- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 10, 2008

Shingles, staples of home construction, cover one of the most striking new structures in downtown. They aren’t made of small squares of wood but huge, overlapping panes of glass to create a light-reflective skin of transparent scales.

This unusual cladding wraps around 1099 New York Ave. NW, an 11-story office building across the street from the old Rockefeller Center.

Mr. Phifer, a modernist whose projects include expanding the North Carolina Museum of Art, has propelled the current fascination with glass sheathing in a more sculptural direction. “I wanted to show how thick the pane of glass really is by throwing it out of plane,” the 55-year-old architect said on a recent visit to Washington. “The glass is not flush [with the wall] to look like a slick surface as in most buildings.”

His rhythmic pattern of canted panes updates the most significant feature of a modern office building - the nonstructural cladding known as a curtain wall - from flat to three-dimensional. The sloping, glass shingles overlap each other vertically and horizontally. They are edged in aluminum and affixed by metal clips to an inner curtain wall of glass panels set into an aluminum framework. From the outside, this supportive facade is practically invisible, so the shingles appear like they are floating.

The layered treatment is made possible by newer glass technologies allowing for larger, clearer and more energy-efficient panes than those of the past. Each of the shingles, measuring 12 feet by 5 1/2 feet, is made of low-iron, insulated glass to appear clearer than the glazing of just a few years ago.

These advancements, combined with the modernist design trend in architecture, have resulted in nearly two dozen glass-covered buildings under way or recently completed downtown. However, few of them are as elegant as 1099 New York Ave.

On the adjacent block is a cousin to Mr. Phifer’s design that is similarly fitted with floor-to-ceiling glazing uninterrupted by mullions and opaque spandrel panels. Designed by Louis Dreyfus Property Group, the flat glass facades of 1101 New York Ave. NW are as polished as those of its new neighbor but unfortunately extend from an incongruous stone podium.

Directly north of Mr. Phifer’s shingled building, at 1050 K St., is a less entrancing glass-clad office building nearing completion. It is designed by the Washington firm Hickok Cole Architects for the Lenkin and Tower companies. Facades of blue-tinted glass, metal mullions and canopies look busy and old-fashioned compared to Mr. Phifer’s more ethereal, transparent facades.

Across New York Avenue on the 11th Street end of the old convention center site, even more glass-sheathed architecture is in the works. A pair of streamlined office blocks designed by British superstar Archstone-Smith are due to break ground next year.

Together, these office buildings will represent Washington at its most physically transparent.

Mr. Phifer’s architecture stands out from this group in its see-through sophistication, but its glass shingles aren’t an entirely new invention - similar wall systems have been applied to contemporary art museums in Switzerland. Nevertheless, the continuously overlapping panes are a particularly good choice for our height-constrained city in making the 11-story building seem taller than it is. Climbing the building from base to top, they underscore the vertical dimension and the building’s angular profile as it turns the corner from 11th Street onto New York Avenue.

From a distance, the shingles appear flat with their rows corresponding to each of the building’s 11 stories. Their slight projection from the building face is best appreciated close up, particularly at the intersections of the angular walls where the shingles project free of the facade.

A parapet of clear glass panels set into aluminum struts extends the transparency above the top story, but it does nothing to hide a large, boxy penthouse for mechanical equipment on the roof. This bulky enclosure, while unavoidable, distracts from the crisp lightness of the facades.

The building’s east and north sides, which face alleyways and neighboring structures, also disappoint in their conventional cladding of dark gray brick and horizontal strip windows. At least the change is well marked by a vertical strip of glass separating the shingles from the brick.

Inside the building, where six of the 11 floors are now occupied by the Jenner & Block law firm, the floor-to-ceiling panes make for light-filled offices and panoramic views, but their overlap is hardly noticeable. Some of aluminum-wrapped edges of the inch-thick shingles are visible from the offices to appear as mullions and the angled wall supporting the shingles is evident in sawtooth-shaped window sills.

On the ground level, the building seduces with a minimalist lobby resembling an art gallery. Perhaps this all-white space is Mr. Phifer’s ode to his former employer, New York architect Richard Meier, who is renowned for pristine, neo-Corbusian architecture, which the younger architect helped to design.

Beckoning from the rear of the lobby is a backlit mural articulated by British-born artist Matthew Ritchie with amoebalike shapes and scribblings to supply the only color in the room. The glowing screen is made of lenticular acrylic, a material familiar from 3-D postcards, so that its images appear to move and change as they are viewed from different angles, much like the shingles on the outside of the building.

A welcome change from the bland, corporate pieces typical of Washington office buildings, it reflects the interests of New York developer Museum of Modern Art’s board of trustees.

In Washington, Tishman Speyer is continuing to up the design ante by hiring other baby-boomer talents from outside the city. The developer recently tapped Chicago-based Krueck & Sexton Architects to design a pair of chamfered office buildings now rising at First and L streets Northeast in the city’s NoMA district.

Of course, the walls are being built of glass.

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