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Old January 7th, 2008, 06:20 AM   #1
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Washington DC Architecture - Glass vs. Stone?

DC buildings go transparent as glass becomes 'in'
31 December 2007

WASHINGTON (AP) - Washington, the city of secrets, is going transparent.

In appearance, at least.

Brick and limestone buildings that have long given the nation's capital its neoclassical gravitas are being challenged by sleeker, more modern designs.

Office buildings sheathed largely in glass are rising across downtown, from Capitol Hill through the K Street corridor, adding a touch of 21st-century chic to canyons famous for their historic and often drab architecture.

"We're in the style business, and that's what's in style," said developer Douglas Jemal, who is building a glass-cased office building at 11th and F streets NW.

"That right there is out," he said as he gazed at two 1960s-style buildings on Connecticut Avenue, the type of concrete boxes that were staples of the city.

The boom in glass designs reflects Washington's evolution into a cosmopolitan hub that is home to a widening array of industries, developers and architects say.

"The city has matured; it has become a world capital. The government's not the only driving force," said George Dove, a Washington-based architect.

"We in Washington have been brainwashed to think that the traditional design aesthetic -- Greek and Roman and Colonial Chippendale -- represents the finer things in life," he said. "It's a very conservative approach. Maybe embracing the 21st century isn't such a bad thing."

Driven by technological advances, developers in the 1990s began trumpeting glass buildings that differed dramatically from generations of modernist styles, in energy efficiency as well as transparency. Glass structures emerged more recently in Washington, where about two dozen completely or predominantly transparent buildings are planned, are being built or have been completed.

Dewey & LeBoeuf, a law firm, happily made the leap into the future. For years the tenant of a concrete fortress on Connecticut Avenue, the firm recently moved to the top three floors of an all-glass building at 1101 New York Ave. NW, across from another that is under construction.

From an 11th-floor corner office, the panoramic, floor-to-ceiling vistas make the U.S. Capitol, the Washington Monument and even the street seem close enough to touch.

"You're standing outside, basically," said Herb Thomas, a lawyer. "It's almost a vertigo experience."

Although translucent towers have risen from New York to Dubai, the emergence of glass edifices in Washington is especially striking because so much of the city is built of stone, making landmarks such as the White House seem not just enduring but impenetrable.

Many of the new offices are in the early stages of construction, such as Lafayette Tower at 17th and H streets NW. But others are complete, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission's complex near Union Station. The Newseum and the Harman Center for the Arts have transparent facades.

The glass boom, however, has prompted caution among some architects and planners. They say that an edifice that dazzles in Manhattan because it soars skyward could be a dud in Washington, where the Building Height Act bars structures from rising more than 130 feet.

The height limit can constrict design, as well as the money that developers can spend on projects. An unadorned glass building, they say, can look as plain as an ice cube, adding an antiseptic touch to the city's streetscape.

"What I fear is that people see the latest hot trend coming in from elsewhere, New York or London, and they think, 'Oh great, D.C. is going to grow up and have more exciting architecture that will translate into a more exciting city,'" said David Maloney, the District of Columbia's state historic preservation officer. On their own, he said, "glass buildings aren't going to do that."

Don't tell that to lawyers at Dewey & LeBoeuf, who gush over their views and the natural light flooding their offices. Dewey & LeBoeuf leased the space hoping that glass would signal "we're a 21st-century global law firm," Thomas said.

Ralph Ferrara, a firm partner, said he wanted the glass to project Dewey & LeBoeuf's values. "When you tell your client that you believe in transparency, what better moniker is there than you do it yourself?" he said. "I want them to see us. To see through us."

Not to worry. To stand in a corner office is to be on full display, a witness to the seasons, falling rain and flocks of birds flying past. But sunglasses aren't necessary. The offices are equipped with electronic shades for those days when the sun burns too brightly.

Until the 1960s, Washington was dominated by a revival of neoclassical and classical architecture and a hybrid of classical and modernist design. The styles produced icons such as the U.S. Supreme Court and Justice Department buildings.

By the end of the Kennedy administration, though, developers sought freedom from the columns and cornices. They erected spartan buildings, the much-pilloried boxes on K Street, some glasslike, with reflective windows that allowed tenants to see out but blocked anyone from seeing in.

The glass buildings that have emerged in more recent years are a departure because the windows often stretch from the floor to the ceiling and are transparent. The detailing is more stylish: The design for the building at 1999 K St. NW includes a finlike glass border that makes the edifice anything but boxlike.

Technology also has made the current generation of glass buildings distinct. Manufacturers sell more energy-efficient glass, which contains coatings that block harmful rays.

But the quest for sustainability may still be a lofty goal. Shalom Baranes, a D.C.-based architect, said transparent buildings in Europe are more energy efficient because builders use more layers of glass.

Developers in Washington, he said, are more reluctant to use multiple layers because they eat into the leasable space.

"We architects love to design glass buildings, and we talk about the positive aspects," he said. "The negative is that they are less energy efficient than stone buildings."

Even owners of existing buildings are switching to glass, hoping that modernization will induce higher rents. At 1225 Connecticut Ave. NW, a facelift is turning a 1960s-style concrete facade transparent.

The renovation is among 12 glass projects in the region being overseen by James G. Davis Construction, eight of them within the district. Glass is not in vogue in the suburbs, said Dennis Cotter, a company executive, because office rents are not high enough to support the cost of the material.

And although developers are enlarging living-room windows in Washington apartments, cost concerns are keeping them from constructing the fishbowl-style condos now popular in New York.

For architects who have devoted their careers to creating buildings that blend in with monumental Washington, the glass craze can be a bit bewildering.

Graham Davidson, whose firm has designed and restored downtown buildings, said he's fortunate that the bulk of his work is not rooted in Washington.

"We'd be dead," Davidson said. But he added that he knows nothing is forever, especially when it comes to style. "It's just a fad," he said of the yen for glass architecture. "It'll go away."
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Old January 7th, 2008, 08:05 PM   #2
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