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The 14th Street approach to the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center offers a panoramic frontal view of the 3-million-square foot complex. (Photos by James M. Thresher, The Washington Post)

Reagan Building Does Its Namesake Proud

In Profile: Ronald Reagan Building

Covers 7.7 acres at the basement level, making it the largest government building except for the Pentagon.

Provides offices for the Environmental Protection Agency, the Agency for International Development, the Customs Service and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, as well as government and commercial offices dealing with international trade.

Includes ballrooms, two auditoriums, a food court, cafes and restaurant.

Has tunnels connecting the building to the Federal Triangle Metro stop, the Department of Commerce and the Customs Service Building.

Has parking for 1,900 cars.

Source: General Services Administration

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 16, 1997; Page F01

The air around the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, the second-largest federal building ever, remains thick with construction dust. But the exterior architectural effect is by now sharp and clear.

As befits its monumental surroundings, the building is dignified and impressive. It wears its size well. The walls of Indiana limestone are a crisp new take on Washington's familiar classicism. The design lacks daring, but brims with intelligence. The massive domed corner piece, in particular, is a memorable form. Sober rather than soaring, conservative rather than avant-garde, the architecture brings to a fitting conclusion the 70-year saga of the Federal Triangle, one of the largest peacetime building projects undertaken by the government.

Because the building is not complete, a couple of key questions still hang in the dusty air. The great public spaces inside and outside the august walls will not truly welcome the public for many months. What will they look like, and how will people take to them? The building's unusual mix of uses -- federal offices, trade-related private-sector tenants, restaurants, fast-food eateries, auditoriums, meeting rooms and exhibition halls -- remains untested. Will this mix contribute significantly to downtown's vitality, or will it siphon people south of Pennsylvania Avenue, never to be seen downtown again?

It will be years before we know all the answers to such questions. Meanwhile, the immense edifice will not be going anywhere. It occupies most of an oddly shaped 11-acre lot facing Pennsylvania Avenue and 14th Street NW. By next year it will house more than 5,000 government employees and, it is hoped, attract thousands of visitors. Most of the land it stands on was long reserved for a formally planted public park, although the Great Plaza, as it was named in the original Federal Triangle plan, became a long-lasting eyesore -- Washington's largest surface parking lot.

The building's lead architect, James Ingo Freed of the New York firm of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners (working in collaboration with the Washington office of Ellerbe Becket Architects), defines its exterior as "a contemporary reading of the neoclassical style." That is precisely the case -- the design, adhering rigorously to guidelines established by the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. in the late '80s, was calculated to complement its neighbors, erected in the '20s and '30s as the last gasp of the City Beautiful movement.

Details on the building.
Hence the matching cornice lines, belt courses, tile roofs and limestone walls, whose blocks were excavated from the same quarries. Hence, too, the organization of the facades into three distinct layers of base, middle and top, and the stylistic rhythms of classical columns and pilasters.

But if the big building fits right in, it is also remarkably different from its neighbors. Freed's version of the classical style is dry enough to purse the lips. It makes the adjacent District Building, completed in 1908 with an elaborate program of allegorical decoration, look like an extravagant wedding cake. Even the Commerce Department facade across 14th Street, with its understated panoply of classical motifs, looks ripe by comparison.

There are no stone lion heads atop Freed's building, no lengthy inscriptions, no triglyphs and metopes, no swags or shields or egg-and-dart moldings -- none of the devices classical architects customarily deploy (as York and Sawyer did at the Commerce Department building) to give meaning, scale and texture to their buildings. Rather, there are flat planes of stone and sharp, deep recesses -- wall and window, sunlight and shadow. The only inscription tells the building's name. The Doric-like columns have minimalist capitals (and the curiously puffy stone bases). The pilasters are topped with stepped stones that look as if they were waiting for a stone carver.

