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Award-Winning Architect Mark McInturff on the Challenges and Rewards of Working in D.C.

"Wow, we're really lucky for what we have in Washington"

In the more than 40 years of experience Mark McInturff has gained as an architect, he has not only shaped the way Washington, D.C. looks, he has also been able to watch the District evolve into the city it is today. In his eight-person firm in Bethesda, Maryland, McInturff's residential, commercial, and institutional projects have been published both locally and nationally. Along with his more than 250 design awards, the American Institute of Architects has granted him three national honor awards and two monographs.

In an interview with Curbed, McInturff spoke on how much denser the nation's capital has become and how he hopes to adapt to these changes. He also shared his input on what unique challenges architecture firms encounter when working in the D.C. area, and how those challenges may actually be necessary.

McInturff Architects has a long history in the D.C. area. How would you characterize the firm and its legacy?

We are a modernist firm that grew out of essentially a residential practice, but we do still have one foot in residential and one foot in everything else.

I guess because we grew out of a residential practice, we became really good listeners. So, to all of our other work, we apply the same emotional involvement that people apply to their houses.

Which projects do you believe are the most noteworthy?

We've done a few highly visible houses just because of where they are. One of the more famous ones is the steel glass house that is overlooking Key Bridge, the modernist house there. We did the Woolly Mammoth Theater. We did one of the buildings in Cady's Alley, but I guess we're mostly known for the houses you see around town.

Is there a goal or a mission when it comes to what you design or how you design in the D.C. area?

I think our mission is two-fold. One is to come at it from the point of view of the context of the city, and I think that our work is always trying to fit into where it is, but we're trying on the one hand to sort of about the buildings that fit into the city, on the other hand, we're trying very hard to tailor the building to our clients and what they need and what they care about and all those kinds of things.

So, the result, which is very interesting to me anyway, is that our buildings all look fairly different. So we don't have kind of an office look. Our buildings don't look all the same color or are made with the same materials. I think there's actually quite a wide variety of appearances that you see if you kind of look at our website or in our books.

Over the next few years, where do you see your company going?

Sort of outward, I guess. First of all, I don't really want a big company ever. We're eight people. That's a comfortable size for me. I've never wanted a big firm. I've always wanted to maintain a strong hand in being a designer so I don't want to be a manager, so I don't want a large firm. That said, I like doing some of the larger public buildings that we're doing now or buildings in the public realm that might be commercial buildings. And so, I like the idea that our work is accessible to more than just the owners of the house that we're designing because I want to continue to design houses.

So, there are kind of three directions that I see. One is we will continue to do houses of all sizes. The second is I like doing small houses, so I would like to do more of those. It's something I've always been drawn towards. And the third is I'd like to do larger buildings. So, we're going smaller and bigger at the same time.

[Photos of the Woolly Mammoth Theater courtesy of McInturff Architects]

How have you seen the District change in terms of what it needs from architecture firms?

It's almost unbelievable to me. I've been here all my life, so I grew up when Bethesda was a two-story town and when Downtown was the cross roads of F street and Seventh or something like that, and now if you look at the density of the city and the kind of variety of sort of new communities and neighborhoods and stuff, it's almost not the same city—in a good way. I mean, I think it's really, really matured.

So, one of the things that we're looking at doing I think in the next few years is more multi-family housing because there's a lot of that happening, and I think it's a really good thing to do in the city to kind of in-fill some of the empty sites and bring back neighborhoods by providing housing.

Are there any unique challenges when it comes to designing and working in the D.C. area?

Well, we are regulatory-heavy. I will say that. So, to make a building in almost any neighborhood, you're really going to a large number of community and regulatory meetings whether for historic preservation or something like that.

That isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's time-consuming, and I think in many cases you do get good feedback and good participation by people. So, it's a good thing. It's just you have to account for it, and I think clients are always surprised with how long that can take.

[Photos of this Georgetown townhome at 3618 Prospect Street NW courtesy of McInturff Architects]

What would you say has been the most fulfilling aspect of your work in the D.C. area?

It's like when I gave this talk last week at the District Architecture Center. I had a lot of clients with people I built for over the years, and you build up these kinds of relationships. As I said, there's kind of an emotional involvement when you make somebody's house, and so if you do it well, you have all these friendships. You have all these relationships to go back—in some cases 30 years.

We have lots of clients we've worked for multiple times, including their retirement houses after years of being in our other houses. We also have lots of houses when our original clients move on, we stay with the house and make changes to that.

So, there's this kind of continuity that you get over time when you practice as long as we have that begins to make this kind of fabric that you've created in a way.

I have just one last question: what are your favorite places in D.C. in terms of architectural beauty?

I like the Finnish Embassy a lot. That's probably 10 or 15 years old by now. I like new and old things. This is actually a tougher question than I thought.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

I think what's unique about Washington, and I run award series in a lot of other places. I look at the working being produced there, and I think, "Wow, we're really lucky for what we have in Washington."

We have a really diverse population, a really educated population, and in many cases an international population. So, the kinds of people I get to work for are really interesting people. It's almost like they were the best of the best of where they came from. I only notice that asset I guess when I go some place else. I think, "Oh, they don't have the kind of dimension that we have."

As I said at my lecture the other night, I think the plan of Washington is the greatest urban design plan ever executed on the planet, and I think we also don't every now and then sit down and say, "Wow, that is extraordinary. We are an extraordinary place."

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity
· McInturff Architects [Official Website]
· Field Note Fridays [Curbed DC]