- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 24, 2008

The high price of housing meets the high price of gas at a new condominium called 22 West.

This 92-unit building, where penthouses sell for nearly $4 million, snakes around the Exxon station on M Street between 22nd Street and New Hampshire Avenue Northwest to transform a dreary block into a transparent version of New York’s Flatiron Building.

The condo, in the West End area, is the latest creation by real estate developer Anthony Lanier, whose Eastbanc firm has improved Georgetown with Cady’s Alley, 3303 Water Street and other properties. Mr. Lanier is one of the city’s leading patrons of contemporary architecture and his 22 West injects a welcome dose of glassy neomodernism into a bland stretch of masonry boxes between Dupont Circle and Georgetown.

The new condo takes advantage of a triangular site created as a result of Pierre L’Enfant’s radial city plan of diagonal avenues slicing through the orthogonal street grid. Such wedge-shaped parcels typically end up as parks rather than as buildings; one of the few exceptions is the National Association of Realtors headquarters completed in 2005 near the Capitol.

In contrast to that building’s uniform glass skin, architect Robert Sponseller of Shalom Baranes Associates in Washington varied the block-long 22 West with distinctive facades tailored to the avenue and streets. Along New Hampshire Avenue a taut grid of glass and metal panels inset with balconies forms a Mondrian-like abstraction of lines and rectangles. It extends the latest fashion for transparent architecture from downtown office buildings - some of them by the Baranes firm - to a residential building.

The more inventive part of the building is the screen of metal and glass curving on 22nd Street around the Exxon service station. Compared to the transparent wall along the avenue, it is more dynamic with vertical panels of zinc alternated with windows and inset balconies. The metal rectangles are arranged asymmetrically to create a syncopated rhythm along the serpentine wall and keep the eye moving.

Mr. Sponseller designed them as rain screen, meaning the zinc cladding is separated by a cavity from a weather-resistant barrier behind it. Because this inner protective layer acts to resist moisture, the zinc panels essentially act as graphic wallpaper without the need for messy sealants and structural supports. This freedom allowed for a more playful, crisper pattern than possible with conventional curtain walls.

In front of the metal facade, the gas station, which was rebuilt, could have been an eyesore but was integrated into the design by being covered in matching zinc panels. Its broad canopy is planted with grasses and shrubs on top to provide a pleasant garden view from the upper-story units.

That a “green,” environmentally correct roof should rest on top of a polluting source of energy seems absurd, but the landscaping enlivens what would otherwise be a barren expanse. A similar strategy is applied to the lobby where windows are screened by bamboo from views of motorists pumping gas.

The convenience store associated with the Exxon station is similarly absorbed into the new architecture. It occupies one of several ground-floor storefronts where future businesses will extend the commercial activity from the neighboring Ritz-Carlton and Renaissance M Street hotels.

At the intersection of M and New Hampshire, panels of glass appear to slide from under the zinc panels to join the window wall along the avenue and form a transparent corner. This see-through prow allows daylight to flood the interiors while completely exposing the spaces to the street. The furnishings of the model apartment on the second floor, for example, are fully visible from the sidewalk as if to advertise the exhibitionism - and good taste - required to live in the condo.

At the opposite end of the block, where New Hampshire meets 22nd Street, the building tapers to a notched end with large windows and stacked balconies facing south. It towers over the tip of the site where a 19th-century turreted town house still stands.

This juxtaposition of the new zinc-clad condo and historic brick building, which is home to the Manatos and Manatos lobbying firm, makes for a jarring, but an interesting contrast. It’s a collage symbolic of the architectural changes taking place in Washington where modernist metal-and-glass is overtaking traditional masonry.

All these contrasting sides of the block-long building are not always smoothly blended and the curves, grids and angles appear less appealing as a whole than they do in isolated sections. However, the diverse articulation contributes to spatial variety inside the condominium, where apartments now costing $900 to $1,100 per square foot ($830,500 for a one-bedroom unit to $3,868,500 for a penthouse, according to the 22 West Web site) are some of the most expensive in town.

Among the 30 different unit plans are ground-floor duplexes with their own entrances and front yards along New Hampshire Avenue. Recalling town houses, these residences supply the only whiff of reassuring familiarity in this otherwise unconventional pairing of condominium and gas station.

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