Cityscape

From Kevin Roche, a Stately Station Place

Architect Kevin Roche, inside the atrium of Station Place, which features an engineering marvel in its curved glass wall.
Architect Kevin Roche, inside the atrium of Station Place, which features an engineering marvel in its curved glass wall. (Above And Left, Photos By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 9, 2005

Pritzker Architecture Prize laureate Kevin Roche has proven many things over his long, distinguished career.

He can design a building to fit almost any set of needs and fit a design to almost any set of circumstances. He works wonderfully with inventive engineers. He can elegantly handle acres of glass, and he loves to twine nature to his buildings and vice versa.

All of these things Roche proves again in Station Place, the extra-long office building nestled behind Union Station and the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building.

Opening in phases over the next few years, Station Place is a glass-sheathed, 10-story building that, to judge by what has been completed, will wear its size rather comfortably. It is Roche's first building in Washington, and it's a job well done.

Still, Station Place is a long way from being one of Roche's best buildings -- and also a long way from being one of his worst. Spanning more than 50 years, his career has had plenty of extraordinary highs --Roche received his Pritzker Prize in 1982 and in 1993 was awarded the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects. It has also had some pretty disappointing lows.

You would always like to think that the nation's capital deserves the best from the nation's best architectural talents, even though the record is highly spotty in this regard. Terrific architects often stumble when confronted by the capital's grandeur -- and its height limit.

But with Roche, this perpetual hope for the best is bittersweet, for it almost came true. In the early 1960s, someone had the brilliant idea to build a national aquarium in East Potomac Park, just across the Washington Channel from what was to become the new Southwest waterfront. After an initial design by another architect failed to pass muster, the Irish-born Roche was hired, at a time when he was just emerging from his long apprenticeship with Eero Saarinen. The result was spectacular.

"It was far ahead of its time," recalls Charles Atherton, former secretary of the Commission of Fine Arts, the federal architectural review panel. "We arranged a special room for the display of the model; it was like a big jewel sitting in our office."

The building was envisioned as a low concrete square housing exhibits and research facilities, with an active, green-planted roof similar to the one Roche had just designed for the Oakland Museum in California. The crowning architectural piece was a high, semi-circular room encased in glass and steel, where would be displayed "the living ecologies of the Everglades and the East and West Coast tidal pools." The exhibits were conceived by Charles Eames, one of the 20th century's more inventive design minds.

Congress endorsed the idea as early as 1962 and later appropriated $10 million for the building, to be repaid over time from admission fees. Roche's design passed all the necessary planning and architectural reviews. Washington was set, in other words, not only to get an adventurous modern building but also to become a national leader in the field of marine science display.

For some reason, however, construction kept getting postponed. After the death in 1970 of Rep. Michael J. Kirwan (D-Ohio), the project's chief congressional fan, it was quietly cut from President Nixon's budget the following year. Along with it died plans for a pedestrian bridge across the Washington Channel.

(There were two designs for the bridge. One, by Washington's Chloethiel Woodard Smith, was to be lined with shops and was nicknamed the "Ponte Vecchio" after its famous model in Florence, Italy. Another, by Roche, was simpler and, possibly, more realistic. Either one would have provided a much-needed link between the island park and the city.)


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