Design Dilemma

Monday, June 6, 2005

QUICK QUIZ: What do these buildings have in common? The Reichstag, the British Museum, the Louvre -- and the Old Patent Office Building in Washington, D.C.? The answer is that all are architecturally significant buildings whose facades or interiors have been redesigned in recent years by contemporary architects. The difference, of course, is that in the cases of the Reichstag, the British Museum and the Louvre, the designs were carried out and completed. In the case of the Old Patent Office Building, the design -- the work of Lord Norman Foster, the British architect who also revamped the British Museum -- has just received a major setback. Last week, the National Capital Planning Commission, in a 6 to 5 vote, turned down Mr. Foster's proposal to place a glass canopy over the building's courtyard, largely on the grounds that the canopy would be visible from the outside of the building, thereby spoiling its classical facade.

The building's proprietor, the Smithsonian Institution, is, in some sense, right to be disappointed. The Old Patent Office, although an example of Greek revival architecture, dating from the middle of the 19th century, has nevertheless had a more checkered recent history. At one point virtually abandoned -- District children went there to watch pigeons in the courtyard -- it now houses the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. Neither has been among the city's most-visited or most-loved art galleries, even before they were closed for renovation in 2000, although both contain some of the city's best examples of American art. A renovation of the kind planned by Mr. Foster would make the building itself a destination. Its courtyard would quickly become a popular place for lunch or meetings, winter or summer, eventually drawing more people into the museums as well.

But the Smithsonian, according to planning commission members, is also at fault for having not taken seriously enough in the process the concerns of historical preservationists. A good deal of the work on the canopy was completed, including foundations for the pillars, before final approval was received. The Smithsonian also took apart the design elements of the internal courtyard without asking anyone for permission.

Historical preservationists have accomplished much for Washington. In fact, their protests helped save the Patent Office itself in the 1950s, when there were plans to turn it into a parking lot. They deserve a hearing, especially when the city's third-oldest building is about to be radically transformed. But because the Foster plan could well bring the city a unique example of contemporary architecture, one that would lead more people to look at the classical architecture upon which it would be based, the design deserves a second look. We hope the Smithsonian can yet find a way to make this happen.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company