Saturday, July 21, 2007

Topped by satellite dishes and antennae, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration’s new operations facility in Suitland, which was officially dedicated by the feds last month, announces its mission with bold clarity. This industrial-style building with “NOAA” spelled out in big, slanted letters, is where essential information related to weather and climate is collected and distributed round-the-clock, every day of the year.

Two of its floors resemble a Cape Canaveral-style mission control center with huge projection screens and a glass-enclosed observation booth. Another level is entirely devoted to the supercomputers needed to process data and imagery used for tracking cloud cover, hurricanes and global warming.

The importance of these technical spaces to NOAA’s operations could have resulted in a drab, utilitarian bunker. Instead, architect Thom Mayne of the Los Angeles-based firm Morphosis (and the 2005 Pritzker Prize laureate), put his machine aesthetic to good use in designing a dynamic metaphor for the agency’s monitoring of sky and Earth. This 208,000-square-foot showpiece for 550 employees at the northwestern corner of the Suitland Federal Center not only elevates NOAA’s profile, but the level of architectural design within this suburban precinct of mostly warehouse-style buildings.

Mr. Mayne was selected under the General Services Administration’s Design Excellence Program, established in 1994 to improve upon the atrocious quality of government buildings. The program is intended to follow the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1962 “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture” in promoting the country’s top design talents and avoiding an official style. (Full disclosure: In the past, I served as a program “peer” in advising the GSA on a few building projects.) Criticized for being too ambitious and star-focused, the program has been undergoing re-evaluation since the 2005 departure of GSA’s chief architect, Edward Feiner, who was largely responsible for its success.

At NOAA, Mr. Mayne collaborated with Einhorn Yaffee Prescott Architecture & Engineering to sequester machines and people within two different types of architecture that don’t completely coalesce. The “brain” of the operations control center is clearly the centerpiece. It is a five-story-high, horizontal box layered in panels of fiber-cement and corrugated metal. Its front facade, energized by an angled screen wall and the NOAA logo hanging off the side, is the equivalent of a three-dimensional billboard.

Holding up the sign are steel trusses supported on big, splayed legs. This muscular framework with its built-in platforms, catwalks and stairs, reminiscent of scaffolding around rocket launching pads, supplies the main imagery of the building, which would appear like a boring box without it. By treating the satellite equipment as a crown to his industrial architecture, Mr. Mayne has created a potent symbol of NOAA’s mission of earth-watching from space.

The second portion of the complex is the “mat,” a curving office wing that serves as both a literal and symbolic foundation to the bar. At the front, it emerges as a one-story band of concrete and glass and, at the back, is camouflaged as an earth mound. Most of its space is sunken under a shallow dome topped by a sloping “green” roof that is intended to resemble a low hill when the grasses and plants fill in. By blending it into the landscape, Mr. Mayne again well reflects NOAA’s environmental stewardship in architectural form.

Inside this energy-efficient hub, the cubicle-filled interiors, arranged around tall concrete columns, are surprisingly lofty and light-filled. Along the southwestern perimeter, the sunshine is so bright that scrims have been rigged over the glass to block the glare. Accessible courtyards planted with gingko trees and round skylights in the ceiling supply more daylight and connections to the outdoors. Within the two-story-high, open floors, private offices are designed as free-standing, miniature buildings clad in translucent plastic paneling to let in the light. Huge cloud-strewn murals of land and sea, made from photographs taken by Earth-orbiting satellites, define each work area.

The most awkward parts of the $81 million building are the places where the two wings should mesh. One of them is the entrance, which comes across as an afterthought. It is reached from a long, narrow concrete ramp that leads up to a high-ceiling porch where the front door is tucked into one side. From the security station in the small lobby, the office areas are reached by descending a staircase, while access to mission control is made via an elevator off a hallway — not exactly a smooth transition through the building.

Such fragmentation is a hallmark of the buildings created by the once-maverick Mr. Mayne, who, at age 63, has become the darling of the governmental establishment. Since designing NOAA, he has gone on to complete a federal courthouse in Eugene, Ore., and a federal office building in San Francisco, which was dedicated last week. Both of these large buildings are clad in his signature industrial metal but lose some of the knife-edged intensity characteristic of his smaller, earlier works.

NOAA’s tough little building, in contrast, manages to capture some of the architect’s rebellious spirit in its satellite-topped steel armature and earth-covered dome. Let’s hope the GSA continues to invest in similarly risky architecture to house federal agencies in buildings reflective of our times. As Mr. Moynihan noted in his guidelines, “Design must flow from the architectural profession to the government, and not vice versa.”

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