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The Architect of Steel and Glass

Freed was the principal architect, too, of the office building additions to the Warner Theatre. (The renovation of the theater, itself a long-standing landmark at 13th and E streets NW, was handled skillfully by Washington's Shalom Baranes Associates.) Freed's Warner additions are an important indication of his architectural character. Taking up the entire north side of E Street NW from 13th to 12th streets, they are extremely respectful of Washington norms and yet fresh. One facade is almost entirely of glass yet was given subtle depth -- it is like a grid of shadow boxes. The other is slightly different, with stonelike concrete additions to the grid pattern.

Although this is fundamentally a single, mega-block office project that is interconnected throughout, to a casual viewer the block is made up of three distinguished buildings. Freed, in other words, skillfully created buildings that were beautiful on their own merits but that also fit into a preexisting urban pattern.

Pei's firm, especially after the completion of the NGA East Building, made its name with elegant, geometrical, stand-alone modernist structures. Freed, in his gentle but decisive way, rejected this kind of modernism.

In its place he created a middle sort of position, responding sensitively to the demands of specific urban contexts and yet making distinctive architectural statements on their own. He was not afraid of so-called background buildings, and he made them beautifully, here and elsewhere.

Oh, and lest we forget, the inside of Freed's buildings often were quite startling -- even standard office compounds. The atrium connecting the Warner additions, for instance, remains of one of the strangest and most compelling in the city. A spiraling, tapering void, it is something to be seen.

But in considering Freed's work in Washington, as well as his career in general, we must always come back to the Holocaust Museum. Here, too, he demonstrated his urbanistic sensibilities, with very different facades responding to 14th and 15th streets NW (now Raoul Wallenberg Place). He did much the same thing, incidentally, in the skillfully varied facades of the 1996 San Francisco Main Public Library.

You got the feeling, talking to him, that Freed's empathic, yet far from simplistic, urbanism was in his bones. You also got the feeling that he gradually grew into an abiding affection for architectural form with more-or-less explicit meaning. He was, fairly late in his career, an important transitional figure, bridging the many gaps between purist modernism, traditional postmodernism and expressive freedom.

Jim Freed's particular talents remain a gift to our city.


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