Rogers & Us

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 11, 2005

At last, Washington will get a building designed by Richard Rogers, an architect whose luminous creativity has made a mark in many a European city for more than three decades.

Unfortunately, we are getting sort of a hidden Rogers, a reticent Rogers, a background Rogers. Not a bad Rogers, mind you, not bad at all. It will doubtless turn out quite well, perhaps even wondrously.

The U.S. Congress -- note, that is not the D.C. Council -- actually had something to do with the look of the building. For what it said were security reasons, Congress lopped off two floors of the building, reducing its height from 130 to 110 feet, after a District agency approved the height.

Congressional interference in District affairs is nothing new, but in this case, Congress did not commit an aesthetic sin. Actually, the lower height might turn out to be a bit better.

The 1936 Acacia Building, to which the Rogers building is to be attached, is one of those classically inspired, Greco-Deco efforts that are so self-effacing they practically recede from view. The stone griffins that guard the main stairwell on Louisiana Avenue NW -- precise address, No. 51 -- theoretically might combine the speed and power of eagles and lions, but somehow this pair manages to be sedate rather than ferocious.

But as far as Congress is concerned, apparently even the most menacing, stone-faced human guards would not ease concerns over security for a building that will be less than 500 yards from the nearest section of the Capitol.

Washington's notoriously complex regulatory system for getting buildings approved and built got a bit more complex in this case. The reason? An obsession with designing projects so that there will be "absolutely nothing that would somehow facilitate somebody's illegal or irrational behavior."

That's how Geoffrey H. Griffis, chairman of the District's Board of Zoning Adjustment, characterized a letter from the Architect of the Capitol objecting to the proposed height of the Acacia addition. In that January meeting, the board ignored the letter and voted to approve the variance, raising the building's permissible height by two stories, to 130 feet.

Congress did not like that, and in an outrageous but not atypical breach of the principle and practice of home rule, overruled the city agency. It did so in June by attaching a rider to an appropriations bill.

In the board meeting, Griffis did not identify the source of the architect's worry, but in a July statement to Post reporter Dana Hedgpeth, Senate Sergeant at Arms William H. Pickle noted that "a sniper . . . was one of many concerns."

Is that a reasonable worry? There is risk everywhere but, as Griffis implied, it is foolhardy to try to prevent all possible breaches of security. Micromanaging the security issue is one of the scourges of today's Washington and, in this particular case, Congress and its security forces were guilty of it.

As fates would have it, the building, in any case, will be vehemently closed to the general public. To be principally occupied by one of those huge law firms without which Washington would not be Washington, the structure will entice but not invite. The best thing about the design -- a structurally ingenious, spatially invigorating atrium -- will be inaccessible and only partially visible to folks lacking appointments with high-powered lawyers.

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