- The Washington Times - Friday, June 10, 2005

Washington has squashed two museum additions by internationally celebrated architects in the past few weeks. First, it was the Frank Gehry wing at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Then, the National Capital Planning Commission nixed a curvy glass canopy designed by Sir Norman Foster of London-based Foster and Partners. The contemporary enclosure was to crown the courtyard of the U.S. Patent Office building, home to the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery. It was part of an extensive renovation of the mid-1800s building that is estimated to cost about $217 million.

The demise of these projects underscores the city’s conservatism when it comes to architecture. The larger problem, however, may be relying on star power to repeat past successes of building projects in other cities instead of coming up with truly imaginative designs supportive of our own.

Far from being visionary, the selections of Mr. Gehry and Mr. Foster, who are part of the architectural establishment, evidenced a conformist, me-too mentality. They aimed to copy costly blockbuster architecture that has turned a number of European cities into cultural tourism meccas.

The choices also reflect timidity on the part of the Corcoran and Smithsonian to embrace true design innovation. Instead of tapping lesser-known or younger talents who might develop more imaginative solutions, these institutions jumped onto the bandwagon of big-name architecture.

Far gutsier was the U.S. General Services Administration’s hiring of Los Angeles architect Thom Mayne to design a satellite facility for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, nearing completion in Suitland.

Mr. Mayne received the commission well before he won this year’s Pritzker Prize, considered architecture’s top honor.

To seasoned architecture watchers, the contemporary designs by Mr. Gehry and Mr. Foster were not groundbreaking but mere variations on familiar themes.

As the locals often say, first-rate architects usually do second-rate work here. By doing so, they have put some of our most important cultural assets at risk.

Mr. Gehry’s metallic swirls at the Corcoran, while new for Washington, looked like fragments from his Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. In fact, the Los Angeles architect was hired in the hopes of generating the “Bilbao effect,” the term used to describe the tourism boomlet generated by the Basque museum. His addition was shelved when the Corcoran’s board of trustees finally concluded it was too expensive.

Foster and Partners’ undulating glass roof at the Patent Office building also was meant to draw crowds. Its design is similar to the canopy erected by the London firm at the British Museum, but less finely grained in its structural mesh. The emphasis here was curiously placed on the immense covering rather than the space of the courtyard where events will be staged and visitors will gather.

Building such “star-chitecture,” i.e., a bricks-and-mortar equivalent to designer jeans, is meant to attract attention and admiration, but when significant historic buildings are at stake, as is often the case in Washington, that strategy often backfires.

Last week, the National Capital Planning Commission wisely rejected the Foster-designed canopy as too high and intrusive. “The problem is the visibility of that arched roof over the existing roofline of the Patent Office,” commission chairman John Cogbill said over the telephone. “It’s a baroque dome over an American Greek Revival building. That’s problematic from our point of view.”

The work of several architects, the Patent Office took more than three decades to build after President Andrew Jackson selected a design in 1836. Primarily responsible were Robert Mills, who worked on the Washington Monument, and Thomas U. Walter, famous for the Capitol dome.

In hovering 15 feet above the old building’s south pediment, the Foster-designed “magic carpet,” as the architect called his glass-and-steel creation, would have detracted from one of the nation’s finest examples of neoclassical architecture and Washington’s third-oldest building.

When illuminated at night, the canopy’s deep grid would have been particularly visible over the Patent Office’s pediments. The heavy steel structure threatened to dominate — and diminish — the dignified neoclassical structure.

The Smithsonian, which has stopped work on the project, expects to go back to the commission within the next few months with a “modified” design from Foster and Partners, according to a spokeswoman. The setback is expected to add more than $8 million to the project’s costs for architects’ and contractors’ fees, storage of building materials and contractual construction penalties. it is not expected to interfere with the scheduled reopening of the museums in July 2006.

Unfortunately, some historic elements of the Patent Office building already have been destroyed.

The Smithsonian was so star-struck by Mr. Foster that it ripped up the central courtyard to make way for eight columns to support his canopy and an underground auditorium. The demolition was undertaken in July 2003 without proper review by government agencies responsible for planning and historic preservation.

That has “led to the irrevocable loss of character-defining elements of the Patent Office Building,” the National Capital Planning Commission noted in its findings.

The commission recommends that the courtyard be put back in order, including reinstatement of two historic cast-iron fountains that were removed to facilitate construction of an underground auditorium. According to a Smithsonian spokeswoman, progress is already being made on its refurbishment with the help of a noted Seattle landscape architect.

A staircase on the south facade, removed during the last century, also will be reconstructed. Such elements will help repair the damage already done.

Still remaining is the challenge of reconfiguring the Foster-designed canopy so it complements the old Patent Office building. The Smithsonian would be well-advised to rub the stardust from its eyes and proceed with a more reticent and respectful design.

There is no question that the city lacks inspiring contemporary architecture, but judging by the setbacks at the Corcoran and the Smithsonian, additions to treasured landmarks aren’t the right places to put it.

More appropriate locations abound for advancing the cause of fresh design in free-standing buildings. They include the site of the old Washington Convention Center, the new Nationals ballpark and blocks along the Anacostia riverfront, poised for redevelopment.

The city should seize these opportunities to create contemporary architecture that is both visually stunning and urban-sensitive. And it should look for new “stars” to do it.


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