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.
They joined forces in June 1978 at the Dallas convention of the American Institute of Architects. At the time, Devrouax, a graduate of Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., had his own, tiny firm in a basement office in Dupont Circle, while Purnell, who graduated from the University of Michigan, worked on staff at the AIA.
Purnell was ready for a change. Although his job allowed him to travel to Russia, France and California, he wanted to practice architecture, not champion it for a professional society.
"I was getting fat and happy flying around the world. It was too good," Purnell said. "I was young and wanted to practice."
He had many offers from large firms, he said, but chose to join Devrouax because the two had similar goals: As young African American architects, they wanted to break through ages of discrimination and prejudice and design major commercial buildings in the District.
"We didn't want to do additions to schools and firehouses and churches in the suburbs," Purnell said "We were in it to do main commercial structures that could be high design."
Devrouax had the local connections. He had worked mostly in housing, but was ready to take the next step. Purnell had the federal and national connections from his time at AIA. During their first few months together, the pair got a new office on Connecticut Avenue NW.
Devrouax remembers returning from a fruitless interview for a big job to find Purnell whooping it up with champagne. At first, Devrouax was stunned: "This was my new partner?"
It turned out that they had landed a job helping design what would become the Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center at 14th and U streets NW. A short time later, they won a consulting gig on the Pennsylvania Avenue historic preservation study.
"You could see the synergy," Purnell said. "Within the first six months, we saw this thing had potential."Making Their Mark
By the 1980s, the firm was established and rolling with more than 20 full-time staff members.
Eric Colbert, who now runs his own D.C. firm, spent a year at Devrouax & Purnell in 1980. "A lot of the work was really grueling," he recalled recently. "Go and measure 50 burned-out row houses on North Capitol Street in the freezing cold and with homeless people living there. It seemed not necessarily the most glamorous work, but it gave me a good feel for dimensions of houses and measuring buildings. The thing I learned most from being there was an introduction to residential architecture."
Devrouax and Purnell had ambitions larger than housing. They wanted the big offices. The Reeves Center was completed in 1986. They designed a parking garage at Union Station and some of the interior at MCI Center.
Their next big project was designing a building on the McLean campus of mortgage-broker giant Freddie Mac. That gave them the credentials they needed to compete for what has become their signature work: the Pepco building at 9th and G streets NW.
John M. Derrick Jr., then chairman of Pepco's board, "made it a point to try to not just go to one of big-10 firms," said John Chirtea, a consultant who helped coordinate the project. "They wanted to look locally. They looked at some of the work that Devrouax and Purnell had done and said, 'Let's give them a shot.' "
It was a clarion moment. No major building in the downtown core had been designed solely by black architects, Purnell said.
The challenge of the building was manifold. Several architectural styles are present at that intersection: The classical Smithsonian American Art Museum (the Old Patent Office Building) is on one corner, and the sleek, minimalist Mies van der Rohe-designed Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library is on another. Furthermore, the Pepco building could not be extended all the way to the corner because of zoning rules.
So Devrouax and Purnell incorporated a public plaza. The building has a glass curtain along 9th Street that curves, affording southbound pedestrians a clear view of the stately art museum as they approach the intersection at G Street.
Pepco, said Chirtea, was "extremely pleased. They have nothing but great things to say about them."
Shortly after the building opened in 2002, Washington Post art critic Benjamin Forgey described the glass curve as "as sure-handed a piece of architectural urbanism as Washington has seen in many a moon."Big Projects Still Elusive
Despite their success with the Pepco building, Devrouax and Purnell say they have not gotten many more calls to be the sole designers for major commercial buildings. They designed the Prince George's Sports and Learning Complex in Largo. They were part of a team that worked on the Washington Convention Center, and they designed a 16,000-square-foot building for the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation in Southwest.
But in the District, big projects have been elusive.
"It's a shame," Chirtea said, "but many developers are just reluctant to step out and use a black firm."
Devrouax & Purnell has had steady work, including partnering with San Francisco's ROMA Design Group to design the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the Mall. But the duo is not satisfied.
"We are talented and know it, but still the development community does not pick up the phone and call us," Devrouax said. "We hope that will change someday."