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.
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.