A British Invasion
In His First D.C. Project, a London Architect Quietly Subverts the Capital's Stodgy Rules

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.

"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.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company