Richard Rogers's New Jersey Avenue Building a Tame Return to Capitol

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 23, 2009

Unless you peer into the atrium at 300 New Jersey Ave. NW, it won't be obvious that this glass-encased complex of three office buildings in the shadow of the Capitol is the latest work by the world-renowned architect Richard Rogers.

Outside there are certainly clues that this project -- only the second by Rogers in the United States -- is high-quality work, especially the precise finish on a new office addition. But Rogers's signature celebration of industrial materials, virtuoso structural schemes and color aren't obvious until you enter the building.

That's where you'll find what the architects call "the tree." Rising to the top of the atrium, and connecting three separate structures into a unified whole, it looks like a high-tech guard tower, or the elevated bridge on an aircraft carrier. Its stairways and stacked decks are made of steel, with bright yellow supports and an exposed red elevator track is fastened to its side. The tree sits in the middle of the building's central space with a flamboyant disregard for all the niceties of Washington architecture.

On one side, the branches pierce the side of a 1936 limestone office building, a quaint doyenne of Hill architecture designed by Shreve, Lamb and Harmon, the same firm that gave us the Empire State Building. On another it cozies up to a dreary 1953 brick addition distinguished only by its rooftop garden, where the building's principal tenant, the law firm Jones Day, hosts parties with a luxury-box view onto the nation's halls of power. From yet another angle the tree launches dramatic gangways into a new glass-clad addition, constructed on the site of an old parking garage.

It isn't just a sculptural delight, but a clever solution to a basic problem: How do you tie together an art deco-era building with floors spaced every 15 feet, a midcentury brick box, and a modern office building with a more cost-efficient 9-foot finished floor-to-ceiling height? The tree does the work, serving as a nodal point or bridges that slope at slight angles, splitting the difference between old and new.

It also makes a basic statement: This collection of buildings is all part of the same social and organizational space. When Jones Day decided to expand, the building's then-owner, the JBG Companies, took the daring step of hiring Rogers to integrate the old and new space without prejudice and without hierarchy. And so the tree helps create a central, shared space, and an easy flow throughout the various levels of the old and new buildings. It also gives a dizzying view of the building from inside, and serves as a visual centerpiece, demonstrating the tension and flow of the structure, especially the glass roof, which is held up by a complicated play of cantilevers and subtly hidden supports.

Rogers, 76, a British architect, 2007 Pritzker Prize winner and a two-time nominee this year for the RIBA Stirling Prize, made his name more than a quarter century ago with structures that celebrated industrial edginess. As one of the lead architects (along with Renzo Piano) on the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Rogers stunned the world, in the 1970s, with a building so bristling with external pipes and tubes that it seemed like an unfinished processing plant for dubious industrial liquids.

His 1984 Lloyds of London building looks like a V-8 engine turned on its side, with a glass atrium on top. Along with Piano and architect Norman Foster, Rogers was in direct argument with the slick and vitiated postmodern style that was asserting itself boldly in buildings such as Philip Johnson's now iconic AT&T tower in Manhattan.

Rogers saw no need to apologize for the increasingly complicated structure, organizational program and mechanical systems essential to the modern office building. Why hide ducting in the ceiling? Why relegate elevators to a common core in the center of a building?

In essence, Rogers did for architecture what the "Bodies" exhibition did for anatomy: He made the viscera visible, beautiful, flamboyant and energetic.

That, obviously, wasn't going to work in Washington, with its numbing demands for contextualization and its zealous watchdog groups policing new design for any errant signs of innovation. And it hasn't always worked smoothly in London, where the architect (officially Lord Rogers), has occasionally run afoul of Britain's most influential amateur architecture critic, Prince Charles.

Dennis Austin, an associate at Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, who helped oversee the project on this side of the Atlantic, says that the firm decided to ease into the Washington landscape rather than assert its presence too boldly.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company