- The Washington Times - Friday, December 15, 2006

An old lion of architecture has roared into town. At age 84, Kevin Roche has breathed new life into old modernism with the glassiest office building in downtown Washington. His elegant design of 1101 New York Ave. NW for the Louis Dreyfus Property Group shimmers like finely cut crystal.

Unlike too many Washington buildings, decorated with fake columns and classical gewgaws, this one has no superfluous details to mar its taut, transparent envelope. Its minimalist allure, allowing for unobstructed views and office floors, has attracted such notable tenants as former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, who heads an international consulting firm and signed a lease last week for 17,000 square feet on the ninth floor, according to the developer.

“You couldn’t get Frank Gehry to design a building like this,” the New Haven, Conn.-based Mr. Roche said during a tour of the 12-story building earlier this fall. Scanning the old convention center site across New York Avenue, he added, “There are so many buildings in Washington that have all kinds of gymnastics that don’t work very well.” Then he pointed to his glass facade, noting, “Years ago, you couldn’t do this.”

Mr. Roche has achieved what early modernists only dreamed about: a glass skin uninterrupted by bulky mullions or opaque horizontal bands, called spandrel panels, which conceal the edges of the floor slabs abutting the facade. In the 1920s, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe proposed this idea in sketches for visionary skyscrapers that stripped tall buildings down to their essence — a structural framework cloaked in a see-through skin. Mundane office buildings, the German architect suggested, could be transformed into awe-inspiring, crystalline cathedrals filled with light.

Technology finally has caught up with Mies. Laminated and insulated, the triple-glazed panels that enclose Mr. Roche’s new office building are larger, stronger and more transparent and durable than the curtain walls of just a few years ago. Bonded to the surface is a “low-emission” coating made of microscopically thin layers of metallic oxide that prevents heat and ultraviolet rays from passing through glass but is nearly imperceptible to the eye.

The curtain wall, however, is not quite a seamless fabric. From the outside, a grid pattern of thin lines covers the slightly bluish-green facade to mark the edges of the glazed panels. Each 11.5-foot-tall-by-5-foot-wide sandwich of glass is set into an aluminum frame. These prefabricated units snap together and then are bolted to the edge of the floor slab. (The manufacturer, Minnesota-based Viracon, also supplied the glass for Seven World Trade Center, a new building north of Manhattan’s ground zero.)

Even with the visible lines, the sheer glass facades appear prismatic and ethereal. No structural supports interfere with their transparency. Columns are set back 22 feet from the perimeter on three sides, and the post-tensioned concrete floors are cantilevered to the edge. This frees up interior space and allows clear views from the street deep into the building.

Transparency, of course, has its drawbacks. Unlike Mies’ paper architecture, this see-through building will showcase the messy reality of people and their possessions — not always a pretty picture. Also, because there are no spandrel panels, the edges of the slabs making up the floors and ceilings remain visible. Mr. Roche compensated for this by slanting the ceiling plenum at a 45-degree angle from the perimeter wall. Window shades, currently rolled up and covered in plastic, will further shield the ceiling planes and interiors from view.

As in a true modern building, form follows function. The center bay in the side facing I Street and New York Avenue Northwest is recessed to mark the entrance and allow light to penetrate open office areas. The corners are notched to accommodate corridors that run the entire length of the floors, in front of private offices at the perimeter, to provide the hallways with windows and views. It’s a winning formula for the developer and also for the streetscape in breaking up the building’s boxy shape while allowing it to remain simple and bold.

Yet this is no crystal cathedral; the building is as stubby as any office building in Washington. Beneath the glass shaft is a clunky pedestal of storefronts and muddy-colored granite walls that do nothing to enhance the delicate transparency above them. More clumsy still is the oversized stainless-steel-and-glass canopy over the entrance that extends to the second story and overwhelms the granite base.

Growing on top of the stone podium are shrubs that might represent the “greenness” of the building. Among its conservation-minded features are a high-efficiency heating and cooling system, waterless urinals, recycling of storm water and a roof planted with sedum. Given this eco-consciousness, the building is supposed to be awarded with a gold LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating from the U.S. Green Building Council, a high benchmark for environmentally responsible architecture and the first gold for a Washington office building, according to the developer.

Because the building is empty, It remains to be seen how these devices will succeed. Future tenants are beginning to construct their own offices, adding partitions and ceilings to the unfinished spaces. For the next several months, the architecture can be appreciated for its modern purity before it makes visible the signs of human activity inside its glass box.

Long career in glass architecture

For Kevin Roche, winner of the 1982 Pritzker Architecture Prize, the office building at 1101 New York Ave. NW represents another milestone in a long career designing in glass. Mr. Roche, who was born in Dublin, studied at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago under Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. In 1951, he went to work for architect Eero Saarinen, where he met his future business partner, John Dinkeloo.

When Mr. Saarinen died in 1961, Mr. Roche and Mr. Dinkeloo completed many of their employer’s most famous projects, including Washington Dulles International Airport, before starting their own practice. Among the best-known designs by the pair are the Ford Foundation headquarters in New York, which introduced the atrium to modern architecture, and glassy additions to that city’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Over the past four decades, Mr. Roche has used advances in glazing technology, including mirrored, tinted and fritted glass, to shape sculptural, light-reflective buildings. Even in his 80s, the architect has continued to experiment. He first tried out a version of the curtain wall at 1101 New York Ave. NW in a sprawling office complex next to Union Station that was completed last year. Called Station Place, it houses the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The entrance is marked by a dramatic cable-supported glass wall curving in two directions.

Mr. Roche’s next glassy building in Washington will be built at 17th and H streets Northwest and is expected to be completed in 2008.

Does all this transparency mean the octogenarian architect has returned to his modern roots? “I try not to look back,” he says. “I like to do the right thing for the right place in the right moment. Architecture is really a service to the owner and the community. It isn’t an opportunity to bare your soul.”

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