The new headquarters for Intelsat, the international telecommunications satellite organization, is without question the most provocative building ever to wind its way up a Washington hill. The fact that it is the only office building ever to wind its way up a Washington hill is only part of its provocation.
Consisting of nine octagonal "pods" sheathed in glass and aluminum plus five extraordinary space-frame atria, the $51 million building commands, and gets, attention from anyone who happens by the southwest corner of Connecticut Avenue and Van Ness Street NW. Although not quite finished -- computers are moving in now, with office workers to follow sometime this spring -- Intelsat already has become an object of intense dislike, or affection.
A friend who lives nearby reports that his family is split on the matter. "My wife hates it, the kids love it and I'm not sure," he says. I know architects who shudder when the building is mentioned, and others who argue subtly that they don't like it because it is a "suburban building in an urban setting."
Any building capable of stimulating such immediate, strong and contradictory reactions cannot be all bad, or all good. Intelsat is not a masterpiece, but it is in many ways an admirable and even a likable structure, and its complexities and ironies are worth careful examination.
The architect is John Andrews, an Australian star whose international practice has included any number of very large, programmatically complex and visually impressive Modernist projects: skyscrapers and horizontal office buildings, multi-unit residential quarters, transportation facilities, prestigious educational buildings and entire colleges. Andrews was chosen from six leading firms invited to submit detailed proposals to a juried competition.
Intelsat, in other words, was from the beginning conceived as a major architectural event comparable, say, to the Pompidou Center in Paris. The client and the jury clearly wanted a building with impact, and they got one. The nature of this impact will be debated in Washington for years to come, and one's position in the debate will depend on responses to four interrelated issues: the way the building responds to its site and the city around it, its style, its energy efficiency and its interior spaces and working environments.
The building's interaction with the surrounding city is by far its weakest link. It is a jewel, no lie, a dazzling necklace in a green setting, which is another way of saying it is perhaps the least Washington-like building ever imagined. It looks, in fact, as if it were a glittering piece of the 21st century designed for an isolated hill in the far-out suburbs of Anywhere, U.S.A., and placed, by magnificent celestial error or mere bureaucratic foul-up, at the corner of Connecticut and Van Ness.
If the immodesty of its overall image is inappropriate to the location -- as Connecticut Avenue from the edge of downtown to the Van Ness intersection is the city's most urbane residential boulevard, lined with fine masonry apartment buildings -- the Intelsat building, in detail, is an affront to average pedestrians. This is because, for reasons best known to Intelsat directors, the main entrance is located on the wrong side of the building, that is to say up the hill, facing the new embassies and the new park on International Drive.
The building does meet the avenue corner with a certain emphatic finesse. A glass wall hangs like a sign between two massive cylindrical wings and above quite a grand, flowing staircase, but the staircase is -- how shall I say? -- misleading. The only persons allowed entry here will need security clearance; casual visitors interested in Intelsat's by no means uninteresting business will have to trudge around to the back for a glimpse of the inside of the atrium spaces or the satellite control room.
There are certain redeeming features of the arrangement, the largest being a public park (with daytime access) that will open up underneath a towering stand of oaks at the corner of Connecticut Avenue and Tilden Street. In addition, a number of ordinary shops tucked away to the side of the avenue entrance will make the building seem more a part of the city. But basically, from the pedestrian point of view, the Intelsat building is like a tantalizing apparition: look, but do not touch.
In this respect the comparison to the Pompidou Center is apt and most unfortunate. The Pompidou, a huge, playful bauble inserted in an old quarter of Paris, is, definitively, a noncontextual building, but whatever one thinks of all of that colorful exposed plumbing, it does -- and how -- attract a large and enthusiastic public to enjoy and use the building. Intelsat, by contrast, is a private preserve.
These are serious failings, and they prompt the question: What, then, is likable about the building? Literally and figuratively, the story goes uphill from this point. Andrews and his associates, notably Geoff Willing, his Washington project manager (along with the local architectural firm of Notter Finegold & Alexander; D.S. Thomas with the Benham Group, mechanical and electrical engineers; Ove Arup & Partners with MMP International, structural engineers; Hunter/Miller & Associates, office planning; and Richard Strong, landscape architect), certainly cannot be accused of lacking the courage of their convictions. They set out to design and build an energy-efficient jewel, and they did. The plan is to wash it with light at night -- perhaps not a terribly energy-conscious thing to do, but esthetically pardonable and more than justified by the tremendous energy savings predicted for the building as a whole.
