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Architects Step Up to the Plate

Architects Marshall Purnell, left, and Paul Devrouax have put their stamp on major D.C. projects including the Washington Convention Center.
Architects Marshall Purnell, left, and Paul Devrouax have put their stamp on major D.C. projects including the Washington Convention Center. (James M Thresher - The Washington Post)
By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 1, 2005

In their fifth-floor office in the 700 block of D Street NW, architects Paul Devrouax and Marshall Purnell have small-scale models of some of their most influential work encased in glass.

In one corner is a model of the Freddie Mac building in suburban Virginia; in another is a model of Pepco's headquarters in downtown Washington. Soon, the duo likely will make room for a new model -- of Washington's new baseball stadium.

Devrouax & Purnell Architects, the firm founded by the pair in 1978, is partnering with the sports division of Kansas City-based Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum Inc., known as HOK Sport, to design the ballpark that is scheduled to open in Southeast in 2008. HOK Sport has more than 300 employees and is internationally renowned for its stadiums and arenas. It is relying on Devrouax & Purnell, which has about 30 employees, to complement its expertise by providing an intimate knowledge of the city.

Purnell describes the creative process with HOK Sport's lead designer, Joseph E. Spear, as collaborative. Spear and Purnell, along with up to a dozen staff members, sit around what Purnell calls "the big table" and brainstorm, with people proposing design concepts and drawing quick sketches.

"We call it 'talkitecture,' " Purnell said.

Spear shared with them the ideas he had pitched in his interview with the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission to get the job. "When Joe and I discussed some of the initial stuff he had talked about in his interview, I told him some of the ideas are not necessarily Washington," Purnell said.

Since then, the design team has come up with several ideas, although the sports commission has declined to release any drawings because nothing has been finalized.

Spear has said that he envisions a stadium with one facade along South Capitol Street that is made of stone and glass and echoes the federal monuments. The other facade, along Potomac Avenue, would be made of steel and glass and have a more lacy and skeletal look, affording fans a glimpse through the stadium of the Anacostia River.

Purnell and Devrouax said it is difficult to define precisely what makes Washington architecture unique, but noted that the city is a "horizontal" one because of rules limiting the height of buildings. And they talked of soothing fears of the various planning boards that review all projects for approval, such as the National Capital Revitalization Corp.

"Our experience is understanding how a project is integrated into the street grid in Washington, D.C.," Purnell said. "How to mitigate the size and scale, and understanding what Washington architecture is, what makes a building unique to Washington."

The involvement of Devrouax and Purnell in the ballpark is important for another reason: As black architects in a white-dominated field, the duo has been working for decades to put their stamp on the city.

'You Could See the Synergy'

Devrouax, 62, and Purnell, 55, have worked together for nearly three decades, and it shows. They are so comfortable with each other that they sometimes finish each other's thoughts, particularly when telling old stories. They laugh at the same memories.

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