The shouting has declined to a whisper about Techworld, one of the most bitterly contested local real estate developments of the 1980s, and now we have the thing itself. It's quite a thing too, as predicted by all sides of the argument.
Nearly two-thirds done, occupying the major portion of two big downtown blocks directly east of the Washington Convention Center, Techworld comprises an 800-room Ramada Renaissance Hotel with a full complement of restaurants, meeting rooms and a 296-seat lecture hall; 550,000 square feet of conventional office space; four levels of underground parking; lots of so-far-unfilled showrooms for new high-tech products; an underground mall with a post office, an eatery and service stores; a swim and fitness club; an "interactive video gallery" called Tech 2000; two picturesque Chinese gardens; artist Christopher Janney's sweet auditory surprise, "Sonic Pass/D.C."; and a brick-paved pedestrian plaza that used to be Eighth Street NW. It was presumably in honor of the latter that developer Giuseppe Cecchi renamed the project Techworld Plaza.
It is almost presumptuous to label the results an architectural disappointment, because aesthetic aspirations were not high to begin with. Nonetheless, when judged by conventional norms of architectural civility, or by standards of architecture elsewhere in the world that proudly proclaims itself high-tech, or even against the glamorous expectations stimulated by the very name, Techworld, one cannot help but be disappointed.
With the singular exception of the dramatic "bridge" spanning Eighth Street, Techworld is frightfully mundane, even ugly. When seen from across town its boxy masses and gray glass curtain walls arouse no excitement. Nor does the pulse quicken much in close proximity. The facade aesthetic is a sort of warehouse modern, with light-colored concrete piers and lintels seemingly pasted upon dull gray glass. The materials are not all that appealing, details not exquisite, entrances not enticing, interior spaces not thrilling.
Still, it should be said that Techworld is not the unmitigated disaster foreseen by its shriller antagonists. Although it rudely turns its back on the streets (Ninth, K, Seventh and I streets NW) that frame the site, it does promise to give something back to the city: Office workers in large numbers and an economic boost for nearby Chinatown. To locate a convention-type hotel opposite a convention hall is fitting, and the very mix of uses here is an improvement on the customary single-use office building.
Probably the most effective aspect of the complex is also its most perverse: the complicated system of interconnected interior and exterior spaces and passageways. There is very little positive to say about the architectural treatment of these spaces -- even the Chinese courtyard gardens, designed by architect Alfred Liu, built by artisans from China and punctuated by lively eroded stones lifted from the depths of a lake in Jiangsu province, seem squinched by the heavy surround. Yet as mean as they get, these spaces and pathways do form, as a system, an intricate multilevel network of the kind that people will use.
Edmund Bacon, the Philadelphia urbanist, observed that cities are distinguished above all by intense patterns of movement, by a constant human flux in many directions. Techworld at its best provides opportunities for such patterns to develop. Even as it is today -- which is to say sparsely populated -- the Techworld circulation system possesses a certain oddball allure. One can pass from a Chinese garden with an automatic teller machine to the Tech 2000 exhibit (it's only mildly intriguing, and costs four bucks), move from there across the Eighth Street plaza to the hotel lobby with its Marco Polo Lounge, and truck on down into the innards to mail a letter or grab a bite, before exiting to the chime notes and bird calls of Janney's "Sonic Pass."
This is not to say that Techworld is a fine precedent. In most respects, it isn't. The irony is that its success as a place -- as a destination and as a crossroads -- depends in large measure on the growth around it of a more attractive, conventional, street-focused urban framework. And this, as any veteran observer of the downtown development scene would tell, is a chancy proposition. At issue are not only the long-cleared blocks to the south -- most of these will remain as surface parking lots for at least a couple more years -- but also a positive resolution of the downtown housing dispute and the protection and vigorous re-use of what's left of the older, smaller-scale city in Chinatown and along Seventh Street.
Of the many elements in the controversy that greeted Cecchi's announcement of his Techworld plans, three were paramount: size, architectural style and the proposal to bridge the street with a six-story connection between the east and west portions of the project. A suspicion that the technology promotion would be a flop has at least partially proven out: Much of the space has been leased to regular tenants, such as the Veterans Administration, and those empty showrooms still await their first techno-shows. (These will come, the developer says, in January.)
It now seems clear that the size of the buildings is about right. That is, the new downtown can accept and even needs the kind of density Techworld offers, although the absence of a residential component is particularly regrettable. To honor the oft-stated goal of a "living downtown," one of these buildings should have been reserved for apartments. But Techworld's size, in itself, is not a major issue. Architectural style is.
Actually, it's not so much an issue of style as it is of finesse. As it turns out, California-based architect Wayne Williams's initial conception of buildings sheathed in mirror glass would have been preferable to the compromise concoction he finally adopted under a cross-fire of criticism. At the very least, it would have given the buildings a visual identity they now lack -- we could have called them the "Ice Cubes" without fear of being misunderstood. But the flaws of the original design remain in the final product. Sparkling glass would not have galvanized the mostly inert shapes of these buildings or altered the blankness that characterizes their facades. Nor, one presumes, would there have been any greater care in the design of the entrances and lobbies, or in the selection of materials, or in the craft with which they were put together.
And the bridge? Ah yes, the bridge. It remains galling to realize that this structure (reduced under pressure from six to four stories) was not really necessary, despite the contentious disputations of the developer to the contrary. Not a bridge in the connective sense -- no traffic flows from one side to the other -- it is simply office space offering genuinely tremendous north-south views to its privileged tenants.
Otherwise, the bridge isn't not so bad, I must admit, eating words of yesteryear. In fact, I rather like it. No doubt it could have been designed more affirmatively to celebrate its span, its "bridge-ness," but even so, sheathed in bright reflective glass, it is by far the most notable architectural element of the Techworld complex. It remains an anomaly in Washington, to be sure, but it does not ruin the skyline or interfere unduly with the historic reciprocal view between the National Museum of American Art on the south and the Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square on the north.
Arguably, it improves the vista by framing the petite Beaux-Arts library building. Undeniably, it adds a surreal image to the cityscape, one that in both scale and materials accentuates differences between old and new. Like it or hate it, it is a landmark.