Meeting of the Commission of Fine Arts
17 June 2010
The meeting was convened in the Commission of Fine Arts offices in the National Building Museum, 401 F Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20001, at 10:05 a.m.
(Due to the absence of the Chairman, the Vice-Chairman presided at the meeting.)
A. Approval of the minutes of the 20 May meeting. Mr. Luebke reported that the minutes of the May meeting were circulated to the Commission members in advance. The Commission approved the minutes upon a motion by Ms. Plater-Zyberk with second by Mr. Belle. Mr. Luebke said that the minutes will be made available on the Commission's website.B. Dates of next meetings. Mr. Luebke presented the regularly scheduled dates for upcoming Commission meetings: 15 July, 16 September, and 21 October; he noted that no meeting is scheduled during August.
C. Proposed year 2011 schedule of meetings and submission deadlines for the Commission and the Old Georgetown Board. Mr. Luebke presented the proposed schedule of meetings and submission deadlines for calendar year 2011. The Commission meeting dates would be the third Thursday of each month, with no meetings in August and December; the Old Georgetown Board would meet the first Thursday of each month, with no meeting in August. He confirmed that the meeting dates do not conflict with major holidays; Mr. Lindstrom noted that the schedule includes minor adjustments to submission deadlines in response to local and federal holidays. Vice-Chairman Nelson recalled that Commission meetings were occasionally held in August and December in past years, and asked if meetings in these months could be added if necessary; Mr. Luebke responded that meeting dates can be added or adjusted, preferably with advance notice of at least one month. Upon a motion by Ms. Plater-Zyberk, the Commission approved the 2011 schedule.
D. Report on the 2010 National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs Program. Mr. Luebke reported on the federal grants program administered by the Commission in support of arts institutions in the District of Columbia. The $9.5 million of appropriated funds for fiscal year 2010 was distributed earlier in the week; he said that one organization—Dance Place—is new to the program this year.
E. Confirmation of the reappointment of David Cox, FAIA to the Old Georgetown Board. Mr. Luebke asked the Commission to approve the reappointment of David Cox to the Old Georgetown Board for a second three-year term, noting that Mr. Cox's service began in September 2007. He said that an updated biographical profile has been circulated to the Commission members, including the award to Mr. Cox in 2009 of the prestigious Centennial Prize by the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, an indication of his high regard in the Washington professional community. Upon a motion by Mr. Belle with second by Mr. McKinnell, the Commission approved an additional three-year term for Mr. Cox to begin in September 2010.
F. Report on the site inspection of the mock-up of the inscription wall for the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial. Mr. Luebke reported the Commission's site inspection earlier in the morning of a mockup of the inscription wall at the construction site for the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial; he noted that the project is on the agenda for presentation during the meeting (agenda item II.B). Vice-Chairman Nelson recommended deferring further discussion of the site inspection until consideration of the agenda item.
Mr. Luebke said that at the conclusion of the meeting, the Commission will visit the Freer Gallery of Art to inspect a Japanese ceramic bowl proposed for transfer from the study collection to the permanent collection (agenda item III). A report will be provided at the next Commission meeting.
II. Submissions and Reviews
Mr. Luebke introduced the three appendices for Commission action. Drafts of the appendices had been circulated to the Commission members in advance of the meeting.
Appendix I – Direct Submission Consent Calendar: Mr. Lindstrom said that there were no changes to the draft appendix but noted two projects with unusual circumstances. The Consent Calendar includes a submission for access ramps at the Department of Commerce headquarters building (case number CFA 17/JUN/10-e), with a favorable recommendation; other proposals for this building will be presented to the Commission later in the meeting (agenda item II.C.1), including a landscape proposal that incorporates these ramps. The Consent Calendar also includes a submission from the D.C. Department of Transportation for the rehabilitation of portions of O and P Streets, NW, in Georgetown (case number CFA 17/JUN/10-l); the recommendation in the Consent Calendar is based on the report of the Old Georgetown Board, which was circulated to the Commission members. Mr. Luebke added that the trolley tracks in these streets are particularly important due to the surviving remnants of the in-ground power transmission system, which has local and worldwide significance; he said that the Board has reviewed the project extensively and he acknowledged the work of Mr. Martinez and Board member Anne Lewis. Ms. Nelson commented that the proposal for these streets is consistent with the character of Georgetown. Upon a motion by Ms. Plater-Zyberk with second by Mr. Rybczynski, the Commission approved the Direct Submission Consent Calendar.
Appendix II – Shipstead-Luce Act submissions: Ms. Batcheler reported one significant change to the draft appendix: the recommendation for alteration of a site wall at George Washington University (case number SL 10-107) was changed from unfavorable to favorable based on a revision to the proposed design. Upon a motion by Mr. Belle with second by Ms. Plater-Zyberk, the Commission approved the revised appendix.
Appendix III – Old Georgetown Act Submissions: Mr. Martinez reported several changes to the draft appendix. Four projects were added from the cases filed for the coming month (case numbers OG 10-171, 187, 195, and 199); these projects are limited to repairs or are not visible from public thoroughfares, and therefore do not require further review by the Old Georgetown Board. Another project was superseded by a subsequent submission and was added to note the closing of the older file number (case number OG 10-135). There were also minor changes such as adjustments to dates in response to supplemental information. Upon a motion by Ms. Plater-Zyberk with second by Mr. McKinnell, the Commission approved the revised appendix.
B. National Park Service
CFA 17/JUN/10-1, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial. Independence Avenue, SW, at the northwestern rim of the Tidal Basin. Details for the Inscription Wall. Final. (Previous: CFA 17/SEP/09-1, Perimeter security.) Mr. Luebke said that the submission includes several outstanding design items remaining for review as specified in the Commission's overall approval of the final design in 2008. Other such items include the perimeter security, which was approved in September 2009, and the treatment and modeling of the central statue, which has not yet been submitted for further review. The current submission includes the details of the inscription wall and associated lighting system, in conjunction with a mockup that the Commission inspected earlier in the morning. He noted that the overall graphic design of the inscriptions—including the proposed font, sample text, and the engraving method—was reviewed in November 2008; the review of the final proposal for quotations remains outstanding, along with any other site signage. He asked Peter May of the National Park Service to begin the presentation.
Mr. May expressed appreciation for the Commission's visit to the site, noting the opportunity to view the construction in progress as well as the mockup that was prepared for inspection. He introduced Dr. Ed Jackson Jr., executive architect of the memorial's sponsoring foundation, who offered to present the design or respond to the Commission's discussion of the submission materials and the site visit. Vice-Chairman Nelson suggested that the Commission begin its discussion and ask for a further presentation on any issues that may arise. Dr. Jackson noted the presence of two other members of the project team to respond to questions: project architect Ron Kessler of McKissack & McKissack, and inscription designer Nick Benson.
Vice-Chairman Nelson said that the visit to the site earlier in the morning was inspiring, commenting that the partially built memorial suggests "a feeling of real place." She emphasized the shared desire of the Commission members and the sponsoring foundation to make the memorial as good as possible.
