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Slicker City

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.

  • <p>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."</p>
  • <p>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."</p>
  • <p>"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.</p>
  • <p>Nagarajan used a brush and ink for the original illustration, then added color in digitally.</p>
  • <p>Illustrator David Plunkert of <a href="http://spurdesign.com/" target="_blank">Spur Design</a> 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.</p>
  • 01 /07

    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."

  • 02 /07
  • 03 /07

    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."

  • 04 /07
  • 05 /07

    "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.

  • 06 /07

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

  • 07 /07

    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.

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.

Slideshow Credits: 01 / Matt Chase; 02 / Matt Chase; 03 / Iain Burke; 04 / Iain Burke; 05 / Vidhya Nagarajan; 06 / Vidhya Nagarajan; 07 / David Plunkert Of Spur Design;