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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)

But Pelli, as head of the design team, seized the opportunity to make a statement. The work to be done inside the building would be the very latest science and technology. It would be about the future. The architect wanted the design symbolically to reflect these attributes, and this it memorably does. In his 1999 book "Observations for Young Architects," Pelli notes with a touch of irony that "because schedule was the overriding objective, my rather adventurous design was instantly approved."

Today's battle over the future of the Comsat building arises from the continuing outward expansion of Montgomery County's suburbs. This puts immense pressure on large tracts such as Comsat's, which consists of more than 200 acres of largely open land.

In the 1994 master plan for the area, county planners foresaw a large amount of transit-oriented development on and around the Comsat site, but did not protect the Comsat building as a historic property. And there's the rub.

Trying to make up for this serious oversight, scholars Isabelle Gournay and Mary Corbin Sies, both affiliated with the University of Maryland, submitted a splendidly researched form nominating Comsat to become an official Montgomery County landmark. The county's Historic Preservation Commission recently agreed, recommending that much of the building and a 33.47-acre piece of its setting be so designated.

The move is being vigorously opposed by LCOR, a Pennsylvania real estate development company that purchased the site in 1997. Other county business interests, and even County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, have lined up behind LCOR. Opponents fear the precedent such a designation might set, but one has to wonder about this worry, because there's not another modern building with this kind of architectural distinction anywhere along the I-270 corridor.

The building is in no imminent danger of demolition because, according to LCOR Vice President Michael Smith, Lockheed Martin has a lease on it that lasts until 2007, with options to renew through 2012. But without a vote in favor of historic designation at next month's meeting of the county planning board -- and, after that, approval by the county council -- there is little question that the building will be torn down. "The historic preservation community had their chance back in the early 1990s," says LCOR's Smith, referring to the debate over the master plan.

In other words, the Comsat battle is like many a preservation donnybrook that has preceded it, typical in its bitterness and its lineup of development interests against preservation. There are, perhaps, two exceptional aspects to the Comsat imbroglio.

One is LCOR's preposterous contention that the building is not, in fact, Pelli's work but was "the collective work of a large architectural firm." If that were true of Comsat, it would be true for all of the buildings we deem to be Pelli's. As the head of his own architecture firm since 1977, Pelli said in a recent telephone interview, he still works the same way, as the chief of a team of designers.

"It's not as if I am a painter, working alone in the studio," Pelli said. "In the beginning I have ideas about a particular project, I direct the design, I tell people how I expect the design to move forward, I react to their ideas, I control the process. I remain very proud of my work on Comsat, and it is a building that remains very dear to me."

The other more or less exceptional facet of the Comsat fight is the building's vintage. At 36 years old, it doesn't measure up to the cautious 50-year waiting period that preservation agencies customarily follow.

But this never has been a hard-and-fast rule -- Eero Saarinen's Dulles International Airport, for instance, was deemed eligible for National Register of Historic Places in 1978, a mere 14 years after its completion. For reasons both aesthetic and historical, Pelli's Comsat building certainly qualifies for protection.

And like every other important preservation battle I've witnessed, there is a potential happy ending for all concerned. The Pelli building, like many a pre-modern structure saved from the wrecking ball, could be adapted for a new economic use. Developers often protest that it can't be done, but almost always it can.

Equally as important, Pelli's economical, high-tech vocabulary could be used as a guidepost for the new development on the nearby land. This might reverse the pattern of mind-numbingly mediocre commercial architecture in Montgomery's vaunted high-tech corridor. And it might result in architecture that, 36 years from now, we'd all be proud to preserve.

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