Dr. Jackson suggested that Mr. Benson provide an overview of his concept for the inscriptions and their relation to the overall design of the memorial. Mr. Benson acknowledged the issue raised by the Commission members at the site inspection concerning the distraction of letters placed across the open stone joints; he offered to make a further effort to design the text layout to avoid this situation, noting the need for subtle manipulation of the lettering positions to prevent the introduction of interruptions to the viewer's reading of the text. He also acknowledged the concern of the Commission members that the centered layout of each quotation might be "too staid" and offered to study the layout further; he added that the design has been based on creating a symmetrical composition of a quotation within each 25-foot segment of wall, rather than considering the overall perception of the length of the wall. He described the design challenge of making an asymmetrical composition that is perceived by the viewer as meaningful rather than as a mistaken layout. He noted that the layout already includes a transition within each quotation from longer lines above to shorter lines below, with the longer lines helping to draw the viewer's eye horizontally across the entire wall. He said that his effort to enliven the inscriptions was focused primarily on the letter forms themselves, with subtle suggestions of movement and historic relationships to classical Greek lettering and brush strokes; he described some of the lettering details which have a slight asymmetry that "dazzles and dances." He offered to study the layout further by sketching a larger segment of the wall encompassing two inscriptions using an asymmetrical layout, allowing closer consideration of the negative space between the inscriptions; Ms. Nelson suggested that the study could include more than two inscriptions, extending to the entire wall or at least one half of it, and Mr. Benson noted the great amount of work that this would require.
Ms. Nelson acknowledged the crispness of each letter as seen on the site inspection, commenting on the value of the hand carving process. She suggested that the horizontal character of the wall could be further emphasized by filling the vertical stone joints while leaving the horizontal joints open; this change might also reduce the visual distraction of any letters that would still be crossing the vertical joints. Mr. Kessler responded that this suggestion could be difficult to implement, due to the many locations where the end of a grout line would be exposed. Mr. Belle suggested that a sample of this grouting detail could be tested on the on-site sample panel in order to determine whether the exposed ends of the grout line would be problematic. Mr. Kessler agreed to prepare this mockup and acknowledged the advantage of this solution in accommodating letters that cross the joints. Mr. McKinnell emphasized that the Commission's primary concern with the joints is not the lettering conflict but the desirability of emphasizing the horizontality of the wall and the resulting sense of its gravity; he said that the currently proposed system of all open joints suggests instead a panelized treatment of the wall's surface. He added that these comments are based on the "magnificent" appearance of the concrete structure for the wall, as seen by the Commission members during the site inspection; he recommended that the strength and gravity of this structure be carried through in the wall's cladding. Ms. Plater-Zyberk supported these comments, adding that the vertical lines would distract from the viewer's appreciation of the text. Mr. Rybczynski supported the recommendation for further study of the vertical joints, noting that the presented elevation already incorporates a horizontal emphasis in the drafting technique; he also agreed that the concrete structure seen on the construction site provides a beautiful example of sweeping horizontality, a design feature that should be emphasized in the finished wall.
Ms. Plater-Zyberk suggested that the treatment of the paving joints adjacent to the inscription wall be studied further in conjunction with the joints of the wall, including alignment along the curve and possible suppression of the joints perpendicular to the wall in order to correspond to the recommended filling of the wall's vertical joints. Mr. Kessler responded that the design already calls for alignment of the vertical wall joints and perpendicular paving joints; the materials supplied for the mockup did not conform to this design, and the supplier will need to recalculate the dimensions of these trapezoidal pavers. He added that the placement of the lighting fixtures is also designed to correspond to the joint patterns.
Vice-Chairman Nelson asked the design team to discuss the mockup of the proposed lighting for the wall. Mr. Kessler said that the mockup is in progress and will include further installation and testing in coming weeks; the initial mockup suggested successful distribution of light and interaction with the letters, while the glass panels that cover the lights will need further improvement. Ms. Nelson asked if distinct pools of light would be visible; Mr. Kessler said that pooling is not a problem, but the intention is to eliminate any small gaps between the glass panels. He confirmed that the panels would be flush with the paving and would accommodate pedestrians. Ms. Plater-Zyberk asked about the proposed metal framing of the panels; Mr. Kessler responded that it would be bronze, which appears very bright in the mockup but would acquire a patina. Mr. Rybczynski asked about the potential elimination of the bronze framing, commenting that this detail introduces an additional material to the design. Mr. Kessler responded that the bronze would serve to protect the edge of the laminated glass; he noted that this glass is 2.5 inches thick and could easily support a person or even a vehicle. Mr. Rybczynski acknowledged the potential utilitarian value of these strips but said that the use of bronze draws undue attention to this detail. Mr. McKinnell suggested eliminating at least the bronze strips that would be perpendicular to the inscription wall, allowing the remaining strips to emphasize the horizontal sweep of the wall; the untrimmed joints between glass panels would be less problematic than untrimmed joints between glass and stone. Mr. Kessler said that elimination of these strips may result in light leaking between the glass panels, which would require further study. Ms. Nelson asked if a different metal could be used similar in color to the stone paving; Mr. Kessler said that stainless steel could be considered. Mr. Luebke noted the traditional use of bronze to achieve a monumental character, and the eventual darkening of its finish; he added that white metals might be too bright for this application. He summarized the Commission's overall guidance to minimize the appearance of these framing elements. Mr. Kessler added that the initial installation has demonstrated that the night effect of the lighting has a sweeping effect that adds strength to the design.
Vice-Chairman Nelson asked for clarification of the actions requested of the Commission. Mr. Luebke described the submitted and outstanding issues: the typography pattern and joint treatment, which will be addressed through further study and revisions to the mockup; lighting, which the Commission has not yet seen but could be inspected on site or delegated to the staff for review; and the specific inscriptions, which have not yet been submitted. Dr. Jackson suggested that the design team consider the Commission's recommendations and return with a further presentation of these project components; he said that the next submission would occur as soon as feasible, in consideration of the construction schedule. He also provided the Commission with photographs of the sculpture of Dr. King, which will be shipped to Baltimore in July and should reach the construction site in September.
Ms. Plater-Zyberk asked for further information on the source of the proposed font. Mr. Benson said that he has created the font for this memorial; it could appropriately be named the "Martin Luther King Memorial" font. Ms. Nelson asked if the font would be used for other applications related to the memorial; Mr. Benson responded that he has provided the font to the sponsoring foundation which will own it and may use it for any purpose. Ms. Nelson asked if the font would also be published for public use; Mr. Benton said that it would not be, and would be exclusively owned by the sponsoring foundation. Ms. Nelson reiterated her support for the execution of the lettering in the mockup. Ms. Plater-Zyberk agreed that the font is successful; she noted the many nuances in typography design and asked for further discussion of the forms. Mr. Benson said that his Rhode Island firm is part of a long tradition of a classical approach to the design of lettering. The forms are generated using a broad-edged brush, following a Roman tradition. He emphasized the importance of the skeletal forms for the letters, which provide clear legibility from a significant distance; the lettering details were then developed with varying widths and the addition of flares that relate to a Greek form of carving. He noted the horizontal emphasis of this font, in contrast to the more vertical emphasis of the modern "Trajan" font which is based on the classical lettering of Trajan's Column in Rome.
Mr. Luebke noted the Commission's interest of the Commission members in the lighting and suggested that a lighting mockup be prepared for the evening before the Commission's July meeting; Dr. Jackson agreed to pursue this schedule if possible. Vice-Chairman Nelson emphasized the importance of the inscription wall mockup in providing the Commission with information and helping to shape the recommendations. She summarized the Commission's interest in seeing a subsequent submission that addresses the issues raised. She said that the review of the lighting may be delegated to the staff in the future, but for now the Commission's preference is to be involved directly in each phase of the review to the extent feasible. The discussion concluded without a formal action.
