Like it or not -- and for me it's mostly not -- Washington has a new architectural gateway in the form of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.
This is the mansard-roofed brick pile that commuters and other crossers of the 14th Street bridges may have been wondering about of late, for it stands prominently above the railroad tracks on the western edge of Maryland Avenue SW, competing with the Jefferson Memorial for attention.
Its architect says the building was designed in the "grand hotel vocabulary," and that's the case. Its massive curled roof punctuated with arched and ocular windows does indeed call to mind the grand Willard Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
That's precisely the rub. Designed by New Yorker Henry Hardenbergh, the Willard was completed in 1904. It's a wonderful building of its time, assertive yet elegant and urbane. That, however, was then. Now is now.
Why is it that a century later in Washington we so often feel compelled to look backward for our architecture? Is today's globalism or dissonance -- or whatever -- so confusing that in our architecture we must seek the reassurance of yesteryear?
Or maybe it's just a bad habit spawned four decades ago in the widespread rebellion against the simplistic inanities of much modernist architecture and planning in the post-World War II years.
This was, of course, a necessary revolt. In this city we had watched as much of the southwest quadrant -- the area where the Mandarin stands, not incidentally -- was uprooted by an ambitious, partially successful but also tremendously destructive program of urban renewal. And reflecting the unfortunate alliance of modernist aesthetics with commercial expediency, our downtown streets were being relined with second-rate modernist office buildings.
Washington architects were not alone in seeking healthy alternatives by taking a new look at premodern architecture. One of the first signs of the revisionist times occurred in the late 1970s when the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. held a design competition for the renovation and expansion of the Willard. The New York firm of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, the winner, proposed the then-novel solution of copying the original architecture for the additions.
Built in the 1980s under the direction of Washington architect Vlastimil Koubek after a dispute between developer Oliver Carr and the New York architects, the Willard additions still look fine today. This is because they were conceived with such freshness, charm and good sense -- those staggered additions parading like ducklings behind Hardenbergh's mother hen.
But the architecture of the Mandarin Oriental has nothing of this freshness of spirit and none of the original Willard's self-confident swagger. Rather, as designed by the Washington office of Brennan Beer Gorman Monk Architects, the building is a dry, by-the-numbers take on an old tradition. It's a sort of habit.
Why do that here, on this prominent promontory? The reasoning, says architect Mark Boekenheide of the BBGM firm, was to make the building look significantly different from and yet compatible with the cluster of buildings nearby. These buildings, as it happens, also are the product of our city's turn away from the modern.
Designed in the 1980s by Washington architect Arthur Cotton Moore, they are part of an immense undertaking known as the Portals project, which foresees completing the commercial development of four blocks bounded by D Street SW on the north, 12th and 14th streets on the east and west, respectively, and Maine Avenue on the south. The project was stalled by the real estate recession in the early 1990s. Three buildings were completed, and now, with the market fully revived, others are to come. They, too, will be designed by Moore.
Architecturally, the Portals buildings reflect Moore's personal revisionist style, which he calls "industrial baroque." Like many a Washington architect of his era, Moore started out as a modernist, and his early efforts, such as Canal Square in Georgetown, still stand as proof that architecture can be both modern and respectful of historical context.
Industrial baroque is Moore's way of reintegrating ornament and architecture, a modernist no-no. It's a romantic, personal vision, best taken in small doses, such as the little Rizik's pavilion on the northwest corner of Connecticut Avenue and L Street NW. But when Moore's fanciful decorations -- sculpted spirals, swags, flags and assorted columns and pilasters -- are applied to chunky, hum-drum ribbon-window office structures, such as those of the Portals, the result is an unconvincing disguise.
The block on which the Mandarin Oriental stands, at 1330 Maryland Ave. SW, was originally part of the Portals development scheme, but it was sold years ago by the Portals team to another developer. Hence, the change in architects. Did Boekenheide and his colleagues, encouraged in their direction in reviews before the Commission of Fine Arts, achieve their aims of being both different and compatible?
Yes, they did. Sheathed in a similar light tan brick and equivalent in height and massing, the new luxury hotel blends fairly well with Moore's ensemble. Yet with its pattern of double-hung windows and outdated style, the new building also stands out. But that still raises the question, did it have to be so backward-looking? Did it have to remind us of the Willard?
No, it did not. The architects succeeded in creating a note of difference but, in 2004, it's the wrong note. It is as if the designers and their aesthetic overseers decided to ignore the astonishing advances and urban sophistication of recent modern architecture all over the world in favor of the comfortable, the easy, the habitual. In favor of, as it says on the hotel company's Web site, "the traditionalism and formality of Washington, D.C."
None of this commentary means that the new facility does not add something to a segment of Washington that sorely needs the kind of activity that hotel clients can bring. By building over the railroad tracks, Moore's Portals plan restores a segment of Maryland Avenue with a striking, axial view of the Capitol dome. The new hotel, with one elegant restaurant already open and another still to come, adds a bit of urban life to the vision.
Yet the Portals remains an urban cul-de-sac, cut off from the nearby Southwest waterfront by a swoop of freeway bridges and roads. At the city's insistence, the developer, by converting an abandoned railroad bridge to a pedestrian pathway, provided a connection to the waterfront. But it's a niggling thing, hard to find and, for wheelchair users, impossible to navigate.
A much bolder gesture was called for to connect the new building to the waterfront. And that's the story in a nutshell. The architecture of this prominent building needed more boldness and sophistication. It didn't have to be a Willard-come-lately.