Could there be such a thing as button-down romanticism? Are not the adjective and the noun--one admonishing, "Follow the rules," and the other shouting, "Let yourself go"--mutually exclusive?
Maybe not, if you take as evidence the scale model of the new Gannett/USA Today headquarters designed for a 25-acre plot near Tysons Corner. The full-scale reality, they say, will be ready for business in June 2001, when the familiar signs atop those sleek Rosslyn towers finally will come down.
The spiffy model of the Tysons Corner design, showing three closely related, rather low-slung buildings in a manicured green setting, has exactly the appeal of a well-cut pinstripe suit. It looks smart, expensive and somewhat standoffish. Conservative. In command of the rules.
All the same, there is a romance to it, particularly when someone switches on the model's interior lights for a sort of lantern-in-the-evening effect. It is perhaps then that you begin to focus on the fine-tuned geometric irregularities of the buildings and how they seem to spiral up from a terraced landscape.
William Pedersen, of the New York architecture firm Kohn Pedersen Fox and chief form-giver to the project, envisions the buildings as crystalline forms emerging from the land. He talks about the all-glass facades--even the vertical fins will be glass--in enthusiastic, dreamy terms.
As Pedersen spins his tale, visions of the Emerald City of Oz dance through your head, and then you remind yourself that this is, after all, nothing more than a corporate headquarters. If Pedersen's words are the soaring poetry of the design, corporate realities are its everyday prose.
This is perhaps the root source of those unusual dichotomies in the design, the curious combinations of understatement with originality, predictability with surprise. Whether the end effect is as powerful as Pedersen envisions remains to be seen, of course. But the idea is strong, and the thoughtfulness and sensitivity of the design are self-evident. The new complex will be a nice place to work, and already is a demonstrable improvement in the Tysons Corner architectural norm.
It is a big improvement, too, over an earlier Gannett plan for a 300-foot-high office tower on the highest part of the site. This was a proud idea but not a good one. Many nearby residents understandably disliked it for its visual impact, and fought it in court. Responding to such outside pressures, the corporation also came to see that buildings with longer, horizontal floor plates made better sense from an operational point of view.
This important change came after the company switched to a new design team--KPF along with Lehman-Smith + McLeish of Washington for interior architecture, and landscape architects Michael Vergason and Douglas Hays of Arlington, shepherded by Hines Interests Ltd., the Houston-based development firm widely associated with high-quality architectural products. The decision gave the designers an opportunity to truly meld their skills. As a result, the fit between buildings and landscape is excellent, for each was designed with the other in mind.
The site is a long, broad elbow bordered on the north and east by the Dulles Toll Road and the Capital Beltway, respectively, and on the other sides by an existing office park. It slopes from a high point in the south (where the tower was to be located) down to a five-acre storm water pool, and then rises again gently toward the west.
Pedersen and company decided to situate the buildings--one for Gannett's corporate headquarters, another for USA Today and other publications such as Baseball Weekly, and a 2,000-car parking garage--on the westerly rise. The long, narrow footprints of the main buildings were based largely on the desire to get as much natural light as possible into the offices; the U-shaped arrangement of the pair was Pedersen's way of having the architecture embrace the land.
In three dimensions, the rise of the two buildings echoes that of the land. Each has a slightly tilted, ascending roof--the lowest corner of the USA Today building is 146 feet high, while the highest tip of the Gannett building is 208 feet. Together with the understated angles of the facades, the tilted roofs will imbue the whole site with a quiet sort of dynamism. You expect rectangular buildings, but what you get here are sleek, subtle polyhedrons.
As one might predict, this will be an inwardly focused complex. The nearly 2,000 employees who end up working there will have quite a few services at their disposal--upscale eateries, cafes with pleasant views, banks, workout rooms. "We thought of it as a small city," Pedersen says. This is, in effect, an acknowledgment of the facts of life in Tysons, where you pretty much have to get in your car even to cross the street.
Although most employees will enter through a back door from the garage, the appropriate architectural crux is, nonetheless, out front between the arms of the "U." Here, a high lobby with a clear glass front and a spectacular, cable-supported riserless stairwell bridge the gap between the two buildings. Most of the public and shared facilities are located nearby--auditorium, visitor center, library, conference rooms.
The lobby and its appendages are glass-walled polyhedrons extending, like terraces, from the larger polyhedrons. Landscape architect Vergason responded beautifully by designing a series of fieldstone-walled terraces rising up from the pool. Several of the lower building roofs also will be planted with grass and trees to emphasize the connections between the building and site. The shaped spaces between the buildings thus promise to be both dynamic and quite peaceful--another pleasing, unusual combination.
Elevator towers attached to each of the main buildings are the final elements of the composition. Subtle exclamation points sheathed for the most part in translucent glass, they will be taller, but not that much taller, than the buildings themselves. Carriers of low-key USA Today and Gannett signs, they'll be what drivers see from the nearby highways.
I am not sure I approve of or completely understand the move from Rosslyn, despite USA Today President Tom Curley's witticism: "Let's just say that a national newspaper ought to be outside the Beltway--which we made by about a hundred feet."
To properly take advantage of existing regional infrastructure, companies ought to be moving closer in, rather than farther out. Plus, the competition among rival jurisdictions within the region for job-producing enterprises is at its most absurd when even counties in the same state fight it out, as Arlington and Fairfax did over the Gannett prize.
At the very least, however, we can say the company will be moving from the best buildings in Rosslyn to what will certainly become the best buildings in Tysons Corner. As the model clearly shows, Pedersen and the whole design team took off creatively when the decision was made to jettison the tower in favor of the three-building, design-with-nature concept.
It is tempting to believe, with architect Pedersen, that the finished job will make a much finer impression than the model does. What the model cannot quite anticipate is the quality of the glass walls--flat planes of silvery reflective glass interrupted every 2.5 feet with vertical fins made of clear glass. Because of their thickness, the fins will seem green when seen from acute angles.
Hmmm. An orderly Emerald City. Crystalline forms emerging politely from the Tysonscape.
CAPTION: A rendering of the main lobby of the future Gannett/USA Today headquarters shows the riserless stairwell connecting two buildings.
CAPTION: Emerald City on the Beltway: Model of the glass-sheathed Gannett/USA Today complex in Tysons Corner.