Wavy oak slats — too many to count — wrap the sprawling new home of the Census Bureau in the southeast corner of the Suitland Federal Center. The seemingly endless rows of big sticks are an apt symbol for the paperloads of statistics kept by “America’s fact finder” in tracking the nation’s people, households and businesses.
The vertical fins serve a practical purpose, too, in shading the windows from the sun and helping disguise the bulk of this 1.5 million-square-foot office complex, which serves nearly 6,000 employees. Seen straight on, the screens look like wobbly bars, but when viewed obliquely, they appear to form a continuous wall of timber.
The illusory trick of making a bureaucratic behemoth look like a pleasant corporate headquarters, a woodsy complex you might expect to find in Minnesota or the Pacific Northwest, is the main achievement of this building. Better up close than from a distance where its vast hulk can be discerned, the structure almost denies its governmental purpose. No official logos mar its textured profile, except for the word “Census” carved out of the wood bars — the only place where their wiggly shapes straighten up — on the frontage along Silver Hill Road.
The building’s tree-hugging, progressive image is intentional, given the increasing competition between the public and private sectors in recruiting and retaining qualified employees. Before moving into its new headquarters this spring, the Census Bureau was hampered by being dispersed within three outdated, barracks-like buildings within the Suitland federal precinct and another three nondescript structures nearby.
The General Services Administration made a solid, albeit safe, choice in selecting the New York office of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill to design the agency’s megacomplex. During the 1960s and ‘70s, the firm established an excellent reputation for modern office buildings, including Chicago’s Sears and John Hancock towers, that it has continued to exploit with such projects such as the disappointing Freedom Tower at New York City’s Ground Zero. The Census Bureau, designed by a team led by Skidmore partners David Childs and Gary Haney, reflects a welcome return to its modernist design roots.
The architects’ smartest decision was to locate the Census Bureau complex on 80 acres next to the Suitland Metro stop and parking garage, so that they are within walking distance from its front door. Another clever move was to reduce the apparent size of the office block by cleaving it into two boomerang-shaped wings splayed around a grassy courtyard. While the outer facades are covered in the timber screens, the inner courtyard walls are sheathed in glass — as if to symbolize bureaucratic transparency. This glazing appears to be unremarkable until you get close and realize that it is subtly patterned with the same wavy shapes as the wood slats.
Minus the oak wrapper, the eight-story structures would be little more than K Street-style office buildings with utilitarian facades of strip windows and sage green-tinted precast concrete. The blond wood screens, which are weathering to a silvery gray in places, help mask and animate what would otherwise be bland architecture. They also symbolize the ecoconsciousness of the building, which incorporates such features as sedum-planted roofs, sunshine-filled work space and climbing ivy on the sides of the parking garages.
The architecture becomes most dynamic inside the courtyard where two-story-high recesses are cut into the glass walls and projecting wood-framed boxes recall puzzle pieces. This rhythmic play of voids and solids within the smoothly curved facades conveys an abstract, lightweight quality in contrast to the more earthbound outer facades with their relentless timber rows. The courtyard’s communal space, however, is largely symbolic since it cannot be reached directly from the spaces around it for security reasons, but only from a walkway outside the building leading through the grass where benches have yet to be installed.
Around the periphery of the paired office wings, which are joined at the ends, smaller pavilions house the lobby, cafeteria, conference hall, auditorium and library. These simple boxes, sheathed in a Brazilian hardwood called ipe, mostly extend toward an adjacent woodland to contribute to the campus feeling. Inside the building, they are connected by an internal “street” that extends the full length of the office block under the courtyard and feels like a passageway inside a mall. Lined on one side with a sculptural mural designed by the architects, the broad, well-lighted corridor leads past a bank, fitness facility, health-care center and other employee amenities.
Within the open office levels, the rounded shape of the building serves to break up the length of the floors by allowing only one curved section to be experienced at a time. Walls painted in vibrant colors and coordinated carpeting mark the elevator cores and conference areas to accentuate distinctive zones within the sea of cubicles. Two-story-high social spaces, housed in the projecting boxes on the courtyard side, avoid the pancake effect of typical office buildings where floors of the same level are stacked on top of one another. Connected by internal staircases, these airy, wood-lined suites combine meeting spaces with lounges and kitchenettes and allow employees to reach the next floor up or down without using the elevator.
Furnished with modular desks and partitions, office bullpens are designed to be moved and reconfigured in order to accommodate the staff expansion required of the bureau’s census-taking every 10 years. Under-floor air diffusers for heating and cooling the spaces can be repositioned, and artificial lighting automatically adjusts to the daylight present inside the building to sustain a constant level of illumination. Inverting the typical office arrangement, the cubicles are lined up against the windows with private offices located in the core of the 82-foot-wide floors. Along the outer perimeter, the vertical oak fins visible through the glass recall jail-cell bars. While meant to be eco-friendly, they unintentionally symbolize the high security now required of government buildings.