The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

There’s a new copper canyon in downtown Washington

Vertical copper accents adorn the new Embassy of Australia at 16th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW, one of several recent buildings to feature the building material. It is the work of the Australian firm Bates Smart, with associate architect KCCT of Washington. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

People use all sorts of metaphors to describe buildings. Le Corbusier said a house was a machine for living in. Some wag once joked that the Kennedy Center was the box the Lincoln Memorial came in. After seeing two new downtown office buildings, I’ve started thinking of one as the grown-up version of the other.

The baby building is the new Australian Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue at 16th Street NW. I imagine that when it grows up, it will look like Midtown Center, which was completed in 2018 three blocks away on 15th at L streets NW.

What strikes me about both of these buildings are the vertical copper accents. On the Australian Embassy, the vertical ribs are the russet color of new copper, just aborning. On Midtown Center, the multiple panels are green, like copper that’s aged after exposure to the elements.

You may not care for their modern design, but I think you’ll agree they’re similar. That’s not unusual. Like musicians who grow up listening to the same popular songs or become excited by a new instrument — the synthesizer! Auto-Tune! — and incorporate those styles and tools into their own music, so architects dip into similar pools of inspiration.

That’s especially true with classical buildings, of which Washington has plenty.

“There are a great deal of rules,” said Eric Jenkins, an architect and visiting lecturer at the University of Maryland and the Maryland Institute College of Art.

“It’s almost a grammar,” Jenkins said. “You have to follow the grammar. If you don’t follow the grammar you can tell. Most architects in Washington, D.C. — most classical architects — follow the rules very clearly. They know how to adapt them to different situations.”

Over the decades, architects in Washington have paid homage to some of the world’s best-known buildings, adding a few tweaks of their own.

“Apparently, the portico of the National Portrait Gallery is a lift of the Parthenon of Athens,” Jenkins said. “The front of the Supreme Court building is the Maison Carrée in Nîmes, France, enlarged.”

Seriously, Google it. The resemblance is amazing.

A classical building telegraphs its intentions pretty clearly: Here is a serious place, a place of refined culture or sober jurisprudence.

“There is an idea that it goes back to something that unites us all,” Jenkins said. “It’s not just a style. It’s about maintaining a cultural heritage.”

Of course, these two new buildings are pretty far from the Supreme Court or National Gallery in their designs. And that’s where advances in construction techniques and materials come in. The modern office building can have something both Midtown Center and the Australian Embassy share: thin, taut glass exterior walls that are hung like curtains. This allows architects to create as much floor space as possible — thick walls eat up space — and in a height-restricted city like D.C., space is at a premium.

Then there’s the copper.

“We’re seeing more copper these days,” said architect Mike Hickok of D.C. firm Hickok Cole.

He should know. His firm did 1701 Rhode Island Ave. NW, which features shiny copper horizontal and vertical accents that remind me of lizard skin.

While copper has long been used for roofs — the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building has a wonderful copper dome — it isn’t the easiest material to work with for facades. It can corrode when in contact with other metals. And over time, copper develops a patina, that verdigris color you may or may not like.

The copper on Midtown Center has been pre-patinated. The 14-story building was designed by SHoP Architects. The copper facade, SHoP partner Gregg Pasquarelli told the Arch20 website, is “a subtle, 21st century interpretation of a material associated with the great architectural heritage of D.C.”

It’s certainly the same color as Washington’s many statues.

Hickok said architects are always thinking symbolically, even if that isn’t always apparent to the people who see their buildings. His firm designed the NPR headquarters on North Capitol Street. That building also has vertical accents: fins made of colored glass spaced at different intervals. Hickok said they represent a diagram of a sound wave, the way it compresses and expands.

The Australian Embassy was designed by Aussie firm Bates Smart, with associate architect KCCT of Washington. Bates Smart director Kristen Whittle wrote on the company’s website that those copper ribs — which have been treated to stay that color — help to evoke the light and desert landscape of Australia.

All good architecture has a thoughtful reason behind it, said Hickok.

“It may not always be evident, but it doesn’t have to be,” he said. “It’s like a work of modern art. You like it or you don’t like it without necessarily knowing what the artist thought.”

I like these two buildings.

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