The issue of the building's style is not an easy one to decipher. I watched it go up with increasing fascination. It just got busier and busier, until the notion of high-tech, space-age imagery almost disappeared and I found, to my great surprise, that the building began to assume a highly romantic, somewhat 19th-century character. What building in Washington, excepting the Smithsonian Castle, has a more active, picturesque profile? What Queen Anne house has more handsome turrets or bays than Intelsat's cylindrical, nearly free-standing stairwells? What rambling Victorian-era mansion has a more interesting set of gables than the many-sided glass roofs of Intelsat's atria? And those delicate ribbon sun screens and reflective glass blocks -- are they not very like the lively mix of textures we so admire in buildings of the Shingle style?
These questions are improbable and perhaps even impertinent in view of the fact that Andrews is a hard-line Modernist for whom questions of historical styles are irrelevant. You can see this in his buildings, almost all of which have a bold, brave-new-world look, and you can read it in a book on his projects in which he doesn't even mention the word "style," except as an outgrowth of the process of problem solving. It is altogether typical of Andrews, for instance, that when confronted with the notion that his setback Science Building for Scarborough College near Toronto bore a resemblance to Aztec temple forms, he responded, "There was not . . . any desire to imitate the Aztecs; the concept derived directly from the problem of providing natural light to the labs, yet retaining full wall space."
I don't mean to suggest that Intelsat actually is a post-Modernist enterprise full of allusive historical quotations. What I mean to say is that, for whatever combination of esthetic and problem-solving reasons, the architect managed to make a building that is quite appealing in a conventional, non-Modernist way. All those variegated forms and textures are types of abstract ornament, no matter what the architects say, and the building is much the better for this.
In March, Andrews will deliver the keynote address to a Los Angeles conference on design and technology sponsored by the American Institute of Architects. His topic will be "A New Generation of 'Smart Buildings,' " and Intelsat is sure to be Exhibit A. It was designed, through and through, with passive energy saving in mind, and from floor to ceiling the whole operation will be monitored and controlled by computers. (This is what makes it, in the parlance, a "smart" building.)
The building's siting and its basic form, for instance, were determined mainly by energy considerations. It was situated on the hill to take advantage of sunlight and natural wind conditions, and the interlocking octagonal forms of the office pods and the atria derived from the desire to provide as many offices as possible with natural light. The reflective sun screens attached to the fac,ades are, simply, designed to allow light in and to keep heat out, when necessary. The vast duct systems running throughout the building are distributors of air treated by state-of-the-art energy recovery systems. (Even the heat generated by the operation of the toilets can be recovered for use elsewhere.)
In these and many other respects, Intelsat is an engineering feat and a Washington first -- a major building designed with thoroughgoing energy efficiency in mind. If all works out as planned, more than 57 percent of the energy consumed to light, heat and cool the structure will come from natural sources.
Another appreciable facet of the design -- Andrews probably would call it a byproduct of the solutions to the energy puzzle -- is the quality of the interior spaces. The atria, especially those with cantilevered concrete stairwells in the center, are beautiful architectural spaces, quite human in scale and not junked up with a lot of Portmanesque fancy work. Furthermore, they are the heart of an excellent interior circulation system. (They also provide the basis for an efficient and stylistically consistent expansion on the southwest corner of the site, which may begin sometime this year.)
Intelsat should be a good building to work in. Exterior and interior views are plentiful, and the building is, among other things, extremely walkable. (There are but two elevator banks.) Just getting from here to there in this building promises to be a fascinating experience.
A provocative building, indeed. As an object it is both interesting and beautiful. It would appear to be an excellent model of energy efficiency. But as an assertive building with meaningful urban connections it leaves much to be desired. Thus it poses a challenge to architects, perhaps the key challenge of city building in the late 20th century -- that of putting these crucial aspects together in a persuasive, effective way.
One final thought: The strong public reactions to the building, positive and negative, bode well for its future. This reminds me a lot of the furor that greeted Alfred B. Mullett's State, War and Navy building (now the Excecutive Office Building), which Henry Adams called Mullett's "architectural infant asylum," and which most of us, today, would fight hard to preserve. I can imagine, 50 years from now, fighting just as hard to save the Intelsat building.