Fresh approaches to architecture are hard to come by in northeastern Alexandria, an area where, to an occasional visitor, new buildings seem to sprout overnight like flowers, or weeds.
A recently completed little office building at North St. Asaph and Madison streets, designed by Kerns Group Architects of Washington, is a pleasant exception to the rule of mediocrity in the area, which mostly is a curious mix of dull, clean-cut modern office buildings and residential complexes that make rather tired, and tiresome, bows in the general direction of nearby historic Old Town.
There are other commendable exercises in the area, although none so spirited as the Kerns Group structure. A low-rise office development at Oronoco and North Lee streets (Lewis Wisnewski & Associates, architects), for instance, sensitively incorporates two handsome old warehouses. And the architectural firm of VVKR Inc. recently designed itself a reasonably attractive new headquarters at Montgomery and North Pitt, a brick-and-dark-glass structure whose sharp-edged masses are organized, like a pinwheel, around a snappy sky-lit atrium.
But patent absurdities are not rare. One of the silliest recent structures in the metropolitan area is the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association building at Madison and North Washington streets (Frank C. Montague & Associates, architects), a ridiculous concoction in every detail, from the pancake-flat dormer windows at the top to the pasted-on pediment of the doorway at the bottom.
The distinction of the new building on St. Asaph Street, commissioned by the Construction Specifications Institute, is that it does a lot with a little. In many ways it is a typical, no-nonsense, free-standing office building: a four-story box containing 30,000 square feet of space, erected for a total cost of just over $2 million. But it is not dull and it isn't silly.
The most interesting thing about the building is the stylistic mix, which, if not carried through with complete aplomb, nonetheless opens up new possibilities for contextual design in Alexandria. With its ordinary ribbon course windows the building is clearly contemporary, but the alternating bands of gray and red bricks bordering the topmost course of windows also call to mind the everyday styles of low-rise commercial buildings erected during the 1930s and 1940s.
This apt and somewhat playful emphasis on ordinariness obviously recalls the designs and writings of Robert Venturi, the brilliant Philadelphia architect and theorist whose taste for vernacular architecture and ironic historical quotation did so much to clear the way for the post-modern movement. Venturi is indeed an excellent place to start on this particular problem--how to ornament the plain box and make it shine.
Appropriately, the main focus of the new building is its entranceway on St. Asaph Street. Here the architects (Thomas L. Kerns, partner in charge; Ralph Giammatteo, project architect) work a few neat tricks, marking the entrance with changes in color (from red to gray bricks), plane (setting the gray bricks a few inches into the wall) and direction (from horizontal to vertical). They also accomplish a historical double take. That curved, broken pediment at the top refers not only to certain Venturi buildings and hand-me-down modernism of the 1940s, but also to the fragmented fac,ades of Italian baroque architecture -- a layering of references that is especially improbable, and effective, in convention-bound Alexandria.
It took both skill and restraint to make sure that this scheme did not turn out to be too clever by half. An earlier version of the design, for instance, contained white trim and vaguely federal-period mullions for the windows at the entranceway, a cute temptation that was wisely overcome.
Another reason the design works is that the architects paid close attention to the basics. Their building straightforwardly meets bare-bones functional demands -- much of the parking lot, for example, is tucked adroitly into the building's first floor. It also honors its exposed, corner site. That emphatic entranceway is located dead-center on the St. Asaph Street fac,ade, but otherwise this fac,ade is appositely asymmetrical. On one side a garage door is neatly hidden away, while on the other side a two-story arcade marches smartly to the corner. There are nice urban-design touches, as well, with attractive trees (pines and Bradford pears) employed as screens for the parking lot.
There are, it must be said, some unfortunate lapses in design details. It is possible to guess why the architects placed single windows in vertical niches on either side of the entranceway -- the niches stop the third-story ribbon course like emphatic punctuation marks. All the same these niches are unsatisfying in proportion, and the brickwork above them is awkward. So, too, is the ground-level arcade when seen from Madison Street: It's a pedestrian way but looks like a truck ramp.
Still, these and a few other minor defects probably would go unremarked on a more ordinary "ordinary" building. Taken as a whole the CSI building makes a solid contribution to the vigorous ongoing debate about how to design an office building, and it adds a lively new note to the Alexandria scene.