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Rogers & Us

The building also suffers from a number of typical D.C. constraints. It is a large addition to a historic building of modest stature. It is, like all Washington buildings, subject to the city's limits not only on building heights but also on densities. The project also had to pass through the rigors of the local reviewing system -- and then some.

In the face of all that, Rogers and his colleagues in the Richard Rogers Partnership created a bold, intriguing, intelligent design for their second building in the United States. And in fact, the 110-foot height might actually be more pleasing.

(As provided in the law, officials of the JBG Cos., the site's developer, have continued to negotiate with the appropriate congressional officials. There has been no give, however, and JBG appears ready to absorb the economic loss and push ahead. For that, as well as for picking its outstanding architect, the company is to be lauded.)

The addition, to be sure, is not destined to be a city-regenerating star of the kind Rogers and company have produced in other places -- starting with the 1976 Pompidou Center in Paris (designed in collaboration with Renzo Piano) and continuing in London, Berlin, Bordeaux, Cardiff and Antwerp.

Rather, the Washington building plays a supporting role. Its destiny might be simply to steal the show in its particular Capitol Hill neighborhood. By doing so, it can perchance inspire a younger generation of Washington architects and, even more important, broaden the perspectives of the city's legion of architectural reviewers.

Like the building, the immediate neighborhood desperately could use some livening up. People in search of the nearby Hyatt Regency Hotel or the National Japanese American Memorial tend to wander about aimlessly. That will not happen after the Rogers addition is built -- it automatically will become the eye-catching landmark of the vicinity.

The five-story Acacia Building, designed with such succinct politesse by the New York firm of Shreve, Lamb and Harmon, shares its five-sided block with an undistinguished, though somewhat taller, 1953 addition, and one of those worst-of-the-1970s concrete parking structures. (Besides Louisiana Avenue, the site is bordered by New Jersey Avenue and First, C and D streets.)

It was the ugly garage, of course, that provided the economic opportunity. Only four stories tall, it was a clear target for redevelopment when purchased last year by Bethesda-based JBG, which has a long history in the Washington area. Much of the space in the replacement building immediately would be spoken for by Jones Day, the expanding law firm that occupies both the original Acacia building and the 1950s addition, JBG founding partner Benjamin Jacobs says.

Jacobs had to have nerve to hire Rogers for the job. He says he did it because Rogers had done some "very different, very exciting" work next to historic buildings in London. That puts it mildly. The developer cited, in particular, a recent commercial building next to the Tower of London. Called St. Katherine's Estate, its likes have never been seen in Washington. Or even anywhere near Washington. (Rogers's first U.S. building was built 20 years ago in an industrial park near Princeton, N.J.)

Picturesquely broken into masses of differing heights, St. Katherine's is a complex combination of metal and glass finishes, a building of many vivid parts. There are exposed stairwells and other "servant" spaces (in the manner of Louis Kahn, long an inspiration for Rogers), a towering glass atrium and office facades that have differing window patterns dependent on orientation to the sun. The whole package, the firm's description says, is enlivened by retail uses and complicated but navigable connections through and around the building.

St. Katherine's is not the most impressive of the Rogers Partnership's recent output -- which you can check on at http://www.richardrogers.co.uk/ -- but it typifies the firm's positive approach to new materials, sophisticated urban design and environmental responsibility, as well as its continuing adherence to a machine aesthetic. That last element seems almost old-fashioned these days, but it remains a fresh tool in the Rogers cabinet.

The Washington building exhibits some of the same characteristics, but it's nowhere near as complicated. It divides basically into two distinct pieces -- one boring, one not.


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