- The Washington Times - Friday, March 17, 2006

At long last, Washington has a building by the brilliant Robert Venturi. The new research library at Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown bears all the hallmarks of the Venturi style: a deep understanding of history and context and a gentle tweaking of tradition.

The Pritzker Prize-winning architect and his wife, Denise Scott Brown, who head the Philadelphia firm Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, have previously designed projects in Washington that have been rejected or compromised. They include Freedom Plaza on Pennsylvania Avenue, a park meant to have pylons and miniatures of the White House and Capitol that were never built.

At Dumbarton Oaks, Mr. Venturi was able to realize more fully the ideas he has developed since publishing his groundbreaking 1966 treatise, “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.” This book shook the foundations of modern orthodoxy with the idea that “more is not less” and that architecture could be enriched by a mixture of popular and high-art influences.

Tucked off the driveway leading from the intersection of 32nd and S streets Northwest, the library epitomizes the architect’s long-held belief in the value of background buildings. This being Georgetown, the boxy brick structure is more subdued than earlier works by Mr. Venturi, who compares his research building to a garden wall and a “soft” transition to the historic landscape around it.

Make no mistake: This decorated brick shed is not cutting-edge. Nor does it imitate the past. Mr. Venturi’s subtle architecture, a hybrid of the modern, popular and historical, remains hard to categorize and still can spark controversy.

That is why the decision by Dumbarton Oaks Director Edward Keenan to hire architecture’s senior maverick — Mr. Venturi turns 81 this year — was a bold move. Mr. Keenan could have chosen a strict revivalist to please Georgetown residents worried that a contemporary building might intrude on the historic property. (He did start out with the idea of an underground library, which was scuttled.) Or he could have selected a young turk more palatable to the Commission of Fine Arts, whose director at the time, J. Carter Brown, opposed Mr. Venturi’s “industrial” aesthetic. (After Mr. Brown’s death in 2002, committee members approved the scheme.)

Instead, because it tapped Mr. Venturi, Dumbarton Oaks has a postmodern icon worthy of its tradition of design patronage. The library, while architecturally significant, is unpretentious and reflects Mr. Venturi’s knack for contextual suggestion. “Making it contextual does not mean making it just like the buildings around it,” the architect said by telephone. “Harmony can derive from contrast as well as analogy, or be a combination.”

Playing up the tension between difference and deference, the red brick library is placed behind an existing brick greenhouse, which now serves as a reading room and frontispiece. The new facade behind the old pavilion is vintage Venturi, a billboard decorated with patterns inspired by Dumbarton Oaks’ pre-Columbian and Byzantine artifacts. A long strip of windows at the top funnels daylight into corridors and stairwells.

Although the library is five stories, the architect reduced its apparent size by nestling the structure into a dell. Seen from the courtyard in front of the greenhouse, the building appears to be two stories. In the back, the building and surrounding stone terraces extend four stories into the downward part of the slope (another level is built underground). Here, the rear walls are stepped in sympathy with the contours of the hillside and in contrast to the flat front. This discontinuity is another familiar Venturi technique.

Tall windows pepper the back side, including some that meet at the corners to provide sunny nooks for carrels. Wide bands of limestone, an oversized recall of the moldings on neighboring buildings, further reduce the bulk. The overall effect is more severe and less engaging than the ornamented front.

Inside the $18 million library, which is used by scholars and not open to the public, the spaces are open and well-lit, with book stacks clustered in the center of each level. Cork floors and sturdy oak furniture contribute to the no-nonsense feeling of a schoolroom.

By hiring Mr. Venturi to design the library, Dumbarton Oaks also benefited from the planning and preservation expertise of Ms. Scott Brown to improve its campus, which was in need of a major overhaul. “We were an institution stuffed into an old mansion,” Mr. Keenan says. “We had to modernize everything.”

Most of the structures on the property date to the days of Robert and Mildred Bliss, who bought the estate in 1920 and, two decades later, bequeathed it to Harvard for use as a research center.

Over the years, the Blisses expanded their Georgetown acreage with designs reflective of a strong commitment to quality. Pioneering landscape designer Beatrix Farrand shaped the spectacular gardens. McKim, Mead and White, the New York firm responsible for Memorial Bridge, added the Neo-Georgian outbuildings that flank the new library. In the 1960s, architect Philip Johnson expanded the mansion with a domed pavilion well-suited for exhibiting smaller artifacts.

As part of its charge, the Venturi, Scott Brown team collaborated with D.C. preservationist Mary Oehrlein to revamp several of the McKim, Mead and White structures around the library. The original chauffeur’s house was turned into a dining room and meeting space, which is enlivened with a mural of big flowers that Venturi, Scott Brown originally devised for a 1970s Best Products showroom near Philadelphia.

The magnificent greenhouse on the opposite side of the courtyard also was restored and, next to the library, the gardener’s cottage was converted into offices for building operations and maintenance staff. (Renovations of the main house and Johnson-designed gallery also are under way.)

Knitting the structures together are well-placed pathways and outdoor spaces, shaped with the help of Annapolis landscape architect James Urban. Between the library and the original gardener’s cottage is a limestone-lined passageway with a bench. Inscribed on the wall is a quotation from a letter Mildred Bliss wrote during World War II to a Harvard official: “If ever the humanities were necessary … it is in this epoch of disintegration and dislocation.”

Her prophetic words resonate today, just as Mr. Venturi’s architecture does in the current era of artistic disunity. The new research library at Dumbarton Oaks underscores the necessity for both contextual and inventive design and more Washington institutions willing to invest in American originality.

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