The most distinctive architectural feature of the new Four Seasons Hotel at 2800 Pennsylvania Ave. NW is a brick clock tower.
But does it tell our time?
The idea of marking the east entrance to Georgetown with a campanile is perfectly charming. The free-standing tower is not.
It is a bland, insipid slab, standing there like an actor who forgot his lines. I suspect the poor thing is paralyzed by guilt, because it is really an exhaust stack, wearing that clock and the hotel sign as a disguise.
Much of this apologetic blandness holds true for the rest of the building complex, which consists of the luxury hotel, restaurants, an office building and a few stores.
The six-story structure is beautifully fitted into the slopes of Rock Creek and laid out to yield a number of intimate and delightful open spaces between the buildings as well as dramatic steps down to the C & O Canal.
The scale is perfect for the site, for people and for Georgetown, whose citizen representatives -- mirabile dictu -- approved the scheme with hardly a murmur. The ensemble presents an understated front toward Pennsylvania Avenue, just at the point where the avenue whimpers into M Street and Georgetown takes over.
The Four Seaons modestly links park and town, and that office building is practically hidden along 29th Street.
The skilful urban design, however, is carried out with plain boxes of unattractive and poorly laid brick. The plainness is relieved by an almost unnoticeable rhythm in the size of the windows and big lintels of precast concrete, painted to look like brownstone.
Viewing it all the other day, I felt like walking through a Brobdingnagian cardboard model, such as architects build to study mass and scale. Nice, I said to myself. Now let's see what the architectural design will look like.
There will be a little more such design, I am told by David Child, the head of the Washington office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the architects for the building. The facade will be enlivened by colorful awnings on the windows, which will make the place look less like a public housing project.
There will also be strategically planted wisteria and a not yet commissioned sculpture, which is to keep that clock tower company.
All this will make some difference, particularly in the wisteria season, one out of four. It will not turn the Washington Four Seasons Hotel building into Architecture with a capital A.
Actually, nothing can. We have, at this uncertain moment in our history, no Class A style that would attract enough people to fill the hotel's 213 rooms. Phoney Colonial finally offends even the adherents of the Georgetown Ueber-Alles cult. A straightforward International Style design would be unacceptable in this setting. What would it look like, anyway? Miami or Sixth Avenue, K Street or Watergate?
It would be great if the Four Seasons building had a flair and some wit and a touch of granduer. The clock tower could be a memorable tour-deforce, like Chicago's Water Tower. There might be a bold marquee or porte cochere, rather than that bland drive-in.
I am sure David Child could bring it off. So, with his adorable chutzpah, could the New Philip Johnson.Holzman, Hardy and Pfeiffer are doing it with their addition to the Willard Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue.
But in Georgetown it would be a great risk. It might easily be a flop. And it would certainly be outrageously expensive.
So we cannot blame David Child for giving us no more and no less than a competent example of the Architecture of Consensus. That is better than a flop. And it is certainly better than another Howard Johnson.
Nor can we blame Four Seasons Hotels Ltd. of Canada, for spending little of the $102,000 per room the company says it spent on the exterior, and lavishing most of the money on carpeting, marble and gadgets. That is, let's face it, what the customers look at.
The interiors were designed by Frank Nicholson, who obviously knows what pleases. What pleases is low-volume Classical Muzak with bland Neo-Chippendale, Oriental touches, and earth colors to match the musical drizzle. It is calm, cozy, comfortable, sublimated kitsch, with acres of house plants, nice views of Rock Creek Park and a few surprises.
One of the surprises is the all but complete absence of the usual hotel lobby. No registration or cashier counters. Guests are greeted by a receptionist sitting behind an "antique" desk in a spacious salon. In exchange for your signature, she will show you your room.
Another surprise is the range of long-forgotten services the concierge is happy to arrange for you -- things like getting your shoes shined by morning or opera tickets the same evening.
The Four Seasons people are undoubtedly right. Good personal service in an air of elegance, however, eclectic and ersatz, is more important to people who can afford it than good architecture, whatever that is these days.
Redi-Whip, too, comes in a less than creatively designed container. In fact, you could not even serve it from a crystal bowl.
That Four Seasons clock tower tells our time all too accurately.