Most of the big deals, big talk and big news in Washington commercial building these days concern reconstruction of the city's old downtown east of 15th Street NW. Meanwhile, architects continue to get a lot of work in the newer, western segment of downtown.
Much of this latter activity involves retrofitting 1960s buildings, whereby owners, aware of the coming competition from the east, upgrade office environments with new technologies and spruce up exteriors. The effect of such changes upon the cityscape is amusing but negligible, being mainly a question of fashion: of punch-card fac ades getting facelifts. Concrete is out, granite is in.
But a walk on the old-new west side (to be distinguished from the new-new West End) also shows some brand new construction, mostly of smaller buildings than in the past as developers move to fill in sites left over during the initial developmental sweeps of the area. The architectural results range from pretty good to excellent. Architects seem to welcome the opportunity to comment upon the speculative building styles of the 1960s and 1970s, when most of the west side was flattened and rebuilt.
A really top-notch job was done, for instance, by the firm Keyes Condon Florance (Colden Florance, partner in charge, with David King, project architect) for the Carr Co. on a building nearing completion at 1776 I St. NW. This is a delightful exercise of a difficult and paradoxical skill -- creating a building that is extraordinary in its ordinariness. Called Republic Place because of the coincidence of its address with history, it's a corner building with a high image -- but not too high. Good-natured sophistication is the secret of the design.
In materials and fenestration the new building recalls the pleasant run-of-the-mill masonry office structures that used to dot this area. (Amazingly enough, one of these still exists directly across 18th Street, although rather spoiled by a fancy applique', designed by Arthur Cotton Moore Associates, on the lower floors.) At the same time the surface pattern and ornamentation recall other, more distant prototypes. The corner bell tower -- goofy but appealing with its concrete urns and cylinders atop slender piers -- brings to mind the sterner elegance of the high balustrade at the crest of Otto Wagner's famous Post Office in pre-World War I Vienna.
Wagner's building was, likewise, a box, but he had the luxury of simply stopping the building where the need for space ran out; Keyes Condon Florance had to deal with the artificial cutoff of the Washington height limitation, 110 feet on this site. The bell tower is thus a charming addition to the list of ways architects can bring life to the Washington box -- it's one of those nonfunctional but visually pleasing rooftop structures permitted by the height regulations.
This tower's octagonal form is carried down through the body of the building and is reflected in the plan of the entrance vestibule -- to thus break the mass of a structure at the corner is another way better architects have of alleviating boxiness without losing much rentable floor space. (Economics are a prime consideration; to a large extent architectural quality in this speculative context is defined by the ability to do a lot with a little.) Other devices skillfully deployed here are color, texture and pattern.
It is, in short, a pretty building. Its surface is a subtle weave of square bricks framed by rectangular ones laid in Flemish bond, with gray headers softly complementary to tanstretchers. Colors are changed in key spots: spandrel panels beneath red-mullioned windows are dominated by reddish square bricks, and vertical piers are stitched with headers of the same reddish hue. (To so emphasize the verticality of the box is another good idea here reborn.) The texture of the bricks -- on close inspection they prove to be flecked with minuscule dots of color and pocked with sharp little holes -- stands in likable contrast to the sleek surfaces of nearby office buildings. These walls shimmer under angled light.
So in many ways Republic Place is the best of the newer buildings that attempt to bring back a sense of architectural history and strong character to the west side, which remains dominated by a curious assortment of speculator-modern buildings. It is not as dramatic as the building with those behemoth French cha~teau turrets at the southwest corner of K and 20th streets (designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's Washington office), nor as svelte as Keyes Condon Florance's own streamlined clock tower building on the northwest corner of 19th and I streets -- but it's more approachable than either. A four-bell peal sounds the hours and half hours from its tower, adding a pleasurable dimension to a busy office neighborhood that by and large lacks visual or aural outdoor amenities.
Two other projects now nearing completion in the west side deserve commendation, however. One is a building on the northwest corner of 20th and M streets designed by the Washington firm of Smith Segreti Tepper McMahon Harned (Robert Smith, partner in charge, and David Nestleroth, project architect). This is a biggie -- its east-facing fac ade runs nearly 300 feet along 20th Street -- and though its surfaces of dark, polished granites and dark-tinted glass are mildly oppressive, they have been broken up intelligently by deep, rhythmic recesses.
What saves the building, though, is the treatment of the corner -- the box was shaved on a sharp diagonal to allow space for a sculptural front piece complete with octagonal turret and copper-domed roof. This will be a neat space to walk through or under (the outbuilding is connected by wide bridges to the main structure starting at the second floor), and it adds a certain presence to an intersection that otherwise would be humdrum and pedestrian-hostile in the typical west side way.
It's an interesting case of adapting to a clean-slate site a lesson learned in preservation battles -- the corner structure mimics that of the Victorian Demonet building several blocks directly eastward. The Demonet, of course, was preserved only after a long fight and now serves as a distinguished front piece for a new office building.
Lafayette Center, an enormous midblock project that connects 20th and 21st streets between M and N streets, was begun eight years ago and is just now nearing completion. Designed by David Beer (formerly with Welton Becket and now a partner in Brennan, Beer and Gorman) for the Farr Companies, it comprises four office towers and several lower structures. The architecture is none too exciting -- it's tasteful modernism sort of in the mold of Philip Johnson in the early 1960s or, closer to home, of John Carl Warnecke's federal buildings flanking Lafayette Park. Pretentious touches such as huge Louis XIV sconces -- they're out of sync as well as century -- mar the overall effect.
But it's a real winner in urban design terms. Beer and colleagues took full advantage of the size of the site and the complexity of the program to create a sequence of lively, pedestrian-friendly outdoor and indoor spaces. The courtyard, situated in the middle of the block and comfortably sheltered by the office towers, comes as a nice surprise to a stroller arriving either from east or west. There's a pleasant cafe' and, as a centerpiece, an attractive marketlike structure with a patterned marble floor, all-glass roof and exposed steel trusses.
Though one would like to see here more places for people to sit for free and a more interesting mix of stores, this is an urban nexus of a kind found nowhere else in the west side. It could, come to think, profitably be studied by atrium-happy developers and architects presently setting their sights on the old downtown