IT IS MID-AFTERNOON and I am lost in Rosslyn.
I am above the sidewalks, where there are any sidewalks, walking one flight up, from ramp to ramp, across streets and through buildings and past cars parked high off the ground where in other cities people work. I keep going, into some garage and then into some building where I am stopped by a security guard who asks for my pass. I turn back and take the same ramps over the same streets through the same buildings. I am lost in Rosslyn.
I have never been up here. I have driven through Rosslyn for years, always wondering where all the people were. I thought always that the place was not finished, that when it was done they would bring in the trees and build sidewalks and put up stores and people would come and walk around the streets. I thought that once. Now I know better.
Now I know where the stores are. They are on a second level. There is a drugstore and a deli and a restaurant. There is even a sewing shop and all the time, wherever you are, there is Muzak playing -- always the "Girl From Ipanema" and "The Fool on the Hill." It is like if they turned it off, the people would go crazy and smash the place. The stores are in a place called Rosslyn Alley. It is one floor off the ground. Some alley.
I have come to Rosslyn because there is a dispute over four new proposed high-rise buildings, one of which will reach for the skies at 29 stories. The secretary of the Interior and others say the buildings will be a blight on the city of Washington across the river and the developers, who as a class are a wonderful group of people, say this is not the case and, anyway, it is too late to do anything about it. They have something here. It really is too late when it comes to Rosslyn.
The thing about Rosslyn is that it really is a tour de force, sui generis -- unto its own. In an area of dismal architecture, Rosslyn stands out. This is no minor accomplishment. Washington, after all, can boast the Rayburn Building, built in mausoleum modern, and the warm and welcoming FBI Building and all of K Street NW - the grand and uplifting Boulevard of the Boxes. Some of those buildings have reflective material on the facade which not only enhances the ugliness, but throws it back in your face. This is the "taken that" school of architecture.
In hotels alone, Washington can boast two of the ugliest in the nation. Number one is the brand new Hyatt-Regency, built in the penitentiary school of architecture, the sort of building that in other cities was closed years ago by what used to be called do-gooders. On the other side of town, we have the Holiday Inn, which cleverly turns its back on Connecticut Avenue, showing that grand boulevard nothing more than a big brick wall.
But for all of that, Rosslyn stands out. Only in Rosslyn can you find, with the exception of one or two stunted ones in the lobbies, no trees. Only in Rosslyn can you find streets that cannot be crossed and buildings with no known entrances and sidewalks that are one flight into the air. It is an area with almost no restaurants and no stores and none of the amenities of a real city. It has no night life whatsover. It is a filing cabinet for office workers, a place that depresses the spirit. It is a very special place.
But I go there because the place is in the news and I have always wanted to go there but really I go because of a phone call. A man called about something and we chatted and it turns out he works in Rosslyn. I was fascinated and I told him so and I asked him what it was like.He tells me it's horrible. See for yourself, he says. And so I go.
I take the subway and I come out of the ground and walk to 19th and Moore streets. I start there and I walk around and I go up to Rosslyn Alley and then follow the sign to Pomponio Plaza, named for the developers who were convicted of tax fraud, and not, as you might have guessed, bad taste. Somewhere on the way, things go wrong and I get into some passageway where the water leaks and the cement is chipped and the cars are parked. It go into a building and it is a government building - the Navy is there.
The more I walk around Rosslyn, the more I notice how much of it the government has rented -- the Navy and the State Department and the Defense Intelligence Agency. The same government that now wants Rosslyn to tone down its image has rented acres of the place. It has contributed to this ugliness, aided and abetted the growth of this monstrosity and now, too late, it wants some moderation. It cannot be done.
So build it higher. Make it a monument to avarice and greed and bad planning, not to mention the federal government's refined sense of esthetics. Build it high and build it well and then come here, as I have done, and stay until night when the people leave and the lights go out and there is no one left. Then you will realize that, for all its newness, it reminds you of a place you have been before.