Rogers & Us
Height Squabbles Aside, D.C. Still Gets a Standout Design by a Towering Figure

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.

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.

The boring part, of course, is the office building. It's an overly fat glass box sawed off at 10 floors in the Washington way. Potentially, two things can save it.

One is the quality of the glass curtain wall. Like the firms of Norman Foster, Nicholas Grimshaw and other British high-techers, the Rogers Partnership is famously obsessive about glass and metal and how those materials come together. "We're tenacious, and we won't let go on the quality of the detail," says Ivan Harbour, design director of the Washington job. So this might turn out to be one heck of a glass box.

Its shape might be the building's second saving grace. Rogers insisted that it be trapezoidal rather than rectangular, with a sharply angled side leading dramatically to the atrium entrance, set back about 50 feet from New Jersey Avenue. This simple but important gesture visually ties the private interior space to the public neighborhood. And make no mistake: A visual connection alone is far better than none at all.

That is particularly true with an atrium such as the one the Rogers teams has designed. With a few notable exceptions, Washington's office-building atria are nondescript empty boxes intended simply to bring in natural light. The Rogers atrium, by contrast, is the brilliant linchpin of a complex of buildings.

At the center of the basically triangular space is a stunning steel structure supporting platforms and bridges connecting the three buildings and resolving the differences in floor-to-floor heights. (In the Acacia, the measurement is a magnanimous 15 feet; in the new addition, an "efficient" 10.)

Designers often refer to the structure as the "tree" because its steel supports are akin to trunks and its bridges to limbs. Harbour prefers the analogy of an upright skier whose arms are stretched outward, holding steadying ski poles.

Whatever one calls it, this design has wonderful potential, with people walking to and from amid the visible counterbalances of structural forces. The vast triangular roof, made of glass supported by a boomerang-shaped pattern of steel trusses and cantilevers, will be a fitting treetop or, if you like, an appropriate surround for the arms of a giant skier.

If all goes well, then, in a couple of years, we'll have a Rogers marvel here in the District. And that's nothing to dismiss.

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