The Architect of Steel and Glass
James Freed Was a Study in Contrasts Whose Buildings Stood Solid and Clear

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 17, 2005

James Ingo Freed meant a lot to Washington. And to architecture.

Freed, who died yesterday at 75, created his breakthrough building here with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993. The building remains significant not only because of its contents but also because the architecture itself embodies something of the most awful of 20th-century events.

Until that time, Freed had been mostly hidden behind the prestigious corporate logo of I.M. Pei & Partners. Pei, a Pritzker Prize laureate and designer of the National Gallery's East Building here, hired only the best in creating his redoubtable firm.

Freed was one of the best. And as a man, he combined lots of complex opposites. He was incredibly intense yet delightfully considerate. He was brave -- in the graceful way he refused to give in to the debilitation of Parkinson's disease. His movements had almost a dancer's grace. He was gentle yet fierce.

His talents and growing independence, however, had been hidden. The Holocaust Museum changed that. It was, indubitably, Freed's building from start to finish.

Not incidentally, the Pei firm had changed its name in 1989 to Pei, Cobb, Freed & Partners. That change properly reflected the decreasing activity of Pei and the vastly increased responsibilities of partners Henry Cobb and Freed.

The most memorable aspects of the Holocaust Museum are not the polite facades. Rather, they include the brick towers stretching between Wallenberg Place and 14th Street on the building's north side -- in keeping with the red brick of the building next door but also starkly reminiscent of guard towers in prisons or concentration camps.

Whenever I think of this building's architecture, however, I almost always think first of the twisted steel beams just below the interior skylight. Or of the upper interior bridges, supported by steel but with glass walls engraved with names of particular people who were killed.

Steel, twisted by the fire of hatred. Glass walls that profoundly speak to you of the dead and yet remind you, too, of the constant watchfulness of prisons -- and concentration camps. Freed here demonstrated his love and talent for expressive, architectural metaphor.

Freed built other buildings here, and we should not forget them. Most recently he was the chief architect of an office building on the southeast corner of 17th and K streets NW. With its wonderfully crisp detailing and its compelling combination of steel and glass on the facades, it set a new, high standard for speculative real estate office buildings in downtown Washington.

He also designed a complex yet elegant opera house for the former Woodward & Lothrop site downtown, but, basically, an opera with all its spatial demands just didn't fit the site. Coming up next year is Freed's soaring Air Force Memorial on the hill behind the Pentagon, so we have not heard the last from him.

Freed also designed the classic revival Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center on Pennsylvania Avenue. The revival style wasn't to his taste, but he did make sure that, with its long diagonal wall, it did shape an important public space and that its interiors were spectacularly up-to-date.

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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