Saturday, August 20, 2005
Practically every weekday morning recently, emerging from the Farragut North Metro station, I've paused to admire architect James Ingo Freed's exquisitely detailed new office building at the busy intersection where Connecticut Avenue meets 17th and K streets NW.
Like most new downtown office buildings, this one is awfully big, stretching more than 250 feet west along K Street. But it wears its size well. Freed and his team at the redoubtable New York firm of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners managed to create a polite yet engaging jewel for this prominent setting.
At the same time, armed with the knowledge that the same owners and architects are planning a commercial building at 1000 Connecticut Ave. NW, across K Street from the glittering new edifice of glass and steel, I worry about the fate of many of the existing buildings in the neighborhood -- particularly to the east on both sides of K Street.
It's a different -- or at least newer -- kind of preservation concern. In the 1960s when developers and their architects started to build downtown's new west end -- with K Street at its center -- they were tearing down small, mostly 19th-century masonry buildings to get the job done.
Citizen ire over this process was partly responsible for the changed climate of the late 1970s. Old buildings received unprecedented legal protections, and architects began to design new buildings that were more sympathetic to their older surroundings.
But as the development pendulum has swung to the east, rebuilding much of the "old" downtown, the threat is to newer, larger buildings. The preservation movement, born in hostility to modern architecture, is struggling to come to grips with the need to save at least some of it.
Especially endangered are the modest yet urbane and pleasing modern buildings of the 1940s and 1950s on K Street between 17th Street and Vermont Avenue NW. There are enough such buildings along this stretch to form an eminently presentable historic district, but so far that is not happening.
My special favorite in this little collection is 1001 Connecticut Ave. NW, on the northeast corner of Connecticut and K Street. The 1952 building curves gracefully around the corner, its facade an adroit combination of limestone with delicate ribbons of glass. It is the very picture of unpretentious civility, and there are others of like quality along this little strip.
With their outmoded building systems (air handling, electrical, plumbing), most of these are in serious need of renovation, but most are unlikely to get the attention they deserve. They'll disappear one by one, and we will miss them.
Such buildings are "obsolete," says Michael Gewirz of Potomac Investment Properties, one of the owners of 1700 K St., and that seems the prevailing view. (The developer of 1700 K, from a nuts-and-bolts point of view, is Charles E. Smith Commercial Realty.) It's true, however, that it's hard to work up much of a case for the corner building that was torn down (along with a neighbor just to the west) to make way for Freed's design at 1700 K St. It was a numbingly average limestone-sheathed speculative office building of the postwar period.
Unlike many notable out-of-town architects invited to work in Washington, Freed has proved himself subtly sensitive to the capital city's rhythms and architectural culture. This is perhaps because, among architects who believe strongly in the cause of modern architecture, Freed is something of a conservative.
That is, when thinking about the design of a particular building, he seems to give exceptional weight to the conditions of a specific site -- the position in the urban hierarchy, the light, the neighboring architecture and open spaces.
Freed is at once a modernist and a contextualist -- two attributes long thought to be antithetical. And unlike I.M. Pei, for instance, the architect of the 1978 National Gallery of Art East Building (and who retired from the firm he founded 15 years ago), Freed does not necessarily conceive of his buildings as consistent, sculptural wholes. Rather, he frequently designs individual elements or facades of his buildings for different expressive purposes.
In varying degrees, we can see these combinations in all of his Washington buildings. In the 1993 U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the most expressive of Freed's local buildings and perhaps his masterpiece, the 14th Street facade takes on the character of official, classical Washington while the 15th Street facade, with its mixture of materials and geometric shapes, is much more somber. And throughout the building, materials and spaces are deployed as symbolic metaphors for the horrors of the Holocaust.
By contrast, Freed's Ronald Reagan Building, completed in 1998, adopts the classical revival style of the Federal Triangle, and then switches to a completely modern vocabulary in the vast interior. Freed was also responsible for the design of the addition to the east side of the Warner Theatre building in 1993. Here, he divided the overlarge facade into two distinct, mostly glass parts that manage the unusual feat of being quite beautiful and very proper at the same time.
Appropriate to its exposed location on a prominent intersection facing Farragut Park, the new building at 1700 K St. takes on a more public-spirited character. But it has two distinct faces.
The long, almost flat K Street front is a grid pattern of very large clear glass windows framed in muted steel. It's a minimalist, somewhat reflective facade that subtly shifts in coloration with changes in the light. Fortunately, the architects divided the long facade into two parts with a vertical niche that's about 15 feet wide and seven feet deep, breaking the potential monotony and providing a strong clue to the location of the front door.
The grid of the 17th Street facade, on the other hand, is deeper, as befits a building facing the morning sun, and it mixes stone with the steel and glass. It is an impressively dignified facade, making a fine background for the bronze Adm. Farragut, standing on his high pedestal. The stone also mitigates the contrast between the new building and its neighbor to the south, the Barr Building with its small windows and Gothic detailing.
"Glass box" was once a pejorative battle cry against modern architecture in downtown Washington. Ironically, very few of the buildings that were so detested 30 years ago had anywhere near as much glass in their facades as does 1700 K St. -- or, for that matter, many of the office buildings that have been going up in the city for the past decade.
The crucial change, of course, is in the high quality of the new design -- and also, to some extent, of the glass itself, which can now be manufactured to higher, more energy-efficient standards. The facades of 1700 K St. are perhaps the cases in point, for they are designed with great precision and care.
My favorite detail is the steel-framed vertical recess in the center of the top edge of each of the 17th Street windows -- an elegant little box, a void that used to be filled by a traditional keystone. The quality of the detailing is consistent throughout -- steel tubes make an appearance in various scales -- and it makes a huge difference in the way one perceives the architecture.
So, too, does the very active street facade along K Street. The architects provided for a five-foot cantilevered overhang, providing a columnless arcade for the stores, whose windows are vividly framed by steel panels polished to a chromium sheen. It conforms to an old modernist vision of a well-ordered yet still engaging streetscape.
A word about the lobby. It's handsomely proportioned and well fitted out. Freed, a friend of Frank Stella's, took the owners by the artist's studio in New York, and this explains the presence here of a vivacious, three-dimensional Stella painting, "All Astir," on one of the walls. Whether it's a terrific piece or not is hard to tell, for commercial lobbies can transform almost any work of art into more of a status symbol than a contemplative object.
Feeling like a fool, standing in the elegant lobby as if it were a room in a museum, I walked out. Twice. Neither time did I bother to sit in the classic Mies van der Rohe "Barcelona" chairs so thoughtfully provided by the management. The art made the lobby feel strange to me. Once outside, however, looking back at the building from Farragut Square, I perked right up.