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

"We weren't going to have exposed everything in the firm's first project here," Austin says. "Clients have to be comfortable."

Which is why you have to sneak up to the building's glass-walled atrium to get a sense of its inner intelligence. Austin acknowledges that people who watch the Rogers firm closely may not find this building "pure Rogers."

But it is Rogers enough, and a good start by firm that has been reluctant to get into the U.S. office market because of the aesthetic backwardness of many corporate clients. Kai Reynolds of JBG Cos. says that his company, which has since sold the 300 New Jersey complex to a new owner, hopes to develop other Washington area properties with the Rogers firm.

Given how natural and bureaucratic forces conspired against 300 New Jersey Ave. NW at several points in its development, it's good news that neither JBG nor Rogers is discouraged about future plans. Most egregious was the interference of the Architect of the Capitol, the controversial government office that got mired in delays and ballooning budgets while overseeing the $621 million Capitol Visitor Center boondoggle. The AOC, a notoriously opaque operation, demanded that new construction at 300 New Jersey be cut down from 12 to 10 floors and asserted its will (through Congress) despite approvals from the District's Board of Zoning Adjustment.

Then, during construction, the contractors found that the Tiber Creek, which flows through the site, was misplaced on historic maps. That required reconfiguring the underground parking garage while in the middle of construction.

There were also latent habits of architectural thinking that had to be resisted. The office site is so close to the Capitol that the default design would have focused the building squarely on the view to the big white dome. But the architects decided to orient the complex onto a quaint but forgotten swath of green on the east side of the project, where the forlorn National Japanese American Memorial connects with the parks and fountains of the Capitol's North axis. By drawing the building front away from New Jersey Avenue on a slight angle , they created an appealing public triangle that connects the complex to the city and the green space beyond.

The results are worth the $71 million construction cost. Rogers's building challenges the institutional architecture of Washington not with some meaningless confrontational gesture, but with solid thinking and design excellence. Although his industrial style has been successfully integrated with historic buildings in other cities, the architect was wise to undertake a low-key approach on his first U.S. project in decades. (His other finished building is a technology center in Princeton, N.J.) Washington isn't just architecturally nervous, it is a city with no particular history of industry, which means an open celebration of the mechanistic is doubly novel in this town of conformist metal boxes hung with fake stone.

Novel, but welcome and thoughtful. The early buildings that defined industrial chic were often constructed using cantilevered forms and large airy spaces indebted more to bridge building than traditional office construction. Now we have a nest of little bridges -- or a tree -- that shows the creative potential rarely exploited in Washington office design.

It is as if an historical kernel of an architectural style that bypassed the District has been quietly implanted in the belly of the beast. One hopes that this tree grows roots, and spreads its canopy of influence.

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