Alas, Too Few Fresh Angles on the Glass Box

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 9, 2005

The new International Monetary Fund building on Pennsylvania Avenue NW is not just another glassy building in the West End, a section of the city that's becoming glassier by the year.

To the contrary, its architects -- Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, with Henry Cobb and Yvonne Szeto in charge of the team -- made a big effort to make it exceptional. But the building falls about halfway short of that honorable goal.

The usual suspects are partly to blame. Washington's height limit and its very long blocks often conspire to dull buildings down, particularly if they are unremitting abstractions, which this new building proudly is. And it does not appear as though the client pushed the architects extra hard.

Aesthetically, the chief distinguishing features of IMF Headquarters 2, as the building is called, are the protrusions and incisions that punctuate its long Pennsylvania Avenue facade. Near its eastern corner, at 19th Street, a cantilevered triangle four stories high juts out from the building's top. Near the western corner, at 20th Street, there is a contrasting, six-story triangular cut into the sleek surface of glass ribbons near the building's base.

These positive and negative forms, set at angles reinforcing those of the L'Enfant plan, do combine to make the facade a lot more interesting than it might have been. But they're hardly breathtaking. In fact, large as they are, they almost get lost in this very big, very horizontal facade. It's like trying to scream "POW!" -- but quietly, politely.

The building's horizontality is insistent. This is especially true of its H Street facade, where the height of the concrete belts increases and, consequently, that of the window ribbons decreases. Clearly this was done in deference to the coloration and fortress-like character of the original IMF building across H Street, but all the same it makes quite a yesteryear impression.

It is disappointing, too, to learn that the building does not conform to even the lowest certification standards of the U.S. Green Building Council. The structure does embrace some sustainable features, to be sure, but nothing to make it above average. You would think that, given the need for energy conservation worldwide, way above average would have been the goal.

Nevertheless, that still leaves quite a bit to like about IMF Headquarters 2.

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