Many architects merely shrug their shoulders after learning that one of their creations might be demolished, figuring there’s not much they can do to save the building.
Not Cesar Pelli.
The New Haven, Conn.-based architect flew into Washington this week to draw up plans for preserving one of his earliest designs, the aluminum-clad Comsat Laboratories building on Interstate 270 near Clarksburg, Md.
The 1969 headquarters is being leased by Lockheed Martin Corp., but only through next summer. It may be torn down to make way for about 1,500 housing units and 1 million square feet of offices if the property’s current owner, Berwyn, Pa.-based LCOR Inc., and county officials have their way.
Last year, the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission recommended listing the building and its lawn as a historic landmark, but the county’s planning board voted against the designation in July 2005.
“I was devastated when I heard that the planners decided that Comsat wasn’t worth preserving,” Mr. Pelli says. “The building had a great influence on my work and the work of other architects.”
The 79-year-old architect on Monday walked around the building for the first time since his initial visit nearly four decades ago. “It still looks very fresh and potent,” he maintains.
Mr. Pelli spent part of his two-day visit sketching alongside local architects, preservationists, residents and community activists in a classroom at Montgomery College in Rockville. The planning workshop, held from June 3 through 6, was organized by the nonprofit group Montgomery Preservation Inc. to propose ways of reusing the satellite research headquarters and integrating it into a larger mixed-use development.
Interviewed at the college, Mr. Pelli said this was the first time he had participated in an effort to save one of his buildings.
No strong, single vision emerged from the four-day workshop, but several site plans showed that the mix of residential and commercial structures suggested by LCOR Inc. easily could be built around the Comsat building without impinging on its frontage along I-270.
One of the more persuasive concepts was developed by a team that included Maryland architects Miche Booz and Shorieh Talaat. They organized their plan around the idea of a “new urbanist” town with buildings densely arranged around a central boulevard extending to a future light-rail transit stop. Homes to the east of the preserved Comsat building, away from I-270, would connect to adjacent subdivisions. Office buildings would bookend the site’s north and south ends near new roads.
As for preserving the Comsat building, Mr. Pelli suggested that only the oldest, 1960s section facing I-270 need be saved. Pointing to his blue-and-yellow sketch, the famous architect explained that the silvery blocks built around courtyards and linked by a glassy bridge could be recycled into office space. An older portion of the building on the east side, which originally housed an auditorium and dining facility, would make a “fantastic” community center, he said. The cylindrical exhibit pavilion near the north entrance, used to display satellites, also could remain as a reminder of Comsat’s history.
In a lecture Tuesday evening, Mr. Pelli underscored the historic importance of the 1969 building and its continuing relevance to his architecture. He noted that its organization of lab wings extending from a central corridor influenced several of his later designs, including Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
Its experimental aluminum sheathing, in turn, led Mr. Pelli and other architects to develop more sophisticated building skins of stainless steel and other metals.
The speech by the Argentine-born architect came after Montgomery Preservation Inc.’s annual awards ceremony, bringing into sharp relief the difference between his streamlined modern architecture and the quaint restored barns and cottages that won accolades. “The Comsat building is less than 50 years old,” said Derick Berlage, chairman of the Montgomery County Planning Board, by telephone in explaining the reasons why the board voted against designation. “The county has almost never designated buildings that young.”
Still, it is hard to believe that the planning board did not, as Mr. Berlage put it, “feel that the building rose to the level of historic quality that merited designation.” Mr. Pelli’s presentation only reinforced the cultural significance of this early telecommunications research facility and its groundbreaking modern design.
Still to be convinced of the building’s merits is LCOR Vice President Mike Smith. “It’s a very expensive proposition to reconfigure the [existing] building,” said Mr. Smith, who did not attend the planning workshop. However, the developer said he was open to discussions “to see what compromises could be made” and is willing to consider development alternatives.
The Montgomery County Council has the final say on historic designation of Comsat, but according to council spokesman Patrick Lacefield, it has no plans to put the issue on its upcoming agenda. Representatives of Preservation Maryland and the National Trust for Historic Preservation met last month with County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who has been opposed to preserving Comsat, to make a case for saving the postwar building.
Both owner and county officials should take a hard look at the creative and practical ideas proposed by Mr. Pelli and other participants at this week’s grass-roots workshop. Though far from definitive, their marker and crayon drawings prove that new development and historic preservation can co-exist comfortably on the Comsat site as they do elsewhere in Montgomery County.
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