping for something more photorealistic.

    DC was planned quite carefully so I would imagine a new plan could be made, deciding the maximum and minimum building height of every single plot of land, and the outermost dimensions of anything build on those plots. The goal would be to make sure everything complements the existing structures, rather than dominating, or blocking them. Although, it's easy to imagine such a comprehensive plan being too restrictive, and frequently unrealistic in its demands, but seems like the way to go to this layman.

  • Adam Russell

    Just wanted to echo the comments that these illustrations are completely inaccurate and detract from the actual Height Act debate. No one is pushing for skyscrapers, nor for any taller heights near the Capitol or the Washington monument.
    DC needs looser height restrictions to fight skyrocketing housing prices and to build its tax base. Not to mention, a key part of the debate is the District's ability to determine its own height regulations, a process which currently flows through Congress and depends on their interests.
    These illustrations (albeit nice-looking ones) confuse the issues at stake here.

  • arc4242

    I agree with Andrew W. What's depicted in these illustrations will simply never happen, for a myriad reasons. If the Height Act is loosened, the development will go to the outskirts of the city, and hopefully east of the Anacostia River, where new development -- especially new residential products -- is desperately needed. Increased density will increase the financial feasibility of building east of the River, which is a good thing. And increased density outside of the monumental core, in neighborhoods like Brookland and Petworth that are straining to keep low housing prices (and mostly failing), development will mean more affordable housing. These are all good things. Nobody is talking about adding skyscrapers to the National Mall. This article is absurd and promoting a misleading, anti-development bias.

  • Andrew W

    These illustrations, while nice looking, are preposterous. They all imagine apparently bulldozing the Smithsonian, National Mall, Library of Congress, House and Senate office buildings and basically every other historic structure in downtown DC. It's ridiculous. If you want to add to the debate, make it reasonable.

  • davewakeman

    As a DC resident, I am in favor of raising the height limit on buildings. I would also fall into the category of people that don't want extreme skyscrapers. But I realize that those size buildings aren't likely to come to DC, even if the limit was totally eliminated.

    I think a reasonable solution might be to increase the height limits by 25-50% depending on the zoning and historical context of the neighborhood. This would allow a pretty substantial increase in available space for commercial and residential buildings...and also save views of the Capitol and Washington Monument.

    One thing not mentioned, in doing something like this, measures should probably be taken to preserve some of the historic row houses and neighborhoods, but that is another can of worms and I think my first thoughts were probably pie in the sky enough for one comment.

  • Lyle Morton

    This is such a distraction from the real debate. DC needs a serious conversation about how it can increase density and commercial/residential mix. This is awkward scare-mongering about skyscrapers and has no place in the conversation. Those of us in favor of higher buildings in DC are talking about 20 story buildings, not 100+

  • joel rosado

    Do these illustrators even live in DC? The city's older core would likely still be protected by the act but there is no reason for height restrictions anywhere beyond a 4 block radius of the federal core.

  • Homepiece RVA

    These designers clearly aren't into the idea of skyscrapers, either. So the reason more offices aren't built across the Potomac is that mass transit doesn't really support commuting to Virginia?

  • RS

    There are plenty of tall buildings across the river in Virgnia. Their height is limited by flight paths to National, but Rosslyn's got the skyline of a modest city.

    DC's the most expensive office markets in the country. Some types of clients feel that they have to be in DC for the prestige - law firms with government practices, PR and lobby shops - and they're able to pay high rents. Add to that the ever-growing amount of business activity beyond the government, and you've got more demand for office space than the midrise downtown can meet.

    So developers buy out more lowrise residential neighborhoods and replace rowhouses with cheap, boxy office blocks.

  • Homepiece RVA

    Yeah, h8 box buildings. Especially ones that are built by knocking down buildings of historic and architectural worth. If any conscientious developers are looking for support to build non-boxes, let me know.

  • RS

    Argh. Skyscrapers aren't even in the cards for DC, just a modest increase in height in areas far away from the Mall. Meanwhile, this city's losing its rowhouse neighborhoods because the surging demand for office space is driving blocky 8-10 story buildings out beyond downtown.