C. General Services Administration
1. CFA 17/JUN/10-2, Herbert C. Hoover Building, Department of Commerce, 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW. New entrance for the National Aquarium and interim landscape plan. Revised concept. (Previous: CFA 16/MAR/06-4: modernization concept, and CFA 15/NOV/07-b: Phase I.) Mr. Lindstrom introduced the two components of the ongoing modernization project for the Department of Commerce headquarters building in the Federal Triangle. He noted the Commission's approval of the overall modernization concept in March 2006, and approval of the first of the project's seven phases in November 2007. The modernization would include relocation of the building's public aquarium from the east portion of the basement level to the south end of the basement level. The current submission includes the concept design for a partially underground addition and associated site design at the south end of the building along Constitution Avenue; the proposed addition would provide the aquarium with public access that is separate from the Commerce Department functions within the building. The other component of the submission is an interim landscape design, which would be implemented during the modernization project which involves extensive disturbance to the existing landscape. He said that the interim proposal is based on the landscape that was installed when the building was constructed; a future submission would include a final landscape design for implementation at the completion of the modernization project. Ms. Nelson asked about perimeter security; Mr. Lindstrom responded that the security design would affect the design of the aquarium addition that is currently submitted and would be included in the future final landscape submission. He introduced Mike McGill of the General Services Administration to begin the presentation.
Mr. McGill described the advantages of relocating the aquarium to the south end of the building: the opportunity for a distinct entrance to this public attraction; a more visible public activity which would help bring tourists on the Mall into the Federal Triangle and downtown Washington; and a relationship with the National Museum of African American History and Culture which is planned for the site directly across Constitution Avenue. He said that the design process has involved cooperation with the staffs of the Commission, the National Capital Planning Commission, and the D.C. Office of Planning; however, the D.C. Department of Transportation raised last-minute concerns regarding construction within public space, resulting in further revisions to the proposal. He introduced Louis Goetz of Group Goetz Architects to present the design.
Mr. Goetz said that his firm is designing the overall modernization of the Department of Commerce headquarters, including the components currently submitted. He said that the aquarium in its current location was part of the building's original design in 1932, but the relocation to the south side of the building would allow the east part of the lower level to return to its original primary use as a concourse-level lobby for the Department of Commerce. He added that the aquarium on the south would balance the building's other public activity on the north—the White House Visitor Center, which is within the building's street level along Pennsylvania Avenue—providing "bookends" that relate the building to its two avenue frontages. He emphasized that the enlivenment of Constitution Avenue is itself a goal of the federal and local government. He described the current public access route to the aquarium as compromised by the modern issues of security and ticketing that need to be accommodated. He summarized the institutional history of the aquarium, from its origins in 1878 to its transformation into a privately funded entity in 1982. He presented historic and current views of the aquarium interior, indicating the extensive loss of the historic building fabric including a vaulted ceiling; these features would be restored in conjunction with removal of the aquarium from this area. He said that the displays in the new aquarium space would present the nation's aquatic treasures; the planned size of approximately 30,000 square feet results from a programmatic study, compared to the existing facility size of 15,000 to 16,000 square feet.
Mr. Goetz presented images of the context and scale of the building, which at the time of its completion was the largest building in the world; the south facade is on the building's narrow side but nonetheless extends for 300 feet, and is located at a corner of the overall Federal Triangle grouping. He indicated the scale and strength of the facade, commenting that the proposed aquarium pavilion would have little impact on its appearance. The pavilion would be placed within an existing landscaping area in front of the facade; he noted the existing planters which were installed on the sidewalk to provide perimeter security and would eventually be removed.
Mr. Belle and Ms. Plater-Zyberk asked whether the entrance to the aquarium could be incorporated into the existing building. Mr. Goetz responded that a separate and distinct entrance for the aquarium is desirable, in order to provide a pleasant entrance experience for the public and to allow security screening to occur outside of the main building. Ms. Nelson asked if the south facade entrances are currently in use. Mr. Goetz responded that they are available for employees; visitors generally use the building's 14th Street entrance, and a special entrance to the Secretary of Commerce's office is on 15th Street. He noted that the existing building entrances on the south facade lead to the first floor, and using them for aquarium access would therefore require the insertion of additional vertical circulation within the building to reach the basement level; the result would likely be the destruction of some of the building's historic fabric.
Mr. Goetz presented views of the areaway along the Constitution Avenue facade where the proposed entrance would be located; similar areaways are located elsewhere around the building, bringing daylight to the basement level. The aquarium would be primarily within the footprint of the historic building; the addition would contain the entrance area, office space, a gift shop, and one large tank containing the aquarium's renowned shark exhibit. A sub-basement level would accommodate support spaces, including buffer tanks and preparation tanks. Parallel to the building's south facade, a stair and ramp would lead down from the Constitution Avenue sidewalk to the aquarium entrance; the street-level entrance points would be toward the corners of 14th and 15th Streets, conveniently located for arriving visitors and discouraging a mid-block crossing of Constitution Avenue by pedestrians.
Ms. Nelson asked about the predominant direction of arrival by visitors. Mr. Goetz responded that pedestrians are present throughout the vicinity, but more visitors are anticipated to arrive from the east than from other directions. He indicated the nearest Metro access to the northeast—the Federal Triangle Station—and said that 14th Street typically has heavier pedestrian use, including people walking south from the downtown area; he also indicated the Smithsonian museums that are generally toward the east. However, visitors also come from the Washington Monument to the southwest and the Lincoln Memorial area to the west, as well as from the White House, and more will come from the south as a result of the planned National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Mr. Goetz presented the site plan, describing the design intent to suppress the visibility of the addition in order to avoid detracting from the historic building's character. The pavilion's roof would be almost entirely covered with landscaping similar to the original landscaping of the Department of Commerce. Several small skylights would provide controlled natural light for the aquarium tank below; he clarified that electronic equipment would be used to limit the natural light in order to address concerns such as algae growth. He indicated a location for potential artwork at the corner of 14th Street and Constitution Avenue, sited in response to the importance of 14th Street and the predominant direction of visitor arrival; the artwork would likely have an aquatic theme and would serve to indicate the aquarium's location to the public. He added that the future artwork design would be submitted to the Commission for further review. He said that the other planting included on the site plan is existing, and the temporary planters that currently provide perimeter security would not remain.
Mr. Belle noted the asymmetric placement of the entrance toward the west end of the pavilion's basement-level facade, and asked why the asymmetry is toward the west in contrast to the predominant visitor arrival direction from the east. Mr. Goetz confirmed that the length of the straight ramp, which would begin at the 14th Street side of the site, results in the entrance being shifted toward the west. He said that other configurations were considered, including a switchback ramp or elevators, but were rejected as problematic. He added that the ramp is intended to provide a pleasant arrival experience with a shallow one-in-twenty slope, and it can accommodate queuing for the entrance which will likely be frequent due to the arrival of large school groups.
Ms. Nelson asked about the purpose of the planned artwork as an identification feature. Mr. Goetz said that it would serve to identify the aquarium but would be treated as art, not as a sign. Ms. Nelson commented that the aquarium entrance would be somewhat hidden from street-level view; Mr. Goetz indicated the proposed locations for signs near the street-level access points to the ramp and stairs.
Mr. Belle asked if the public would be prohibited from the existing building's adjacent street-level steps and entrances with such means as signs or ropes. Mr. Goetz responded that these entrances are used by Department of Commerce employees, and the public would therefore have access to the steps and doorways but would not be admitted beyond the security checkpoint. Ms. Nelson asked about the potential for groups of schoolchildren to sit on these steps. Mr. Goetz responded that groups would be encouraged to use the proposed aquarium ramp, and employee use of the existing stairs tends to discourage people from sitting there, but there would be no design features to prohibit such behavior. Mr. Belle concluded that the design problem for this project is very difficult, commenting that the existing building's symmetry and details such as heavy rustication suggest a design solution that is not achieved in the proposal. Mr. Goetz responded that the proposed separation of the aquarium entrance facade from the existing building facade is intended to address this concern by treating the entrance area as a freestanding feature; the landscaping of the addition roof is intended to support this concept of separation, giving the appearance of an ordinary part of the building's landscaping and a separate opening for descent to the aquarium entrance.
