From Kevin Roche, a Stately Station Place

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.)

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.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company