The Washington Convention Center, which will open ceremonially next Friday and host its first convention early next month, has been getting a bad, and not entirely deserved, architectural rap for what seems like ages.
It's nothing to sing a song about, this big, bland building that spreads out over most of a nine-acre site near the city's center, and this really is a shame. But the building has unexciting virtues: On the inside it is economically designed to get the main job done and on the outside, well, as time goes by it will more and more fade into the network of the new and higher city that will grow up around it.
What the convention center now needs most is people, people and more people to bring it alive. That, after all, was the big idea and that will be the major, long-term test of the place. With hundreds of people coming to and fro, the building will lose the forlorn look of an abandoned warehouse, and the impact of these people and their cars and their dollars will go a long way to determine the ultimate character of the new downtown.
This is not a wholly reassuring prospect. Arguably, the main issue to think about is not architectural at all, or not just that -- whatever the shape and texture of its skin, the building basically is a warehouse for people. The larger, long-run issue may well be how the building works with, for, or against the grain of the city, and here there is ample cause for concern. The center is strategically placed for maximum effect, but it remains to be seen if the city government can find both will and way to make it come out mostly right.
Make no mistake, mostly right is as much as anyone can expect in circumstances of such extraordinary complexity, for building cities is not easy, the list of players is long, their intentions diverse and often conflicting, and their power and money unequal. But at least it is clear that if developers have their way in the convention center area, the results will be mostly wrong: The buildings they build will be too high, too bulky, too ugly and too dominated by offices. For now, we can only wait with fingers crossed. The Barry administration's downtown plan is not yet final, and we don't know whether it will contain a healthy mixture of block-by-block preservation, design, density and use controls.
Architecturally, the convention center has improved some in its second incarnation. In the early 1970s, before the project was killed in committee on Capitol Hill, it had an all-encompassing title -- the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Bicentennial Civic Center -- a different location and a more box-like form. (The architectural team, however, remains the same: Welton Becket Associates with Gray and West Architects and H. D. Nottingham Associates.) Each of the changes has been for the better.
The Eisenhower Center was designed to occupy four city blocks near Mount Vernon Square between 10th and Eighth streets NW, a block farther east than the convention center, which is bordered by Ninth Street on the east, New York Avenue on the north, 11th Street on the west and H Street on the south.
One of the problems with the first site was that Ninth Street had to be kept open, so the structure had to bridge the street with the main automobile drop-off underneath. The canopied drop-off today is in precisely the same place, but with the sizable advantages of being on the edge of the building and in the open air. The comings and goings of the cars will help everyone mark the spot, so to speak, both inside and outside the building -- a not unimportant function in so widespread a structure. More importantly, the shift to the west, even so slight as a single block, may have given Chinatown, which starts in earnest at Seventh and H, just enough room to breathe.
Physically, the most important change in the structure is in massing. The Eisenhower Center was basically a simple box covering a huge interior space with 60-by-40-foot column bays. By contrast, the convention center contains three distinct meeting rooms on its second level -- a vast column-free auditorium-meeting hall (Room A) that can be separated from or combined with a lower, larger hall (Room B) with 30-foot column bays, and a smaller column-free conference chamber that can be kept open or divided by three. On the outside the height and bulk of the building reflects these separate halls, making the whole giant package a good deal less obtrusive than it might have been. The building shows its most inviting front right where it should be--along H Street, where the main hallways, lobbies and eating areas wisely have been located.
Functionally, the building seems shipshape to a fault. Truck loading bays are in just the right place along New York Avenue, on line with 10th Street, and trucks can also roll right onto the floors of the main meeting halls. Floor loads and ceiling heights are sufficient to accommodate anything within reason. Taking a ground-floor convertible parking lot into account, the building actually encloses more potential expo space than the Eisenhower proposal did -- some 380,000 to 300,000 square feet.
Still, most of this has little or nothing to do with beauty, although the sole, really breathtaking part of the building is an engineering marvel. The wide open feel of hall A, with its wonderful top of steel Vierendeel space trusses, is a really elevating space. (It may look a bit odd at first because the system employs horizontal-vertical members without the usual diagonal braces.) Even here, though, beauty takes a back seat to "function." This great steel structure, which ought to be celebrated, is being painted a neutral cocoa-brown in deference to conventional conventioneering wisdom: Don't look up, just pay attention to the pitch.
(This hall, incidentally, is the subject of yet another congressional attempt to interfere in the city's business. It is perfect for performances--standing in it, one can clearly see what a great space it would be for concerts or speeches or high school basketball championships. Some congressmen and Abe Pollin, owner of the Capital Centre, would have none of that in downtown D.C.)
Quite a few of the building's esthetic limitations have a similar source. A dearth of glass on the exterior is one oft-noted fault, and it is entirely due to convention-minded design: Dark caverns with artificial lighting are the ideal controlled environment for conventions, while natural lighting detracts. Still, there is more glass on the fac,ades than appears on first impression -- the deception is due to the energy-conscious dark topaz tinting of the panes.
The larger design defects, though, are fundamentally failures of imagination. The convention logo stamped in large relief on the southern exterior wall indicates a residual consciousness of the importance of this axis, which faces the dome of the Natural History Museum on the Mall and thus becomes the symbolic and actual link between the two sides of Washington--the local, city side and the monumental, national side. Surely this should have played a more determining role in the design of the building.
Then, too, there is no there there in the convention center, no central spine or entrance space (such as the one in Baltimore's new, but much smaller, facility) to give visitors a sense of spaciousness, ceremony, celebration.
The no-nonsense approach need not have precluded a physical product that in some way celebrates the civic act of coming together, the good humor and fun of it all. But somehow it did, and instead of an ugly duckling or a swan we got a plain brown package that can, with some luck and skill, do Washington a lot of good.