Seeing the Light at Last

The glass canopy over the Old Patent Office Building's renovated courtyard faced many planning hurdles, but things were looking up at yesterday's opening, where 4-year-old T.J. Hutchison and sister Emma, 6, of Arlington sampled the ambiance.
The glass canopy over the Old Patent Office Building's renovated courtyard faced many planning hurdles, but things were looking up at yesterday's opening, where 4-year-old T.J. Hutchison and sister Emma, 6, of Arlington sampled the ambiance. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 19, 2007

Told from the beginning, the tale of the new Norman Foster-designed glass canopy over the Smithsonian's Old Patent Office Building isn't pretty. Historic preservationists did not like the idea of covering the courtyard of the building, which houses the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. And they were incensed when renovation at the museums, which began in January 2000, resulted in the removal of the previous courtyard's historic features, including two fountains and elm trees. The Smithsonian didn't help things when it seemed to navigate the shoals of the various approval processes with the subtlety of a Visigoth re-landscaping ancient Rome.

But now that the $63 million courtyard and its undulating glass canopy are finished -- the Smithsonian opened the space to the public yesterday -- the story can be told differently, with a new moral at its ending. The city has a very fine new public space, and in retrospect, what's remarkable is how close it came to being derailed.

There were angry letters from the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, denouncing the "irreversible harm that the enclosure project would cause to one of the Nation's premier architectural treasures." And there was a shocking vote, by an important federal committee that oversees new construction in the District, to scotch the project in 2005. That was later reversed.

But with the canopy in place, and the courtyard resplendent with large ficus trees and a captivating water "scrim" -- a fountain so shallow you can walk through it without mussing your shoes -- the argument is over. Foster's canopy is distinguished, and it converts a courtyard that was once a spring-and-fall attraction into a year-round, compelling and peaceful public space. If you're meeting someone for dinner, a movie or theater in Penn Quarter -- the neighborhood surrounding the Old Patent Office Building at Eighth and F streets NW -- this is a good, free, sheltered place to do it. At least until 7 p.m., when the museums close.

It is, however, worth seeing the canopy at different times throughout the day. The glass roof is an undulating form, supported by eight slender columns. When the sun is out, it casts a lattice of shadows on the walls of the old building. When it's cloudy, the sky seems farther away, chilly and remote. When the sun is setting, the double-glazed glass filters the light and colors into a watery, otherworldly presence.

Far from detracting from the historic structure, the glass canopy enhances it, drawing out the sandy color and texture of the south wing (the oldest part of the Patent Office, built between 1836 and 1842) and the greenish-gray granite hues of the north wing (finished in 1857).

Details of the old architecture, a stubbornly austere take on neoclassicism, are better studied from inside the courtyard than from the street, where noise and traffic and people force your eyes to stay at ground level. The south wing, designed by Robert Mills, is one of the finest of the early buildings in Washington, all simplicity but balanced, stately and impressive. The glass covering leaves one with the strange impression that its venerable bulk is pleased to have at least part of its skin no longer exposed to the elements -- which may not be so farfetched given the decay of the building's sandstone over the years.

The unique shape of the canopy -- three curvaceous arched forms integrated into a single, wavy field of square glass panels -- helped the architects support the structure's weight, which rests on the columns rather than on the sides of the old building. The gentle deformation and compression of the grid pattern makes the whole thing look as if it is an exercise in computer-generated imagery, like the skeletal, graph-paper pattern that is suddenly revealed in a sci-fi movie when the virtual trees and grass disappear.

The garden underneath it, designed by landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson, is contained within elegant marble planters, which also function as seating. A solid "plinth," made of the same material, can serve as yet more seating, or a stage, or, if the security guards don't roust you, a place to lie flat and look at the sky. The water scrim, four rectangular patches of the floor that glisten reflectively when a thin sheet of water runs over them, adds a gentle, babbling-brook sound to the background. Walk through them and head to the doors that lead into the museum, but don't worry. Your shoes will be dry before you get there.

There's so much serenity to be had here, in the midst of one of Washington's busiest neighborhoods, that it's hard to remember all the stress it took to get it built. The work of Foster, who designed a superficially similar canopy for the British Museum in London, is a welcome addition to Washington. Not to have built it would have been an embarrassment.

But it's also worth noting that the turmoil over this structure was worth the while, too. Historic buildings are not to be tampered with lightly. In the approval process, some important and positive changes were made in the design, allowing the lines of the stone building to be more clearly seen and eliminating a balcony structure that would have cluttered the space.

Now that it's finished, it's unfortunate that the canopy isn't more visible from the outside (you need to be above street level, in an adjacent building, to see it clearly, and it can be glimpsed peeking above the roofline if seen from a few blocks away). Opponents of the canopy helped ensure that it would be all but invisible from the street. They were wrong. It deserves to be seen.

And so the moral of the story is an old one. Good buildings shift arguments, and it's time the argument about preservation moved on from a blinkered, fundamentalist devotion to every scrap of old brick. Washington will become an aesthetic dead zone if it can't begin to do more of what the Foster canopy does very well: integrate the new and daring with the old and tested. But rather than see this courtyard and the glassy wave above it as the limit of how the new and the old can be compatible, it should be taken as a first step. And others should go further.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company