Glass Gothic wasn't exactly a dominant motif of the image-conscious architecture of the 1980s, but it was a famous one, used to striking effect by Philip Johnson and John Burgee for the PPG company headquarters in downtown Pittsburgh. It reached the Washington suburbs this year, in the form of One Cambridge Court, an office building in the semi-urbanizing wilds of Fairfax County.
Johnson-Burgee designed PPG in 1979, helping to seal the corporate embrace of postmodern aesthetics. The complex of buildings, comprising a 40-story skyscraper, a 13-story tower, four five-story structures and a major plaza, was completed in 1984. This was the year that Roger Strassman of the Weihe Partnership of Washington (with Bill Brenneke as project architect) initiated the design of One Cambridge Court for developer Lowell Baier of Rockville.
So the local building cannot help but have something of a copycat appearance: It's what the client wanted. Baier, an enthusiast of postmodern architecture and the romance of Gothic times, played much more of a hands-on role in the design than is the norm for the developer of a speculative office building. "Once the concept of the Gothic period was decided upon" in discussions with Strassman, he recalls, "I became even more enraptured with the project."
Enraptured -- not a customary developer verb ... but more on that later. Like its stunning, bigger stylistic parent, One Cambridge Court is sheathed in mirror glass curtain walls -- nothing Gothic about that -- culminating in pointed arches and pointy battlements. The Fairfax building obviously lacks the finesse of the Pittsburgh project -- its manipulations of scale are not nearly so adroit, its facade rhythms not nearly so lively, its profile not nearly so crisp.
But the comparison is perhaps inherently unfair -- its situation is not nearly so fortunate. Not only did Johnson-Burgee have a Fortune 500 company as a client (and one whose prime product is architectural glass), the New York design team also had five city blocks to sculpt with buildings of a winsome variety of sizes. Furthermore, the architects could rely on instantaneous recall of such tall, crazy local monuments as the University of Pittsburgh's 1920s Cathedral of Learning.
By contrast, the Fairfax project was a single boxy building on an unprepossessing lot in a brand-new, automobile-dominated environment of widely separated office buildings close by the Beltway intersection with Route 50. Viewed in this context, One Cambridge Court (actual address: 8110 Gatehouse Rd., near Gallows Road) is a fanciful surprise. Coming upon it, round a bend in the street, is akin to discovering an improbable artifact, a poignant, instant landmark.
Oh my goodness, can it be that we're already growing nostalgic for the '80s? Or is it simply that the contrast between this building and the other new office enclosures in this placeless area is so sharp? Where they are dull, it's bright. Where they are matter-of-fact, it's pretentious. Where they couldn't care less, it seeks approval, it wants to be popular. Its antecedents include London's Crystal Palace but actually tend more to White Palace. It's a "Gothic" box, a curiosity, a roadside attraction.
Baier was the ardent Barnum of the act. He hired Sarah Tomerlin Lee of New York (whose local credits include the posh period interior of the restored Willard Hotel) to carry out his Gothic dreams on the inside of the building. She, in turn, brought in her son Todd Lee (of Todd Lee/Clark/Rozas Associates of Boston) to design the information kiosk centered in the skylit atrium. A handful of other designers and artists were enlisted to complete the picture.
The result is an almost goofy profusion of motifs -- not unappealing, but definitely strange, an assortment of references from imagined or supposed history. The most impressive architectural details are the high pointed arches marking front and back entrances -- articulated in a diamond pattern of emerald and subdued green glass panes, the arches sparkle in the autumn sun whether seen from inside or outside, and they frame the towering atrium. But like Johnson's pointed arches in Pittsburgh, they're modern, not Gothic -- the pointed terminations are simple abstract signs that call "Gothic" to mind. Unlike Johnson, Strassman unhappily didn't have soaring height to work with, another critical part of popular sign language for "Gothic."
Blipping from century to century, the beat goes on. The glass ceiling, 95 feet high, is a contemporary star-burst shape; hanging from it is a 2,000-pound octagonal chandelier, a 20th-century techno-feat of medieval inspiration. The floor is a bold Florentine Renaissance pattern of polished green, black and white marble. Todd Lee's kiosk is a sharp, oak-paneled oddity said to be inspired by the famous ovens of the monastic kitchen at the French Romanesque Abbey of Fontevrault -- it has a similar hexagonal roof -- but in fact resembling a 19th-century English Gothic Revival baptistery. A color computer monitor, promising tenant information at the touch of a key, stares back at the visitor who peeks inside.
The octagonal atrium has four ground-floor openings and four walls. On each of the walls is a large mural of a colorful medieval scene, painted by Philadelphia artist Shirley Tattersfield after the seasonal illustrations in one of the greatest of the 15th-century illuminated manuscripts -- "Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry."
The originals being tiny vertical rectangles, Tattersfield not only had to enlarge them vastly, she also had to combine them to fit the new horizontal format, and occasionally to reverse the images -- "Summer" here splices together May and August, "Fall," June and July, and so on. For "Winter," a crowded court dinner scene, she used January and then had to invent an entire half. Seemingly she took another minor liberty: A few of the personages appear to be contemporary portraits. Secret satires, perhaps?
Credit architect Strassman with establishing a firm armature for all of this: The sequence of spaces is a fine response to the circulation pattern typical of suburbia. The building is set back from the street in the office park manner, but its fundamentally functionless front yard is visually distinguished by that high, glittering arch and by a substantial water-jet fountain -- it's the limousine entrance. Most visitors and workers, however, will enter from the back, passing a cute little pointed-window attendant's stand -- one point too many? -- on the way to the parking garage with its own crenelated clock tower.
Between garage and building is a real gem of a garden -- dare I say it's magical? Well, maybe not quite, but it is an excellent substitute for the boring, not to say desensitized, suburban office norm, and it's an inspired response to client Baier's enthusiasms, Gothic gazebos and all. Designed by landscape architects Zion & Breen Associates of New Jersey in collaboration with the Weihe Partnership, it's a beautifully planted multilevel affair, enclosed by lattice fences, with distinct and comforting exterior "rooms" for workaday bees to congregate in shade or sun.
Like much in the immediate environment, it also is a little on the loony side. It is where the critic can sit, tallying the sins and virtues of One Cambridge Square -- that name is a sin -- even though the list is complicated and the distractions many. Hey, what kind of bird was that up there, in that tree?