Comsat, in Danger of Coming to Earth

The 36-year-old Comsat building, right, with its glass-sheathed entry pavilion, above, is in the middle of a battle to save it from destruction.
The 36-year-old Comsat building, right, with its glass-sheathed entry pavilion, above, is in the middle of a battle to save it from destruction. (Maryland-national Capital Park And Planning Commission Photos)
By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 25, 2005

When it was built in 1969, the silvery Comsat building in its green field near the highway was a harbinger of things to come in upper Montgomery County.

Along with the Atomic Energy Commission in Germantown and the National Bureau of Standards near Gaithersburg, the Comsat Laboratories building (to use the full title) presaged the development of the now-famed technology corridor -- the backbone of Montgomery's economic might.

Because of its position adjacent to Interstate 270, near Clarksburg, Comsat is by far the most visible of the three. The corporation, now owned by Lockheed Martin, was chartered by Congress in 1962 to stimulate and guide the growth of a private communications satellite industry. It did its job well.

Unfortunately, one thing that the Comsat building did not foretell about upper Montgomery -- or, for that matter, any of the Washington area's aesthetically dreary technology districts -- was architectural quality on a par with its own.

Designed by Cesar Pelli, 1995 winner of the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects, the Comsat building is, quite simply, strikingly beautiful. It is more than that, of course, but let's stick for a moment with the idea of beauty.

Oh, pardon me, but did I mention that the building's present owners want to tear it down? That the county government might let them do it? That an important vote of a public planning board on July 7 could help prevent this terrible outcome? Or assure it?

Ah, yes, beauty. What is it worth? That's the question Montgomery County faces now. Can you put a dollar figure on aesthetic quality, or is it perhaps a little more precious?

The Comsat building, long and low, extends lightly across a rolling meadow. Its lines are crisp and clean. When seen from a car speeding north on I-270 -- the quick, iconic view -- the building seems almost to hover above the green. It's part of the landscape and not part of it at the same time.

(I must say, however, that a blocky, darker building, added to the southern end of the complex by another architectural firm in the early 1980s, somewhat spoils the effect. I try to ignore the intruder when driving by.)

The building's primary architectural qualities -- the lightness and tightness of its aluminum-and-glass skin, the orderly extension of four two-story wings from a central spine, the transparency of the "catwalk" connecting these units -- all were carefully calculated. In particular, Pelli worked closely with landscape architect Lester Collins to keep sharp the distinction between the architecture and the informal, bucolic setting of meadow and trees.

The building is often cited by architectural historians as an early instance of "high-tech" architecture. It remains a classic example, to use scholar Leo Marx's memorable phrase, of the modernist "machine in the garden."

Comsat demonstrates clearly the hoary, but oft-ignored, truth that there need be no distinction between beauty and utility. Designed in a hurry and under tight budget constraints when Pelli was director of design for DMJM, a large California architectural and engineering firm, the building could have been just an ordinary assortment of shed-like structures.

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