Mr. Goetz presented additional street-level perspective views of the proposal. He indicated the outer wall that would prevent people on the sidewalk from falling into the opening of the entrance area; the prominence of this wall along the sidewalk has resulted in careful design consideration involving the many agencies that have a role in the project. He presented several alternatives for the design of this wall: a solid wall with graphics depicting the aquarium's logo; a partially open wall incorporating a decorative screen that could have an aquatic theme; or a wall of granite and grillwork. The alternatives also include the use of glass panels and seating. He said that the wall should be designed to provide perimeter security as well as protection from flooding in this low-lying part of the city. Ms. Nelson suggested the option of treating the entire wall as a sign, including the name of the aquarium.
Mr. Goetz presented the proposed design of the walls facing the descending entrance stairs and ramp. The walls would be glass backlit with an LED lighting system to activate the experience of approaching the aquarium entrance and create a sensation of entering into a water tank, although he noted that this effect would be enjoyed primarily during special events because the aquarium would generally not be open at night. Ms. Nelson asked for clarification of the materials; Mr. Goetz confirmed that glass would be located on both sides of the descending stairs and ramp below the ground level, with granite above at the ground level that would be similar to the existing building's granite; a metal railing or grillwork might also be above, depending on the selected option for the design of the outer wall. Mr. Belle said that the design makes sense for the aquarium but seems to be in conflict with the historic building. Mr. Goetz said that the staff of the D.C. Historic Preservation Office prefers the alternative for the outer wall design with a wave pattern because it would appear from a distance to blend with the rustication of the existing building's base. Ms. Nelson asked if the handrail of one alternative could be combined with a shorter version of the decorative screen in another alternative; Mr. Goetz said that such combinations could be explored, adding that the alternatives are intended to illustrate a range of options rather than to suggest fully detailed proposals.
Ms. Nelson asked about any constraints on the height of the future artwork; Mr. Goetz responded that its top would likely align with the top of the nearby building entrance, approximately 25 feet. He confirmed that the artwork would likely be lit. Mr. Rybczynski asked about the potential of treating the outer wall and its screen as the project's artwork. Mr. Goetz said that such a design has been explored and could be acceptable; Ms. Nelson supported the development of such an alternative. Ms. Plater-Zyberk commented that the design could result in confusion, noting that the glass walls along the descending entrance route would also have an artistic design, in addition to the proposed freestanding artwork and any artistic treatment of the outer wall; she said that these three components are currently being treated as unrelated but could instead become a unified composition.
Ms. Plater-Zyberk questioned the design intent of treating the entrance area as a separate element placed in front of the existing building; she said it is effectively a part of the building and should be designed accordingly. She offered the example of the proposed alignment of the entrance walls with the corners of the projecting central portion of the existing facade, observing that the more typical language of the building is that projecting appurtenances are offset from the corners. She suggested that the aquarium's entrance walls be treated in keeping with this vocabulary rather than giving the effect of visitors entering through a site retaining wall; similarly, the addition—notwithstanding its landscaped roof—should be treated as a part of the building that relates the aquarium entrance walls to the historic facade. She characterized the proposed architectural elements as "thin-looking" in comparison to the historic building, adding that the outer wall could be treated as a separate element with a partially open character. She offered additional concerns about the use of glass in the walls along the ramp and stairs, commenting on the "disturbing" effect of placing this breakable material beneath the large stone walls that are not visibly supported; the glass would also be vulnerable to the accumulation of dirt along the ramp and stairs. She summarized her advice that the entrance wall of the aquarium should be treated as part of the building facade and should use durable materials, contrasting this character to the proposed treatment of the entrance area as three unrelated art pieces located within the sidewalk.
Mr. Belle emphasized the existing building's architectural elements, such as the rusticated base, that could provide inspiration for the proposed aquarium elements. Mr. McKinnell supported the preceding comments, adding that the proposal has the appearance of a subway station entrance that has been placed near the existing building but is separate from it. He suggested instead that the proposal have a stronger character befitting its role as the entrance to the National Aquarium, potentially gaining importance from being associated with the historic building. Ms. Nelson offered a different alternative: contrasting the pavilion with the existing building, emphasizing glass and light for the aquarium, and perhaps using glass or glass block as an artistic element. She agreed with Mr. McKinnell that the current proposal has the appearance of a subway entrance in front of a beautiful classical building, and acknowledged the difficulty of the design problem.
Mr. Goetz responded that multiple design studies resulted in the proposal to treat the aquarium entrance as separate from the existing building, based on the conclusion that the appearance of creating a legible addition to the building would be inappropriate; the landscaping of the pavilion roof is intended to contribute to this sense of separation. Ms. Plater-Zyberk asked for clarification of why the design team concluded that an addition would be inappropriate. Mr. Goetz responded that an addition at this location would not seem to be a natural part of this historic building. The response is therefore to "camouflage" the addition while making the entrance apparent to visitors and creating an interesting experience as visitors approach the entrance, particularly if they need to wait along the ramp; the aquarium experience is intended to begin as visitors descend rather than only after they enter the interior. He said that an early design study included carved stone walls along the stairs and ramp, but this solution appeared very heavy. Ms. Plater-Zyberk reiterated the suggestion to treat these walls as art; Mr. Goetz responded that permanent art along the walls would be very static while the LED system would be very contemporary and active, providing more flexibility to change the appearance along the walls such as alternating between text and aquatic scenes. Ms. Plater-Zyberk said that modern-day artists are able to develop a contemporary artistic treatment of the walls. Mr. Goetz responded that the heaviness of a stone treatment would still be problematic; a "lighter, fresher" feeling was desired to counterbalance the experience of descending underground, as well as the typically dark experience of an aquarium in which normally only the tanks are lit in order to enhance their visibility.
Mr. Belle summarized the Commission's effort to encourage a modern identity for the National Aquarium while not creating the appearance of a subway entrance; Mr. Goetz acknowledged this challenge. Mr. Belle said that the entrance should relate to the use and offered the comparison of the modern entrance to the Louvre Museum in Paris, which created a visible presence on the historic plaza while much of the new museum space was located underground; similarly, the aquarium could have a greater identity at the public street level that nonetheless respects the strong form of the adjacent classical building. He concluded that such a design should be achievable. Mr. Goetz responded that earlier design studies included such entrance pavilions but these were discouraged by the staffs of the review agencies; he said that the space constraints at this location are much tighter than at the Louvre, and a more prominent design solution for the aquarium would inevitably interfere with the appearance of the existing building. Mr. Belle noted that much of the program for the pavilion is back-of-house space; Mr. Goetz said that approximately half the space in aquariums is typically for back-of-house needs, including extensive facilities to support the exhibit tanks.
Ms. Plater-Zyberk suggested that the aquarium's name be included on the low outer wall along the entrance, so that visitors will not have to look over the wall or "go down the hole" to see the name. In addition to the opportunity to incise lettering into the wall, she noted the tradition of creating three-dimensional stone letters to serve as part of the railing system. Mr. Goetz noted the numerous agencies involved in the project, and their concern that the building's overall identity be the Department of Commerce rather than the National Aquarium; Ms. Plater-Zyberk acknowledged that the Commission is being consulted late in the conceptual design process. Ms. Nelson agreed that large lettering may be inappropriate; Mr. Rybczynski added that the Commission typically does not support large-scale signage. Mr. Luebke said that the visibility of the low walls has been a topic in the staff-level consultation meetings involving multiple agencies; one of the presented options includes a slightly lowered wall with a railing above, and another potential option would be to further reduce the height of the solid outer wall and increase the height of the railing above to reach the necessary minimum height for security. These adjustments would facilitate the visibility from the sidewalk of the aquarium's identification lettering toward the top of the inner wall. Ms. Plater-Zyberk said that this design treatment of the outer wall could be related more closely to the system of low walls and railings around the existing building's areaways. Mr. Goetz noted that the need for the wall to serve as a perimeter security barrier; Mr. Luebke said that this could be incorporated into the lowered design with further study.
