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Throwing the Skyline a Curve

Massachusetts Court, on the south side of the avenue between Third and Fourth streets NW, merits possibly a B-minus. It also is a two-part building. The avenue-facing segment, containing 297 apartment units, is a red brick structure with identifiable base, middle and top -- an inoffensive take on the pre-World War II Washington standard. The other part, containing 74 loft-style units, appropriately faces Fourth Street with a livelier, more colorful, more open facade.

Esocoff's building, by contrast, is an A. It's a spirited structure, at once seriously idiosyncratic and respectfully playful.

The 262-unit condominium tower at 400 Massachusetts Ave. NW, designed by the local firm of Philip Esocoff & Associates, uses curved slabs, changes in texture and varying window sizes to create elegant, rhythmic facades. (Photos James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)

The idiosyncrasies start with the shape. Architects for generations have taken advantage of Washington's many narrow corners, created by all the diagonal boulevards, to make emphatic rounded or pointed forms. Esocoff does the same, with a twist, by curling a slice of masonry away from his rounded corner at the very top. It's like a flag, improbably made of bricks.

Then there are the wavy facades to the north and south. From the inside, they provide residents with long urban views. From the outside, they transform what could have been overlong elevations into elegant, rhythmic facades unlike any others in the city.

The architect points out that the curves are based on the city's basic building technology of concrete structural columns and concrete floor plates. It's not terribly hard, Esocoff says, to curve the ends of the floor slabs and thereby "get a lot of effect for a small additional amount of money." Not terribly hard, perhaps. But not often done.

Esocoff is one of the few modern architects who'll even admit to admiring ornament. (Another is his wife, Amy Weinstein. Not surprisingly, both studied with decoration-conscious Pritzker Prize winner Robert Venturi at the University of Pennsylvania.) At 400 Massachusetts Ave., this admiration is expressed in strong, simple, colorful brick patterns that reinforce the traditional base-middle-top divisions of the facades.

The architect also enhances the liveliness of his facades with calculated shifts in window sizes and patterns, and changes in materials and textures. This is a building that has a certain billboard effect when you are driving by -- but, like most really good buildings, it reveals its qualities much more fully at walking speed.

The same unfortunately cannot be said for most of the large, architecturally lackadaisical new residential buildings downtown. We should do better. And, as 400 Massachusetts incontestably proves, we can.

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