The Reagan Building's entrance at 13th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
There is more than a hint of a modern architect's pride in this reductive dismissal of classical norms -- Freed simply refused to design "decorated moldings," as he once said. This did not not save the design from a certain academicism; Freed played by the rules. Fortunately, he played exceptionally well: His classicism is built upon the sturdy foundation of forcefully organized, convincingly sculptural elevations.

Major moves, of course, were reserved for the appropriate places, but even the 13 1/2 Street facade -- a secondary piece, where the new building steps around the District Building -- is distinguished by a simple, graceful arc. The symmetrical 14th Street front, on the other hand, is a big statement -- a convex wall framed by two pavilion-like end pieces, with a high attic story of solid stone and a strong, almost freestanding centerpiece. Simultaneously, it complements and contrasts with the long, straight Commerce colonnade immediately opposite.

An even bigger statement, however, is that colonnaded semi-cylinder with its dome at 13th Street. In Freed's original competition-winning design of seven years ago, this was a rather conventional device, tall and skinny, like a cupola in a park. As the architects realized how prominent it would be, and how really, really big the building was, the form gradually grew to its present size. The scale is altogether necessary -- now you can see the dome and columns from a distance, and you'll remember.

Much of the authority of Freed's design derives from the tactic of giving strong architectural expression to the various functions of the multipurpose building. The domed corner is the emphatic entryway for the trade center; the end pavilions on 14th Street are separate entrances for the main federal tenants, the Customs Service and the Agency for International Development; a dramatic polygonal pavilion on the east elevation, facing the public plaza (still under construction), is a celebratory piece for a restaurant and world-class reception room; and the subtly curved wall framing the plaza's south side, hardly visible from Pennsylvania Avenue, is for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, with a memorial to the 28th president behind its ground-floor arcade.

These distinctive pieces help to break down the scale of the building and to make it more comprehensible. The key to the entire operation, however, is a brilliant site plan that emphasizes public spaces and connections between them. There are two striking elements -- the long diagonal that breaks the four-square monotony of the plan, sweeping deep into the site from Pennsylvania Avenue; and the pedestrian pathway that leads from 14th Street to the Metro station at 12th Street, passing through the building and under a huge skylighted atrium.

As they are still in the final stages of construction, it is too early to review these elements conclusively. Still to come as well are the art installations -- two in the new plaza, one in the atrium, and the reinstallation of the old Straus Fountain on 14th Street, close to where it stood for more than half a century.

Nonetheless, a few observations are in order. Providing public spaces and connecting them are great contributions, assuring that the building will not resemble the closed world of your run-of-the-mill federal Goliath. In theory, it will be a lively, intensely urban place.

Although just how it will function and feel remains in doubt, the atrium will, willy-nilly, be one of the more spectacular interiors in a city replete with them. Its skylight, in the form of a half-cone laid on its side, is one of those splendid engineering feats, like the tetrahedronal one in I.M. Pei's East Building of the National Gallery. Even in its unfinished state the atrium makes clear that Freed intends a vivid contrast between the inside and outside -- steel and glass modernity enclosed in a package of classical stone.

Even when occupied only by construction workers, the plaza has a good, enveloping feel. Framed on the east by the graceful hemicycle of the existing Ariel Rios Building, by the arced front of the Wilson Center and by the restaurant pavilion, it is oddly shaped. But the oddness is an appealing surprise in a city where symmetry prevails. The theory behind the sharp diagonal wall is that, by narrowing the gap between the Rios and Reagan buildings at Pennsylvania Avenue and then gradually making room for the large plaza, it will entice people to walk into the new space.

It remains a good theory. For the time being, this may be the safest way to look at the building as a whole, but it is hard not to be enthusiastic. The project is extremely rich in promise. It puts a lot of people in the right place, close to downtown's commercial core and mass transit connections. It sets a high standard for public involvement with government buildings and lots -- which are publicly owned spaces, after all. It erases the long embarrassment of that huge surface parking lot, and completes the Federal Triangle in an appealing way. And for all its dry conservatism, its exterior architecture was convincingly conceived for the long haul -- it is subtle, supple and strong.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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