All parties to the bitter dispute over the World Trade Center, the big-bucks commercial focal point of the proposed PortAmerica complex in Oxon Hill, had something to cheer about after the unveiling last week of a new Philip Johnson/John Burgee model for the architecture of the place.
Prince George's County boosters could applaud hard evidence that, the world economy permitting, the county would at last get this major, "instant landmark" that had to overcome a Maginot line raised by various agencies of the federal government. And opponents of the 52-story skyscraper that originally had been the chief identifying mark of the project could take satisfaction in a height reduction of nearly 30 stories.
As the model made clear, the famous architects and their client, developer James T. Lewis, had adopted the critics' recommended strategy, albeit reluctantly and only after the opposition of the Federal Aviation Administration had proved adamant. Instead of concentrating the trade center offices in a single, proud tower, the revised plan spreads them
among a series of lower buildings.
The benefits of the change are significant. That crystalline skyscraper with its pyramidal cap, situated on a hill in direct sightline with the United States Capitol and the Washington Monument, was an affront to the nation's primary political and symbolic buildings. The new design, with six mirror-image 10-story structures focused campuslike upon a tower 22 stories high (plus a three-story base), is not nearly so objectionable in this respect.
The new proposal is an improvement in another way, too. Though it would have been quite impressive from a distance (as both opponents and supporters agreed), the faceted glass-and-steel skyscraper, built atop two Brobdingnagian parking structures, would have made everyone feel like a Lilliputian when experienced close up. The new arrangement promises to be more agreeable.
Even so, the new design of the trade center, which is to be separated by a mile or so from the waterfront-residential piece of the PortAmerica pie, is hardly inspired -- it has the feel of Johnson/Burgee working almost by rote.
Pennzoil Place, the sharply shaped twin-tower project designed by Johnson/Burgee and completed 11 years ago in Houston, established the cachet of high-image architecture as a salable commodity among developers of prestige projects nationwide. Since then, this design team has been on a roll, placing major commercial buildings in city and suburb across the land, including Tycon Tower (the first of three proposed identical structures) at Tysons Corner.
There is a great deal of similarity among these projects, despite remarkable variety in architectural styles. The architectural firm has proven itself quite capable of handling the large-scale program; the design team has satisfied clients' desires for big buildings with a different look; for the most part the architects have been able to command the best in building materials, and to good effect. The typical Johnson/Burgee project generally seems to have been built with more care than its neighbors -- not a hard job in Tysons Corner but more demanding, say, in midtown Manhattan.
Some of these buildings are really terrific, maybe even great. The AT&T tower in Manhattan, with its famous, elegant, "signature" top, was an important signal of a turn away from steel-(or concrete)-and-glass modernism in large-scale corporate design; RepublicBank Center, with its inventive triple setback and its top stepped in a Dutch vernacular style, is a beautiful contribution to the Houston skyline; and PPG Corporate Headquarters, a complex of glass Gothic buildings in downtown Pittsburgh, is a triumph of jazzy civility.
And some of the buildings are truly awful. Again, architectural style isn't the determining factor. The skyscraper at 101 California St. in San Francisco is a failed essay in sleek, look-at-me modernism; the tower up the street, at 580 California, with its mansard roof and elegant fixtures, is a pretentious exercise in simplified historicism; the tower under construction at 580 Boylston St. in Boston is similarly pretentious and, besides that, makes a terrible backdrop for H.H. Richardson's Trinity Church.
This uneven record is one of the great curiosities of recent American architecture. It is hard to explain, but possibly is due to a formula the Johnson/Burgee team has perfected for such projects, which is to seize upon a relatively simple idea -- a site plan and an identifiable image -- at the very beginning of the design process and then to push along with rigorous logic to the point of exaggeration. Sometimes the idea works, sometimes it doesn't -- it's almost as simple as that. In itself this suggests that the surprisingly unsophisticated process is flawed; one is as likely to get a loser as a winner with Johnson/Burgee at the helm.
Thus the fortresslike style of the new tower in Oxon Hill -- an octagonal building with vaguely medieval, pointed stone towers rising from base to top at each point of the octagon and with heavy, Richardsonian arches at the bottom -- seems quite arbitrary. So, too, does the switch of architectural style in the six framing buildings, which with their peaked roofs have an institutional, vaguely 19th-century character.
Even the campuslike arrangement, with those six buildings set on an arrow-straight axis with the tower, seems forced -- it's an image of a campus without the reality, for it is hard to believe that great yard (which is about 800 feet long, much larger than it looks in foreshortened drawings or photographs) will be the center of much activity. In each of these respects, the trade center is thoroughly unlike the PPG Headquarters in Pittsburgh, where all of those shiny points seem quite at home and where the variously sized buildings frame -- indeed form -- a genuinely urban place.
If this is to rue the fact that the trade center was not laid out with more sensitivity and imagination, it's not to say that the new design is altogether a disaster -- if built it'll be, at the very least, a grand curiosity. And, of course, it won't compete spitefully with the nation's monumental core, defenders of which will now have to look elsewhere for potential damage. Toward, say, Alexandria, where there is a sign, facing the Beltway, declaring a now vacant lot to be the future site of "Washington's only skyscraper."
The design for PortAmerica's residential quarter along the Potomac waterfront is, incidentally, another story in more ways than one, although the architects and the developer are the same. I'll turn to it next week.