As a recent D.C. transplant, I really enjoy your articles. Have you ever done one on the Intelsat building? And is it ever open for tours?
— Ann Brooke, Washington
Answer Man has always thought that the Intelsat building, at 4000 Connecticut Ave. NW, looks like something from orbit: Skylab brought to Earth or the set of “Space: 1999.” This seems appropriate, given its founding tenant.
The International Telecommunications Satellite Organization was created in 1964, an outgrowth of Comsat. While Comsat handled commercial satellite telecommunications tasks for the United States, Intelsat was created to offer these services to the countries of the world, especially those who couldn’t afford to launch their own satellites.
In 1965, Intelsat launched its first satellite: Early Bird. In the decades since, satellites have proliferated. There are around 1,000 in orbit, 52 of them Intelsat’s. Together, these sophisticated machines beam us data, sound and images; snap photos; and keep us from getting lost.
In its early days, Intelsat was headquartered in L’Enfant Plaza. But by the late 1970s, it was clear it needed a bigger space. An international competition was held to design the company’s new digs. Among the requirements: that the building be full of natural light and that it be energy efficient. An Australian architect named John Andrews was the winner.
From Andrews’s pen came a collection of octagonal “pods” — eventually 13 in all — arranged around glass-topped atriums. Circular stairways are housed in cylinders that rise like methane-mining rigs on some distant planet. Nearly everything is clad in shiny silver or brushed aluminum. Bits that aren’t are exposed concrete.
When the modernist design was unveiled in 1980, The Post’s Wolf Von Eckardt raved: “Human comfort, energy efficiency and respect for the site and cityscape are not separate features of his building, but the elements and functions that form the design.”
Von Eckardt preferred the Intelsat campus to the buildings of the University of the District of Columbia next door. Those, he wrote, suffered from Washington’s vogue for institutional buildings to be “as gravely monumental, ponderous, heavy and Pharaonic as possible.” (That was before architect Michael Marshall’s more welcoming UDC Student Center was completed in 2015.)
Not everyone agreed. When the Intelsat building was finally completed in 1985, it proved polarizing. Some critics complained that while it wouldn’t have looked out of place in a suburban office park, it was incongruous among the office and apartment blocks of the District.
Post architecture critic Benjamin Forgey called it “without question the most provocative building ever to wind its way up a Washington hill. The fact that it is the only office building ever to wind its way up a Washington hill is only part of its provocation.” (The site rises 40 feet in elevation from east to west.)
Forgey compared the Intelsat building to the Pompidou Center in Paris in its desire to make a statement.
What did the people who worked in it think of it?
“The people really loved the facility,” said Peggy Slye, an Intelsat employee from 1984 to 2006. “They loved the design and many of the special features. Offices faced either into an atrium or out to the outside. Everybody had exposure to natural light.”
The atriums boasts water features that help moderate temperatures. There are lots of plants, too, inside and on the roof.
Jane Kinzie, who worked at Intelsat from 1973 to 1995, said it was a good building to get exercise in. This was inevitable: The pod arrangement meant it took a lot of walking to get to a different department.
In 2014, Intelsat — by then a private company — moved to a new, high-rise building in Tysons Corner, Va. “Our old building was architecturally interesting, but it really was designed for a different era,” then-CEO David McGlade told The Post. “It was designed in pods, so what it did basically is isolate functional groups from each other and it reduced the interaction, the creativity and the opportunity really to work together in ways that are more appropriate for modern business.”
The Embassy of Cameroon and a medical training facility for MedStar are still tenants, but they’ll be moving out before long. The distinctive building is in the process of being transformed into a global private school by education entrepreneur Chris Whittle that’s set to open next year.
Italian architect Renzo Piano has reworked the interior as classrooms and dorms for 2,500 students ages 3 to 18. Piano has also designed another Whittle School & Studios building and campus in Shenzhen, China.
Whittle said he thinks a school is a fitting second act for the Intelsat building.
“For sure we will give tours,” he wrote in an email he sent from China. “We recognize that the Intelsat building is ‘owned’ by the D.C. community (everyone seems to know it). As soon as the rehab is done, we would be thrilled to open it for frequent community tours.
Whittle added: “We see this great city as a campus and it is only right that we reciprocate.”
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For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/people/john-kelly.