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  Arena Planners Take Their Best Shot and Score

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 28, 1995; Page C01

A model of the MCI Arena unveiled yesterday by Bullets-Capitals owner Abe Pollin made it clear that its architects have done well by Washington. The building will be big, of course, but in its way it should be quite splendid.

Its beauty, obviously, will be that of an arena and not of some other type of building — this isn't a temple, a cathedral, an office building or an art museum. One of the best decisions the architects made was not to disguise the building's true nature. You'll be able to spot it a mile away for what it is: a fine, late-20th-century sports-entertainment center, and nothing else.

Another excellent move was not to clothe the building in historical dress in deference to nearby historic structures. This may have been tempting — the site, bounded by Sixth, Seventh and F streets NW and a little plaza on the north (the 600 block of G Street is to be closed), is bordered by some of the city's finest 19th-century buildings.

But to adopt their architectural features in the new building would have been an awkward, false kind of deference. Metal and glass and masonry are better here — in proper mix. A terrific thing about the design is that, unlike many arenas of the '60s and '70s, it manages to be contrasty without appearing to be an invader from another planet.

In fact, the design's most remarkable aspect may be the degree to which it fits the neighborhood, despite its modern style and immense size — the 20,000-seat structure measures 450 feet from south to north, 470 feet from east to west, and it is 110 feet high at the curved peak of its silvery roof.

You can't hide such size, but you can work with it. It's clear that the architectural team strove mightily to modulate the building's scale in keeping with its surroundings, and to give the building four different, highly articulated facades. The changes in facade design are intended to respond to differing urban conditions on each side of the site -- a sophisticated and basically welcome gesture. But it did cause some unusual stresses and strains at the corners of the building.

(The teamwork is noteworthy: Washington's Florance Eichbaum Esocoff King — FEEK — did the exterior; Minneapolis's Ellerbe Becket was in charge of the structural system, seating bowl and so on; and Washington's Devrouax & Purnell designed the Metro connection, the luxury suites and other interior features.)

From a distance, the arena's most dramatic feature will be its high, massive, gently arched roof, stretching the length of the building from south to north — this is how you'll recognize the building from high points around the city. It's a strong exterior form that will be truly spectacular on the inside, where its mighty structural steel supports are revealed: two lengthy box trusses that partially support a system of smaller trusses running from east to west.

The more frequent view, of course, will be from ground level and from closer up. Because the site is part of a tight urban grid, there are no really long, axial views — you'll catch glimpses of the building from blocks away but won't see it whole until you're almost on top of it. And then to see it all you'll have to walk an entire circle, for each facade has its own character.

Appropriately, the most forceful of the fronts faces south: This is the main entrance, along F Street. (The eastern entrance to the Gallery Place Metro station will be relocated to the corner of Seventh and F.) This facade is sleekly symmetrical — a high curtain wall of reflective glass runs its whole length, with towering steel columns marking the centered entryway. The columns, with steel branches at the top supporting a latticed metal canopy, are clear references to the columns and pediments of classical architecture, but clearly they're also of our time.

This facade, all glass and shining aluminum and steel, is dramatically different from the others. Consequently, the corners at both Seventh and Sixth streets are somewhat awkward. The architects did "layer" the corners by weaving the glass wall behind planes of both cast stone and bricks, but this isn't entirely satisfying — it's almost as if the southern front were attached to another building altogether.

Even so, the Seventh Street facade, in particular, is a handsome, rather dramatically asymmetrical composition. Here, the basic surfaces are bricks, with low-key striping and again, glass. The brick portions of the wall top out at 68 feet — precisely the height of the cornice line of the Old Patent Office, the superb Greek Revival building (now housing two Smithsonian museums) across the street. Above the brick, the roof and mechanical service rooms will be painted in light, neutral colors — a reasonably effective way of bringing the building down to size at this crucial face-off between the new and old.

Though quite similar, the Sixth Street facade is not quite as good — mainly because the openings to the 400 underground parking spaces and loading docks (18-wheelers can be accommodated, with enough space for full turnarounds) are by necessity located on the northeast corner, the lowest portion of the sloping site. But both the Seventh and Sixth street facades are distinguished by large, bow-front glass walls, marking the point where the concourses of the seating bowl literally touch the edges of the buildings.

This extensive use of glass is worth a special commendation. Sports arenas "basically want to be windowless boxes," notes FEEK partner David King. If you think of the Washington's dreary convention center, with all of its concrete surfaces and impenetrably dark glass, you can see the advantage here. A lot depends on the final detailing — it has to be really sharp — but the potential is there: In the daytime, these can become shimmering, blue-tinted mirror walls that have something genuinely grand to reflect — the Old Patent Office and other great nearby sights. And at night, lighted from within, they'll act like great vibrant lanterns.

The north facade, facing Chinatown, is the least fetching of the four, although the version shown yesterday is a great improvement on previous tries. Where there was solid masonry wall with a vaguely Chinese applique, there now are glass openings and even doors (if only for exiting the building). There's a wavy metal canopy here, with a neat, vaguely Chinese fretwork of supports. And, most welcome, there is a 30-foot-wide paved surface outside that, in the future, could become a pleasant gathering place for visitors to both the arena and Chinatown.

Clearly, a lot of questions about the building won't be answered until it's completed. The issue of detailing looms large all around — if, for instance, the ground-level surfaces (masonry, glass, whatever) or the huge exhaust louvers aren't done exactly right, they'll drag down the building's overall quality. If the retail and food operations are not attractive and of high quality, they'll just flicker out, and the promise of all-day activity will vanish. (Glory be, Pollin promised that the building will be open from "9 a.m. to 11 at night.")

And there are a host of questions about the city's resolution to follow through on its long-term plans for a "living downtown." There are those who say that the arena is the end of that dream, but that's not necessarily so. To the contrary, it could be the biggest boost the downtown has had in decades. But to make it happen right, the city must be consistently protective of the historic properties in the area and steady in its requirements for nearby housing. That's a tall order for a financially stressed, inconsistent government. But it's doable.

Finally, there's one aspect of the design that can be predicted with near certainty. The interior of this arena will be extraordinary — the seating bowl a model of commodiousness, the broad concourses an easygoing treat, and the unobstructed views of the burrowed performance floor a sensational attraction. To the significant benefit of downtown Washington, people will come to this place.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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