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The ATF's Decoratively Defensible Look

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

You come upon them every now and then -- a peculiar mystery. What is it? How on earth did it get there? Why doesn't someone get rid of it? We attempt to shed light through this occasional feature.

Imagine for a moment that you are a tourist, humming the family minivan into town on New York Avenue. You sail past the grimy motels, the nudie go-go bar, gas stations, liquor stores, a graveyard for tractor-trailers beside the Union Station railway yard, finally cresting a turtle-humped bridge.

And there before you:

The Capitol dome!

The Washington Monument!

The Aqueduct!

The what?

The aqueduct has been slowly emerging from behind a gaggle of construction cranes that hover near the intersection of New York and Florida avenues NE.

It's white concrete, 30 feet high, perforated, arching and dramatic. It's easy to imagine medieval warriors on top, tipping buckets of boiling oil onto invading hordes. Or maybe armed robots with laser weapons at the ready.

It looks oversized and out of place in a gritty neighborhood that is a traffic-choked mishmash of barren warehouses, trash-strewn vacant lots and tired-looking fast-food outlets.

But it would look wildly weird anywhere else in Washington, too.

It stands before a huge stone-and-glass building that developers trumpet as a take-your-breath-away entree to the capital, making it all the more an odd mystery.

The aqueduct and the building rising in counter curve behind it represent one of the first major federal projects built since the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. It's the new 438,000-square-foot headquarters of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Architect Moshe Safdie insists the aqueduct is not an aqueduct or a wall. It's a "decorative barrier."

The aqueduct is a blast shield. And no suicide bomber is going to plow through it, even if he's at the controls of an M1 tank.

It was not easy to design a protective cocoon for one of the nation's big law enforcement agencies while creating an attractive gateway in a blighted section of the city.

The ATF requires the main facades to be at least 100 feet from the streets, so Safdie put the building in the middle of the site and split it into three parts. The curving, mostly glass facade faces New York Avenue, with a spacious private park filling in the empty space. To meet the city's requirement for retail stores along the street, he constructed a separate building. And then he built the aqueduct . . . er, "decorative barrier."

We will leave the judgment as to whether it's "decorative" or "menacing" to the eye of the thousands who behold it each day as they wait for the interminable traffic light to change at Florida Avenue. (And while we're at it, could some architect, perhaps a traffic light architect, figure out that problem?)

The building is going to open one of these days. It's months behind schedule and millions of dollars over its budget, despite some scaling back. But the aqueduct was too important to be eliminated.

And it's a gateway even the kids in the minivan would sit up and take notice of.

-- Joe Holley, staff writer

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