Mr. Belle summarized the challenge of the design—to decide whether the character would be a wall or a building addition, commenting that the proposal appears to emphasize the wall. Mr. McKinnell suggested that the Commission not interfere with the details of the architect's design process but emphasized the principle expressed by Ms. Plater-Zyberk that treating the pavilion as an extension of the existing building would allow more freedom in the design of the outer wall as a separate element standing in front of the pavilion; he supported the suggestion to explore treating the outer wall as artwork. Mr. Rybczynski suggested that this artwork not compete with the large scale of the existing building, but could include smaller aquarium-themed elements that would become apparent as the visitor approaches the outer wall. He said that this smaller-scale sculptural treatment could serve the function of a sign without being intrusive in the streetscape. Mr. Goetz agreed to study this different concept being recommended by the condition, with the pavilion to be treated as a part of the existing building; Mr. McKinnell emphasized the additional reference of the stairs that emerge from the building. Ms. Nelson reiterated that the outer wall and the aquarium entrance sequence should be scaled for pedestrians. Mr. Luebke noted that this design guidance would be helpful in resolving the shape of the landscape edges above the pavilion.
Mr. Goetz then presented the proposed interim landscape design for the building, explaining that this component of the submission is not dependent on the aquarium design. He said that excavation of the building yard will be required for the second and third phases of the building modernization project to accommodate replacement of utilities; the interim landscaping would be the near-term treatment of these areas upon the completion of the utility work. The proposed concept is based on the building's original landscape design, rather than the currently existing landscape; he said that the project's landscape architecture firm, Rhodeside & Harwell, described the current landscape having a suburban character that detracts from the monumentality and period of the building. He added that the future resolution of the perimeter security design may allow for the interim proposal to serve as the final landscape plan.
Mr. Goetz described the features of the landscape proposal. Low ground cover would predominate, with magnolia trees at the corners of the site and other key locations, smaller shrubs at entrance areas, and boxwood hedges around some of the areaways. He noted that these are indigenous plants that are resistant to drought. He indicated the existing magnolia trees and said that some would remain in place, some are in poor health and would be replaced, and others would be transplanted to nearby locations to accommodate the utility work. Ms. Nelson acknowledged the significant expense of transplanting these trees. Mr. Goetz added that several new smaller magnolia trees would be planted. Several Commission members expressed support for the interim landscape proposal. Mr. Luebke noted that it is presented as a concept and will be resubmitted with a final interim design.
Vice-Chairman Nelson suggested an action to conclude the agenda item. Mr. Belle suggested that the Commission see the design team's response to the comments provided on the aquarium proposal; Mr. Rybczynski and Mr. McKinnell supported approval of the interim landscape concept for the overall building. Upon a motion by Mr. Rybczynski with second by Ms. Plater-Zyberk, the Commission approved the interim landscape concept. Vice-Chairman Nelson summarized the Commission's consensus to request further study and resubmission of the aquarium proposal. Mr. Goetz emphasized the desire to move the project forward and asked for confirmation of the Commission's support for the general configuration of the ramp and stair leading to the below-grade entrance. Mr. Rybczynski expressed support for this overall concept, and Vice-Chairman Nelson confirmed this as the Commission's consensus; she emphasized the Commission's desire to see further development of the components. Mr. Luebke summarized the action as approval of the basic planning and elements while requesting extensive refinement of their expression to articulate their relationship to the existing building. He said that this action could be characterized as a limited type of concept approval, depending whether the Commission prefers the next submission to be a revised concept or a more developed final design. Vice-Chairman Nelson suggested that the next submission be a revised concept due to the extensive exploration that remains necessary to tie the various components together. The discussion of the aquarium concluded without a formal action.
2. CFA 17/JUN/10-3, General Services Administration Headquarters Building, 1800 F Street, NW. Building modernization and courtyard additions (Final) and building additions and modifications for retail space (Concept). (Previous: CFA 17/FEB/05-6.) Ms. Batcheler introduced the presentation for changes to the headquarters building of the General Services Administration (GSA), which occupies the entire block bounded by E, F, 18th, and 19th Streets, NW. The proposals focus on the frontage toward E Street and Rawlins Park on the south, an area that is part of the E Street Corridor as defined in the National Capital Framework Plan released in 2009 by the Commission and the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC). She noted that the submission has two components: the final design for modernization of the overall building, including substantial additions in its open courtyards; and the concept design for an alternative of additions along E Street to accommodate retail use. She asked Mike McGill of GSA to begin the presentation.
Mr. McGill said that the Commission in 2005 had approved the concept for the building modernization, including the courtyard additions, but the construction was not funded at that time; the project is now being funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. He said that the building was constructed in 1917 as the headquarters of the Department of the Interior and has been used since the 1930s by GSA and its predecessor agencies; the building has not been modernized since the 1930s and he described its condition as appalling. The proposed courtyard additions would add several hundred thousand square feet above the two-story south wing of offices. The modernization also includes creation of a major entrance facing E Street and Rawlins Park to supplement the existing main entrance along F Street, which he said was recommended by the Commission and NCPC; he confirmed the intention that both entrances would be used. He said that the modernization project is now submitted as a final design, based on the original concept that was previously approved.
Mr. McGill said that the second part of the submission results from the direction of the Commissioner of Public Buildings, Bob Peck [a former member of the Commission of Fine Arts], to use the building as a showcase for the federal government's effort to promote lively streetscapes and reduce the use of perimeter security. This optional proposal is to create retail frontage along the south side of the building, eliminating perimeter security in this area except at the driveways leading to the courtyards; the retail uses would be limited to restaurants. Mr. Rybczynski asked how perimeter security could be eliminated from a project, which has been a longstanding concern of the Commission. Mr. McGill responded that new federal security guidelines allow for a determination that perimeter security measures would be too difficult or expensive, and an alternative proposal can therefore be implemented.
Mr. McGill introduced architect Shalom Baranes of Shalom Baranes Associates to present the design. Mr. Baranes described the building configuration: an "E" shape with low hyphens on the south side along the two open courtyards; within the courtyards are two low pavilions containing an auditorium and library. The configuration of the three long wings results in difficult circulation patterns on the upper floors which would be improved by the proposed additions within the courtyards; he confirmed that the wings are already connected on the lower floors by the hyphens on the south side of the building, and the proposed additions would effectively increase the height of these hyphens while being set back from the south facade. The two additions would have glass walls, atria, and connecting corridors; employees would be able to enjoy the beautiful view to the south toward Rawlins Park, part of an east-west sequence of open spaces that includes Walt Whitman Park to the west.
Mr. Baranes described the proposal for creating a new south entrance as previously reviewed in 2005: the floor height at the south facade would remain four feet above the E Street sidewalk, and the design therefore includes ramps and stairs as part of a monumental entrance design. He said that the new alternative of adding retail space would result in a different design for the south entrance: the floor height in this area would be lowered to the sidewalk level in order to provide convenient public access to the restaurants, and the new entrance would therefore be entered at grade with the level change being accommodated on the interior for circulation to the GSA office space. Ms. Plater-Zyberk asked about the existing condition of the south facade; Mr. Baranes clarified that a single-door entrance exists now, which Mr. Luebke characterized as a minor rear door used for fire egress.
