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A Slice of Blue Touching the Sky

Because of its slim dimensions and glass facades, the building is filled with natural light. In addition to being pleasant and healthful, this saves money and energy because the electrical lighting system was designed to adjust automatically to levels of light from outdoors. The exterior glass, not coincidentally, was treated to reduce heat gain.

These are but two of the building's many "green" features. Perhaps the most innovative, if invisible, piece of sustainable architecture is the concrete cistern buried beneath the building. It collects rainwater from the roof for use in irrigating the street trees and other plants around the building.

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)

Iris Amdur, a Washington consultant for sustainable design, is confident that the building will become the first new office building in Washington to be certified by the U. S. Green Building Council. This is an achievement well worth emulating. Certification comes only after a building conforms to many items on a long and demanding list of qualities signifying "Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design."

The Gund design was chosen in a competition sponsored by the Realtors Association several years ago. When it was first unveiled, the design drew a lot of vehement, articulate and, to my mind, wrong-headed criticism.

The opposition was partly stimulated by affection for a traditional design proposed by Jay Hellman, a previous owner of the site. And partly, it seems, it was based on a dogmatic dislike of modern architecture.

Ronald Lee Fleming, president of the Townscape Institute of Cambridge, Mass., wrote that the Gund building was unsuitable "from the point of view of contextual design and sustainability." The traditional design, he continued, was "clearly more historically contextual, sensitive to its culturally significant location and appropriate from an urban planning standpoint."

It seems clear to me, however, that the finished building supports an opposite argument. The Realtors' building is, demonstrably, environmentally responsive. Its design is "historically contextual" in that it celebrates its own historical period instead of pining after some 19th-century style. With great finesse, the design takes advantage of its important location. And, unmistakably, the building contributes significantly to the vitality of its immediate neighborhood.

It is wonderful to look at and pleasant to be near. The setting, designed with admirable restraint by the Washington landscape architecture firm of Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, invites passersby to pause for a while. The space will be further enlivened when a restaurant and a delicatessen open on the ground floor next year.

The Blue Sliver is, in other words, a fine addition to Washington's limited supply of first-rate modern architecture. In a half-century or so, when someone tries to tear the building down, preservationists rightly will say no.

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