The new French Chancery, rapidly nearing completion on its handsome, eight-acre site on Reservoir Road, was designed nearly a decade ago, and looks it.
"We wanted a large building with a bit of the French taste for symbolism and majesty," was the careful description given at a Thursday press conference by First Counselor Franc,ois Dopffer. They got at least part of what they wanted: The building is large and efficient, and it respects its narrow setting about as much as a 350,000-square-foot structure could be asked to do.
But despite its fac,ade of sparkling snow-white/gray-sky Vermont marble, the chancery presents a dull face to the world. If architecture is a form of language with its own ordering principles, then the language the French Chancery speaks is a tired sort of mid-'70s officialese inflected by a mistaken apprehension about what it takes to build in Washington.
This is not a disastrous result -- the building is not blatant, one way or another, and the tall stand of hardwood trees that form its background is a tremendous mitigating presence -- but one would have hoped for, and perhaps even expected, a happier, snappier ending. There are, after all, strong historical design ties between Washington and France. Not only was the city originally laid out by a Frenchman (Maj. Pierre Charles L'Enfant, of course) according to French Baroque planning principles, but the rebuilding of its monumental core in this century was lastingly influenced by the example of Baron Haussmann, the powerful prefect of Paris who rebuilt much of that capital city during the Second Empire. The new chancery has to be counted as a chance for a bold, late-century contribution to this cultural exchange that somehow was allowed to slip by.
That marble facing is a strong indication of what was on the mind of Andre' Remondet, chief architect of government buildings and national palaces, whose design was selected in 1976 in a competition open to all French firms. The image of Washington as a city of white buildings in green pastures is a mischievous one, especially when conjured from afar. Even the White House had to be painted white (as we can so clearly see in the rose-tinted Aquia Creek sandstone now exposed while restoration work continues on its north portico), and most of the city's other classical and classic-revival buildings are in fact subtly shaded toward pink or gray.
Obviously, if distantly, Remondet conceived the chancery design in terms of a white temple on a hill -- "we thought the marble was more befitting to Washington than other materials " is the way project architect Georges Berg put it -- but he also had to deal with the fact that the building is basically an office structure. In other words, the 350 chancery employes, who will begin moving into the new building from nine different locations late next month, needed room to work, and lots of it. This, and a height limitation on the property, dictated a very different sort of building: a rambling, low structure nestled beneath the trees.
This may not necessarily be an oil-and-water combination, but it would take an inspired leap of imagination to bring the elements together in a satisfying way. This design is neither here nor there. It is not classical, despite the marble and touches such as the archways that articulate the surface of its foreground wing. And its asymmetrical modernism is of the blah sort. The free-standing, rectilinear columns on other parts of the building, for instance, don't really suggest classical columns, but they don't recall strong modernist precedents, such as Le Corbusier's pilotis, either.
If one is going to do a white building in a green setting, the idea should be pushed to the limit, the way Richard Meier, for example, pushed his startling, graceful designs for the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut or the Atheneum in New Harmony, Indiana. (The inescapable irony of bringing up Meier in this context is that his designs are sophisticated extrusions of architectural ideas first given form in 1920s villas by Le Corbusier, the greatest French-speaking architect of our century.)
Unfortunately, the chancery architect could hardly have made a less ingratiating choice of materials to set off the marble than the sour, mud-flat brown of the anodized aluminum trim around his dark-tinted glass doors and ribbon windows. The result is a jarring void-in-the-wall impression in the two mid-level floors, and a curtain-wall top floor whose lack of refinement, in so prestigious (and, with its $40 million price tag, so costly) a building, is truly extraordinary. The reason for the change in materials at the top is a good one -- it is dark and set back, Berg explained, to minimize the building's bulk -- and the top floor does, sort of, fade into the background. Even so, it's ugly.
The building's strong suit is the site plan and the commodious arrangement of interior spaces. Located at 4101 Reservoir Road NW, opposite the Georgetown University Medical Center, the chancery reads as three distinct, if interconnected, horizontal structures, set into a gentle hill at about mid-rise. This corresponds to functional divisions: The rear wing, with a separate entrance, houses most of the diplomatic offices; the middle wing, with consular offices, a library and an information center at ground floor, is where public business will be conducted; and the foreground wing, with reception and meeting rooms and a 285-seat auditorium, is for ceremonial, cultural and social events. (Further comment on the interiors is impossible, as they were unfinished at the time of the press conference.)
Yet even in the building's relationship to the site, good intentions went awry. If the mix of vague classicism and boring modernism in the principal fac,ades is unresolved, the addition front and center of a parking entrance (for a three-level underground garage) in a concrete bunker style is bizarre. There was no other place to put the garage on this narrow site, but an earlier design, shown in model form back in 1977, attempted to tuck the garage's entrances into the hill, away from the site's center line. The change was, apparently, one of those unfortunate slips between cups and lips that occur in a long design review process.
Since its demise, the old Archbold estate on Reservoir Road, one of the prettier, more promising open sites in the city, has not fared well. First came the Hillandale housing complex, with those unforgiving walls that so rudely exclude the surrounding neighborhood. And now comes the French Chancery, a great opportunity missed for lack of imagination and a firm commitment to a design philosophy -- any design philosophy.