Mr. Baranes presented the concept for providing the restaurant space, which would total approximately 20,000 square feet and would be convenient for the area's federal workers, residents, and nearby George Washington University; he noted the current lack of retail space in the vicinity. The restaurants would have a depth of sixty feet, partially accommodated within proposed new bays that would extend twelve feet from the facade across the existing areaways; the permissible depth of the added bays, which would extend beyond the property line, is still being negotiated with the D.C. government. The retail space would be divided by the existing service driveways and new building entrance into four separate spaces, each three bays wide, that could each be leased to one, two, or three tenants. Sidewalk seating areas for the restaurants would be encouraged to take advantage of the views to the south across Rawlins Park toward the Department of the Interior headquarters; some of the storefronts would be designed to fold open for improved connection to the sidewalk. He clarified that the sidewalk depth would be eighteen feet from the curb to the face of the proposed bays, and outdoor seating would occupy a portion of this area.
Mr. Baranes discussed the potential design treatment of the retail bays. An initial concept was to use a modern-metal-and-glass vocabulary related to the proposed courtyard additions, but this approach was discouraged by the D.C. Historic Preservation Office staff, who suggested a design more closely related to the existing building's windows. The proposed concept is therefore dark in color and based on window bays from other Washington buildings of this general period. He added that the proposed bays are 1.5 stories high—taller than typical bays—in response to the monumental scale of the building and the relationship to the park across E Street; the height of the bays is still being negotiated with the D.C. government which has requested that they be lowered by three to four feet as well as reduced slightly in width to become more similar to other retail bays in downtown Washington.
Mr. Baranes said that the final design submission for building modernization includes perimeter security around the entire block, but nearly all of this perimeter security could be eliminated from the project if the option for the E Street retail space moves forward. He said the proposed security design includes a series of bollards and granite-clad walls between the sidewalk and the building's planting strip and areaway; he presented a section of the typical condition. Bollards would be used in the vicinity of trees. He added that if the perimeter security is eliminated from the project, the existing conditions would remain around the block; the only perimeter security anticipated in conjunction with the retail alternative would be at the two driveways that lead from E Street into the building courtyards. Ms. Nelson commented that the elimination of perimeter security from the project would be an "amazing" development for Washington design.
Mr. Luebke noted that the Commission does not need to accept the implied tradeoff between perimeter security and retail space: the Commission had approved the perimeter security design several years before reviewing the building modernization project and this approval has expired; the Commission should therefore expect a thorough new presentation of any proposal for perimeter security before considering the requested new approval of a final design. He said that the minimal information in the current presentation suggests that a subsequent submission will be required for the perimeter security, which can be considered independently of the proposed retail alternative. He also noted the more recent expiration of the Commission's approval for the building modernization project in 2005—which at that time did not encompass the previously submitted perimeter security proposal—and the Commission's strong support for the 2005 submission. Mr. Baranes clarified that the perimeter security proposal has now been developed as working drawings; Mr. Luebke said that the current presentation nonetheless appears insufficient as a final design submission for the Commission to consider.
Ms. Plater-Zyberk asked for further clarification of the requested action; Mr. Baranes reiterated that the modernization proposal—including the perimeter security—is submitted as a final design, acknowledging that the Commission might decide that the submission is only suitable for a renewed concept-level action; and the retail alternative including the addition of bays is submitted as a concept proposal. Mr. McKinnell asked if the Commission's approval of the modernization submission may result in the construction of perimeter security in front of the future retail space; Mr. Baranes responded that this would be possible although not likely. Mr. Luebke emphasized that the Commission has the flexibility to approve components rather than the entirety of the submission, such as approving the retail concept and requesting a revised design for perimeter security if needed; he reiterated that all of the Commission's previous approvals have expired and do not need to be considered as part of the current action. Mr. McGill noted his understanding that NCPC staff will be recommending approval of the modernization proposal with the exception of the perimeter security, which would be submitted for further review if necessary; the south entrance would also be submitted for further review if its design changes as a result of the retail alternative. He said that such an action could also be taken by this Commission, adding that the retail concept would be submitted for further review if GSA chooses to pursue it. Mr. Luebke noted that the principal part of the modernization submission is the courtyard additions with their glass curtain walls, which could move forward regardless of the further decisions concerning the retail alternative and the configuration of the new south entrance.
Ms. Plater-Zyberk asked if a more detailed presentation is needed for the modernization proposal; Mr. Luebke responded that the Commission could request this or could rely on the prior review and approval of the concept. Mr. McKinnell recalled the Commission's enthusiastic support for the concept submission in 2005; Mr. Baranes confirmed that the modernization proposal for the building has not changed since this previous review. Several members recommended that the Commission should remain consistent with its prior approval. Upon a motion by Mr. Rybczynski, the Commission approved the final submission for the building modernization, including the courtyard additions and the raised south entrance, and with the exception of the perimeter security.
Vice-Chairman Nelson then asked for comments on the alternative concept for the retail bay additions. Mr. Belle suggested further discussion of the request that had been made to reduce the height of the bays. Mr. Baranes responded that the taller bays in the submitted design would extend to the tops of the existing pairs of windows; other review agencies had suggested reducing the height to expose the upper half of the top sashes of these windows, treating the upper window portions as transoms that would be visible above the projecting retail bays—a suggestion that he does not support. He noted the additional suggestion by the review agencies to reduce the width of the bays by approximately twelve to eighteen inches on each side to expose the stone returns—a suggestion that he supports and intends to incorporate into the design. Mr. Belle suggested addressing the two issues separately and agreed with Mr. Baranes that the taller height for the bays is preferable as submitted, while the narrowing of the bay widths would be appropriate. Mr. Rybczynski also supported the tall scale of the bays as proposed, commenting that the 1.5-story bays would be appropriate for this large building.
Ms. Plater-Zyberk emphasized the importance of retaining sufficient exposed masonry within the bays to express structural support for the masonry facade above, rather than create the impression that the metal and glass bays are supporting the facade; she added that this visual effect would be important when seen from the exterior through the glass bays, as well as from within the retail spaces. Mr. Baranes presented a section detail at the storefronts to illustrate the extent of masonry that would be visible within the retail spaces, including the bottom of the existing stone lintels for the proposed tall height of the bays. He noted that the existing windows at the top of the bays are grouped in pairs separated by narrow masonry piers that would be removed to create a larger opening within each retail area; Ms. Plater-Zyberk observed that the result would be to create a masonry frame for the retail space's opening in the existing facade. Mr. Baranes agreed with these design principles and said that this aesthetic result would be difficult to achieve if the bays are lowered below the tops of the windows, which would perhaps require the introduction of a steel framing element for the bottom of the transoms. Ms. Plater-Zyberk acknowledged that another resolution of the existing window openings would be to extend them downward to form doorways topped by transoms, but this approach would potentially obstruct the interior space of the retail areas; Mr. Baranes agreed.
Mr. McKinnell suggested that these details could be addressed in a subsequent submission after the Commission has acted on the overall concept; Vice-Chairman Nelson noted an overall consensus to support the concept of introducing bays for retail stores. Ms. Plater-Zyberk recommended that the Commission at least state its opposition to the suggestion of lowering the bays to create transoms, and Mr. Baranes said that the Commission's guidance on the scale and character of the bays would be helpful.
Mr. Rybczynski commented that the light facade character of the proposed courtyard additions had been an attractive feature of the project when reviewed in 2005, fitting in well with the existing building; he said that this design quality is not apparent in the proposed retail bays, which have a heavy appearance. He offered the example of the proposed double metal columns at the corners of the bays, which he described as a detail that is more typical of wood construction. He said that the bays as depicted would add an unnecessary third language to the building facade, neither historical nor modern, and recommended instead that the vocabulary of the courtyard additions be used for the bays. Mr. McKinnell asked if this recommendation would be compatible with Ms. Plater-Zyberk's recommendation concerning the visibility of the masonry wall behind the bays; Ms. Plater-Zyberk said that these issues are not in conflict.
