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Four buildings in Crystal City are covered in bright fabric. Why?

D.C.-based artist Tim Doud created two works for buildings owned by developer JBG Smith in Crystal City, including a blue-and-white harlequin design with orange rectangles.
D.C.-based artist Tim Doud created two works for buildings owned by developer JBG Smith in Crystal City, including a blue-and-white harlequin design with orange rectangles. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

Crystal City has become Christo City.

I don’t mean that literally. The Bulgarian artist, who with his wife, Jeanne-Claude, was famed for enshrouding massive structures in plastic sheathing hasn’t come to the Arlington County neighborhood, but four buildings there have received a fresh coat of . . . what is it, exactly?

“It’s like a mesh, a nylon mesh,” said Brian Coulter, chief development officer at JBG Smith, the developer that in February finished draping four of its buildings in colorful outerwear.

Each building is 12 to 14 stories high, and the structures are swathed in 329,808 square feet of material.

“We needed to have something a little porous,” Coulter said. “We didn’t want it to act like a sail. We didn’t want our buildings to blow away.”

Frankly, it might have saved them a bit of money if the buildings had blown away. They’re probably going to be demolished eventually. Three of the four sit empty as JBG Smith works on a plan to enliven its portfolio in Crystal City.

“In our world of development, things take a long time from conception to design to getting approval,” Coulter said. “It can be five years, even when you’re in a hurry. We have some great plans. In the meantime, what are some other things we can be doing to demonstrate a commitment to change?”

What JBG Smith decided to do: commission works from two artists that — once fabricated by Britten, a banner company in Michigan — could be attached by anchor bolts to the buildings’ concrete exterior.

D.C. painter Tim Doud created a green box with colorful striped skirts at 1750 Crystal Dr. and a blue and white harlequin design with orange rectangles at 223 23rd St. Adrienne Shishko, an artist from Brookline, Mass., made big blue dots at 1800 S. Bell St. and impressionistic colors at 1851 S. Bell St.

“It’s called ‘Urban Camo,’ ” Shishko said of the latter work. “The irony of this is it has a feeling of camouflage, but ironically it stands out in a profound way.”

Neither artist had ever worked on quite so large a canvas. The designs are based on existing — smaller — works that were tweaked through the miracle of software. Shishko’s “Blue Dot” grew from a 24-by-30-inch canvas that incorporated the remnants of sheets of circular stickers.

“It obscures a lot of the building, but the circular forms look like windows and give you a sort of hint of what’s coming next,” she said.

Coulter said JBG Smith gave the artists free rein, though they wanted something that would look good for several years. Also: “We didn’t want anything commercial about it,” he said.

I sometimes think that a banner reading “War Is Peace, Freedom Is Slavery, Ignorance Is Strength” wouldn’t look out of place amid the Brutalism of Crystal City, but on a recent stroll, I saw that there’s quite a lot of fetching art scattered about: in plazas, in lobbies.

“We’ve always done things that are related to the arts,” Coulter said.

And the company is not above a bit of whimsy. It’s JBG Smith that hung a lighted crescent moon from a construction crane near Nationals Park. (The firm has something new planned for this season, Coulter said.)

Doud said the project has been a nice evolution from his earlier style: observational figure paintings. He has been interested in what we wear and how the patterns of clothing, even when abstract, serve as signs.

I asked him whether his works have titles.

“They do, but they’re really opaque,” he said, laughing. The green building is called “RSK (Green),” and the other building is called “PSMP (Orange).”

Each title’s initials probably stand for something, I said.

“It does, but I’m not saying,” Doud said.

At some point, the nylon mesh will have to come down so that the buildings can, too, or so that their exteriors can be substantially reworked. What will happen to the wrap?

“We would love to figure out some way to repurpose it,” Coulter said. “Everyone thinks food bags, or maybe backpacks. It would be fun to do something with it.”

Shishko agrees. She works with recycled materials in her art.

“I would love to have it,” she said. “It’s in strips. I’d love to be able to cut it up and knit it into giant outdoor sculptures. It’s not so clear where I could store it. I’m not sure the volume it takes up.”

A lot, I’m guessing.

Twitter: @johnkelly

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