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A Slice of Blue Touching the Sky

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 6, 2004; Page C01

Already, it passes the taxi driver test.

Even though the building has been occupied for just a month or so, hackers know precisely what it looks like as soon as you give the address -- 500 New Jersey Ave. NW.

Or, to be precise, that has been my experience in two recent visits. "Oh yes, that's that beautiful new building they've put up over there," said one driver. On a second trip, another said pretty much the same thing.

The National Realtors Association's Washington headquarters, clockwise from above: a view of the Capitol from a corner office; the impossibly thin building slices through its space; a tower rises from the north side; its dimensions accentuate the building's 130-foot height. (Photos Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

The reason becomes apparent when you make the easy turn from Massachusetts Avenue south onto New Jersey: A memorable vista fills the front windshield. In the distance, the Capitol dome. In the right foreground, an astonishing new landmark.

Commissioned by the Chicago-based National Realtors Association to become its Washington headquarters, the new building is notable in a number of ways. It is, for instance, tall and thin. Remarkably thin.

Standing on a narrow triangular lot formed by New Jersey Avenue as it slices through First Street between E and F streets, the building tapers from 60 feet wide on the south to about 10 feet on the north. These dimensions accentuate the building's 130-foot height. In comparison with blocky buildings of similar height nearby, this one seems to soar.

Graham Gund Architects of Cambridge, Mass., designer of the building in collaboration with SMB Architects of Washington, emphasized these proportions by placing a tapering steel structure at that narrow northern prow. It is a surprising and effective urban exclamation point.

In fact, just about every move the architects made in designing this building reinforces the impression of sleek, self-confident elegance.

Measuring about 170 feet south to north and facing New Jersey Avenue and First Street, respectively, the building's long, all-glass facades curve outward ever so slightly -- a subtle move that yields dramatic, aerodynamic results.

Laura Cabo, a design principal in the Gund firm, explains that these facades, projecting a few feet beyond the building's high ground-level floor, are in accord with a Washington building regulation originally conceived to encourage the construction of protruding bay windows. "We treated the whole side as a bay," she says. This is at once an innovative and highly successful interpretation of an old rule.

Furthermore, the glass on these two impressive "bays" is tinted a striking azure hue, giving the building a jewel-like finish that is pleasing even on rainy days. Under clear blue skies, the reflective effects can be mesmerizing.

Reflective glass facades became a cliché in the 1950s and 1960s, of course, but this elegant design is a refreshing revival. The building is, in effect, a convincing work of abstract sculpture. This is entirely fitting, given its position on a highly visible, triangular island with a tremendous view of the Capitol.

"We wanted this to be a celebration of a Washington crossroads," says Graham Gund, and that it is. Though views of the Capitol from the upper floors and roof deck are predictably spectacular, the crossroads view in the opposite direction is even more dynamic.

Through the narrow aperture in the north, framed by the crisscrossing members of that steel exclamation point, a fascinating slice of the "other" Washington reveals itself. In the foreground, of course, you see a typical D.C. pattern as the diagonal avenue cuts sharply through the north-south street.

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