Ms. Nelson emphasized the importance of attracting restaurants to the retail space—as proposed by GSA—rather than more service-oriented retail tenants. Mr. McGill said that the goal is to attract high-quality restaurants; he cited the precedent of GSA's leasing of restaurant space at the headquarters of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms which brought a much-needed amenity to the NoMa neighborhood. Mr. Belle asked about accommodating deliveries to the restaurants; Mr. Baranes responded that most of the retail spaces would have service access from the building's courtyards which would be accessible to delivery trucks.
Mr. McGill discussed the regulatory issues concerning the depth of the retail bays, which are subject to the D.C. government's permitting process for construction in the street right-of-way. The simpler type of permit would require reducing the proposed depth of the bays by four feet, which would not provide sufficient overall depth for the desired retail tenants. A sidewalk cafe permit would instead allow for the deeper bays that are proposed, subject to the requirement that the structure occupying the area in public space be demountable within 24 hours. He said that this provision is not precisely defined and no such removal has ever been required under such permits, but the design should nonetheless not be treated as a heavy permanent installation. Ms. Plater-Zyberk said that the Commission's advice is consistent with this concern; Mr. Rybczynski emphasized that the problem with the submitted design is the "clunky" character of the bays, compared to the elegance and lightness of the courtyard additions.
Mr. Baranes acknowledged this guidance but said that two design directions could be feasible for creating a lighter character in the retail bays: they could relate directly to the vocabulary of the proposed courtyard additions, or they could be further refined in relating to the historic building's character. Mr. Rybczynski said that the relationship to the historic building is not apparent, other than the minor repetition of the bronze color; Mr. Baranes responded that this relationship could be developed more successfully, if desired by the Commission. Ms. Plater-Zyberk said that both directions should be considered so that the best choice could emerge. Mr. McKinnell said that the retail bays should have evidence of some relationship to the courtyard additions, while also retaining a "residue" of the existing building and a clear sense of the historic masonry facade plane; he added that the contrast between the historic masonry and the new lighter architecture would be an exciting presence along the street. Mr. Baranes said that this design approach would be compatible with the regulatory requirement for demountability. Mr. Luebke asked if the bays are designed so that only the outer portion would be demountable, noting the apparent segmentation of the components of the bays. Mr. Baranes clarified that the design intention is for the entire depth of the bays to be demountable rather than to express the varying regulatory requirements and boundaries.
Ms. Plater-Zyberk said that further study of a more historic approach to the retail bays should be simpler and more closely related to the historic building. She offered the example of the proposal for unsupported glass corners in the bays, which would not be a historic detail; she reiterated the recommendation that the design team study both a more historic and a more modern approach to the bays, rather than an unclear compromise, and return with the best design solution that emerges. Mr. Baranes acknowledged that the proposed design is interpretive rather than faithfully historic.
Vice-Chairman Nelson summarized the consensus to support the introduction of retail as a welcome amenity to the area, with the request for further design study of the proposed bays and a revised concept submission. Ms. Plater-Zyberk commented that providing public retail space in a government building would have been a welcome feature of the Veterans Administration Medical Center master plan that the Commission recently reviewed; Mr. Belle noted the Commission's ongoing effort to address this issue. Ms. Plater-Zyberk also noted that the Commission had encouraged the recent proposal for bringing a restaurant to the nearby United Unions Building which overlooks Rawlins Park from the east, commenting that the Commission's concern about the irrelevancy of this park to the surrounding buildings is now being addressed through multiple projects. Mr. Luebke said that the Commission's comments on the retail concept would not require a vote; the discussion of this component of the submission concluded without a formal action.
D. D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs—Shipstead-Luce Act
SL 09-080 (HPA 09-291), Embassy of Canada, 501 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW. Security vestibule addition. Concept. Ms. Batcheler introduced the proposed addition to the Canadian embassy, which was designed by Arthur Erickson and constructed in 1987. The addition would provide space for modern security screening to facilitate the reopening of the building's Pennsylvania Avenue entrance, which has not been in use since 2001. She noted that the addition would be located entirely within the property line of the embassy. She introduced Sally Wade of the Canadian Embassy staff to begin the presentation. Ms. Wade asked architect Raffael Scasserra of Gensler to present the design.
Mr. Scasserra described the importance of the embassy's siting along Pennsylvania Avenue near the Capitol, symbolizing the close and open relationship between the U.S. and Canada; reactivation of the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance would strengthen this symbolism and help to animate the avenue. He described the difficult constraints on the project: limited circulation area within the building; the space requirements for security screening; the desire for an open character; and the Canadian government's requirement that the building meet security criteria for resistance to blasts, ballistics, and attempts at forced entry. He discussed the immediate context, including the National Gallery of Art to the south and the recently constructed Newseum to the west. The embassy has a fifty-foot setback from the property line, and the Newseum matches this setback where the buildings abut; the Newseum then steps forward toward the western part of the block, extending almost to the property line. He indicated the embassy's elevated podium plaza—connected to the Pennsylvania Avenue sidewalk by a broad flight of steps and a sloped driveway—which provides access to the building's only currently used entrance, serving visitors as well as embassy staff. He presented a section illustrating the complex configuration of floor levels within the building; the only portions at the Pennsylvania Avenue sidewalk level are an art gallery room and the ten-foot-wide entrance area, which he characterized as a small intermediate level or landing. A pair of staircases rises from this entrance area to the podium-level lobby, and a short ramp and stairs lead down toward the auditorium lobby which includes restrooms that serve all of the various lobby areas. Mr. McKinnell asked for clarification of the existing and proposed elevator access to the various levels. Mr. Scasserra indicated the existing elevator which includes several landings: one at the auditorium lobby level, which includes the restrooms; another near the foot of the short ramp, providing a barrier-free connection to the Pennsylvania Avenue vestibule and the gallery room; and a third at the podium lobby level. He noted that the reopening of the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance would provide direct barrier-free access from the sidewalk to the gallery, where events are occasionally held. Mr. McKinnell asked if a barrier-free route currently exists; Mr. Scasserra confirmed the indirect route from the podium-level lobby to the gallery via the elevator, ramp, and the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance area. Mr. Rybczynski asked about use of the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance prior to 2001; Mr. Scasserra confirmed that it was routinely used as a public building entrance until the closure, and activity from events in the art gallery would extend into the sidewalk area when this entrance was open. Upon completion of this addition, the intention is to reopen the entrance for routine daily use.
Mr. Scasserra described the proposed addition which would extend thirteen feet from the existing primary facade line, noting that this projection into the fifty-foot setback area would be much less than that of the Newseum. He said that the design results from extensive massing studies to create a significant element that has its own presence while also complementing the existing architecture. The design relates to existing conditions such as the stone coursing pattern, the podium entrance height, the axis of the stair and ramp configuration on the interior, and other geometries of the building. The existing ten-foot-deep space would remain unobstructed as a landing and modest pre-function area. The security desk would be constructed of stone and would be centrally located in the addition, relating it to the materials and axis of the building; it would not protrude beyond the upper facade plane. The magnetometer equipment would be located as far as possible from the perimeter and would have finishes of stainless steel and back-painted glass. The flooring would include pavers matching the Pennsylvania Avenue sidewalk and an extension of the paving material from the landing. Queuing space within the addition would also be provided, and the addition also provides the opportunity for the display of art, relating it to the adjacent gallery. Ms. Nelson asked for clarification of the artwork opportunity; Mr. Scasserra indicated a location along the south facade for floor-mounted or suspended sculpture. He described the proposed roof assembly which would be very thin, including only structure and lighting; cooling and heating would be provided from below, and the roof would be separated from the existing building's facade by approximately one foot. Ms. Nelson asked if the addition could accommodate future changing needs for security equipment; Mr. Scasserra responded that, based on experience with airport requirements, security equipment is generally becoming smaller and the scaling of the addition for present-day equipment should therefore be sufficient for long-term needs.
