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From Kevin Roche, a Stately Station Place
It's a sad Washington story that gets even sadder. Baltimore's alert planners picked up the idea of a popular aquarium as a centerpiece for urban waterfront revival, and the idea then was copied nationwide.
In an interview this week, Roche provided a fitting coda. After the demise of the Washington project, he said, "They asked me to design the one in Baltimore and I refused. I told them that the national aquarium really ought to be in Washington." It was perhaps in tribute to Roche's design that Baltimore's aquarium, by Cambridge Seven Associates, prominently features a glass-and-steel-enclosed tropical garden.
Roche certainly put the idea of transparent, enclosed green spaces to excellent use. His Ford Foundation Headquarters in New York, certainly one of his best buildings, was famously built around a vast, tree-filled atrium. Under design at the same time he was working on the Washington project, it was completed in 1968.
Well, enough laments, already. Comparing Station Place to the aquarium design is in a sense unfair. The aquarium was conceived as a bold civic stroke. Station Place is simply an office building, one among hundreds in the city. Furthermore, in Roche's words, the idea was "to do as elegant a building as possible and keep it fairly low key, to make it almost a background building."
Mission more or less accomplished. Of course, Station Place won't exactly be invisible when completed. Stretching along Second Street NE all the way between F and H streets NW, the final product will be nearly 1,000 feet long.
But Roche and his colleagues in the Connecticut firm of Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates, with advice and consent from the Commission of Fine Arts, did manage to turn a potential monster into a rather pleasing neighbor, a fine-tuned barrier between a neighborhood and the railroad tracks. They accomplished this magic trick largely by applying tried-and-true urban design techniques with a high degree of skill.
Thus, the building is set back significantly at the top, so that it rises from the Second Street sidewalk to seven stories high, and then to eight stories and then, deep in the background, to a full 10 stories. These setbacks are complemented by rhythmic breaks in the building wall, so that no flat plane continues for more than 50 feet. At 120-foot intervals, there is a deeper cut into the building -- the first is a formal public park with a fountain, many benches and pretty trees and plants.
The greening of the building at its base is quite extraordinary -- or will be, as the vines begin to climb and mature. Two taut vine-guiding wires, topped with a long, narrow steel trestle, accompany each of the two-story-high gray granite pilasters.
Like practically everything about this building, these pilasters -- a bow to the stone and style of the Marshall building immediately to the south -- are beautifully detailed. In true modernist fashion, Roche made it crystal clear that these stone elements don't actually support anything but themselves. A gray steel rod emerges from their tops to support the trestle, a detail that's both fetching and funny.
The curtain wall is a thing of minimalist purity, cutting sharp profiles at its edges and making a pleasing, regular pattern of thin horizontal bands of fretted glass contrasting with clear-glass vertical panels. It's a subtle rather than a flashy wall, and it contributes significantly to the building's quiet presence on the street.
(The change from all-glass to a pinkish granite facade for Phase 2, dictated by the Commission of Fine Arts, is an unfortunate break in this peaceful rhythm. Roche promises there will be no such break in the glass facades of the office building he designed for 1101 New York Ave. NW, under construction for the Station Place developer, the Louis Dreyfus Property Group.)
Roche did allow for one exceptional architectural gesture -- an open lobby with a floor-to-roof glass wall at the junction of First and F streets NE, a smaller version of the spacious atrium Edward Larrabee Barnes designed for the nearby Marshall building. The wall, designed in collaboration with Advanced Structures Inc. of California, is an engineering feat -- "the only double-curved, cable-supported glass wall in the world," according to Robert Brawnohler, a Dreyfus vice president.
Conceived to stabilize the 80-foot high wall with minimum visual interference, the engineering is best appreciated from the inside, where one can plainly see how the wall forms a concave curve from side to side, while the edges are convex. The catch is, if you try to go inside you'll be stopped by a security guard before your hand grips the door handle -- only employees of the tenant, the Securities and Exchange Commission, or their guests, are allowed in. And to think, the space is labeled a "public lobby" in the plans.
Besides being a reminder that the fortress mentality continues to spread in the Washington bureaucracy, Station Place is what it is -- a well-planned, finely detailed, relatively unobtrusive big building in a place that called for this kind of urban politesse. But if you want to see Roche at his best, you'll have to go elsewhere, or take a metaphorical trip back in time to the Washington of the late 1960s, when prospects seemed bright for the brilliant national aquarium design.
Or maybe even a literal trip. That design anticipated many of the goals of the city's ambitious new plans for the Southwest waterfront. Perhaps Roche should be asked to do it again.