Mr. Scasserra described the proposed vertical mullion system which would relate to design features of the existing building while providing sufficient depth and close spacing to meet the security requirements; he added that larger glass areas as seen on the existing building would not be permissible for this new construction. He presented a rendered view along Pennsylvania Avenue toward the proposed addition, describing it as having a transparent character that is not evident in the rendering. Mr. McKinnell asked for details of the spacing and depth of the mullions; Mr. Scasserra responded that they would be at 2.5-foot intervals with a total depth of one foot, half behind the glass and half in front. Mr. McKinnell commented that these dimensions would result in the addition's south facade appearing opaque when viewed along Pennsylvania Avenue, as accurately depicted in the rendering. Mr. Scasserra acknowledged that the mullions would be larger than those of the existing building due to security requirements. Mr. McKinnell asked about the rendered depiction of the proposed mullions in white and the existing mullions in black; Mr. Scasserra clarified that the proposed mullions would be polished stainless steel to match the existing. He presented additional views from the street encompassing the embassy and the Newseum; he indicated the porous character, undulations, and multiplicity of elements in the buildings and said that the addition would be complementary to this context.
Ms. Plater-Zyberk asked about the use of the niche on the existing facade to the west of the proposed addition. Mr. Scasserra said that it is used as a display space for banners and has a small bench at its base, but serves no further purpose; he added that banners can also be placed against the flat areas of the facade. Mr. Rybczynski asked if the proposal includes perimeter security toward the curb, as seen in other Washington buildings, or is designed to resist a very close-range blast. Mr. Scasserra responded that under the Canadian government's security requirements, resistance to forced entry—rather than blast resistance—is the constraining design criterion for this project. He explained that the forced-entry requirement includes a minimum time duration for withstanding an attempt to break through a portion of the building exterior, such as by breaking or removing a pane of glass.
Ms. Plater-Zyberk noted that the addition would be far more secure than the adjacent existing glass wall that rises from the sidewalk to the podium plaza along the building's exterior stairs. Mr. Scasserra acknowledged this situation; Ms. Wade said that the Canadian government intends to redesign the existing glass wall in a future project. Ms. Plater-Zyberk agreed that such redesign would be logical but suggested that all of these design changes be considered together. She added that the alteration of the existing building's glazing would raise further historic preservation issues and a likely preference for retaining the original character of the building. Ms. Wade responded that the modifications would likely be limited to upgrading the existing glass rather than changing the facade design; she acknowledged that the size of the panes would be a concern, and the change of glass would alter the building's character.
Ms. Plater-Zyberk asked if the proposed addition would establish the design pattern for the future facade alterations; Mr. Scasserra said that he has discussed these issues with the embassy staff and anticipates that the glass pane sizes on the existing facade will change in order to meet security requirements, such as through the insertion of additional vertical mullions which could have spacing similar to that of the proposed addition. Ms. Plater-Zyberk said that the mullion spacings of the addition and the existing building do not necessarily need to match, observing that the glass dimensions and design approaches vary throughout the building. She commented that the edges of the glass along the exterior staircase already include a variety of treatments, with butt jointing at the lower stone wall and aluminum framing at other edges, expressing a complex conception of glass for the building; Mr. Scasserra said that Erickson treated the glass as a form in itself, and its intersection with the stone form is expressed with the butt joint. Mr. McKinnell observed that the building design has an overall progression of glass, from narrower spacing at the top to wider spacing at the bottom; he said that this progression is clearly part of Erickson's design, and the proposed placement of closely spaced mullions in the ground-level windows would "vitiate" this design feature. He commented that the security requirement for resisting forced entry, as described by Mr. Scasserra, does not necessarily suggest the need for closely spaced mullions; Mr. Scasserra confirmed that blast resistance is also a determining factor in the design. Mr. Belle commented that glass technology has improved in recent years, offering a potential solution to the problem. Mr. Scasserra said that the new glass would be selected to match the existing color but acknowledged that the lamination and greatly increased thickness would result in a different appearance; he said that the design team is considering various samples and confirmed the intention to match the existing appearance as closely as possible.
Ms. Plater-Zyberk asked about the edge detailing of the proposed glass, observing that the renderings depict vertical mullions at the sides of each pane but no horizontal mullions at the top and bottom; Mr. Scasserra clarified that the proposal is to frame the glass on all sides, which is inaccurately depicted in the renderings. He noted that this treatment would be similar to the existing window edges in the adjacent facade. Ms. Plater-Zyberk asked about the apparent butt-jointing of glass at the corners of the pavilion; Mr. Scasserra said that these joints would also have an end cap that is not shown in the renderings. Ms. Plater-Zyberk acknowledged that the existing building already contains a great variety of design elements and asked about the varying corner treatments where the addition meets the existing building. Mr. Scasserra responded that the right-angle shifts are configured so that each side of the addition will have a right-angle intersection with the existing stone facade, adding that this configuration also gives the addition more of an object-like presence apart from the existing building.
Mr. Rybczynski commented that the project involves difficult design criteria that have been met successfully, but the result does not enhance the building. He expressed his admiration for Erickson's architecture and regret at the need to introduce this alteration to the design. He concluded that the proposal would not cause significant harm to the character of Pennsylvania Avenue and therefore merits support, commenting that embassy security concerns have sometimes resulted in far more obtrusive solutions such as the closing of a street in front of the U.S. embassy in London. Mr. Belle and Ms. Nelson agreed with this conclusion; Ms. Nelson added that the addition could be removed in the future, although Mr. Rybczynski said that the overall need for security infrastructure is likely to increase rather than decrease.
Vice-Chairman Nelson asked for a consensus from the Commission. Mr. Luebke noted the project team's extensive consultation with the staff and the successful effort to develop a tightly planned and modest design; he suggested further guidance on the concern raised by Mr. McKinnell of the opaque appearance resulting from the mullion configuration, which could potentially be addressed by shifting the mullions to a horizontal orientation. Mr. Rybczynski said that Erickson tended to use vertical fins, and a horizontal orientation would therefore not be desirable. Mr. Scasserra indicated the existing building's upper-floor windows, which are recessed between vertical fins resulting in a similar opacity when seen from a shallow angle.
Mr. McKinnell emphasized the prominence of Erickson as a great Canadian architect; he said that although this building may not be Erickson's best work, it has become iconic and does clearly express the philosophy of openness—a design intent which would be damaged by the proposal. He acknowledged that the program given to the design team cannot be solved without resulting in this damage but encouraged the Canadian government to consider alternative ways of meeting the project goals. Ms. Nelson suggested an alternative of handling the security within the art gallery space; Mr. McKinnell encouraged exploration of this and other alternatives, emphasizing that the proposed solution results in "a very grievous tradeoff." Mr. Belle supported Mr. McKinnell's comments and asked if the suggestion is for more significant alteration to the building; Mr. McKinnell said that he is pleading for further consideration of alternatives for meeting the entrance and security requirements rather than continuing with the program that has been given to the architect.
Upon a motion by Mr. Rybczynski with second by Mr. Belle, the Commission approved the concept subject to the comments provided; Mr. McKinnell abstained from the vote.
There being no further business, the meeting was adjourned at 2:50 p.m.
Freer Gallery of Art, Object proposed for acquisition. Following the adjournment, the Commission members reconvened at the Freer Gallery of Art for the inspection of an object proposed for transfer to the permanent collection. A report will be provided at the next meeting.
Thomas E. Luebke, AIA
Last Modified: July 30, 2010