No surprise, Washington DC is a city deeply rooted in American history. Its urban fabric is adorned with grand monuments and patriotic memorials, often cast in severe neoclassical forms to highlight their historical prominence.
This doesn’t mean Washington DC is stuck in the past. In fact there’s a growing collection of buildings here that speak the architectural language of today, hence this self-guided “Contemporary Architecture Tour.” The goal here is to showcase some of the capital’s finest contemporary spaces and places, from Chinatown to the National Mall and Embassy Row.
Swiss Ambassador’s Residence
Architect: Steven Holl Architects
Neighborhood: Woodley Park
Functioning as both a residence and a venue for official functions, the Swiss Ambassador’s Residence demands attention for its stark materials palette and pronounced modernism. The building in plan assumes the shape of a slightly skewed cross that reflects the country’s flag but also allows for many free-flowing spaces inside. Capped with a vegetated roof to both cool the building and manage its rainwater, the exterior is composed of slate-colored concrete walls alternating against planes of transparent and translucent glass.
The overall effect is as cool as it is contemporary. Architectural history buffs will also notice how the building’s form, together with its simplicity of details and varying veils of glass, appears similar to the work of pioneer Modernist architect Mies van der Rohe (also the architect of Washington DC’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Chinatown). While access is restricted to the public, it’s clear to see (from even beyond the security fence) that the Swiss Ambassador’s Residence proves the Modernist adage that less is more.
Architect: Kaseman Beckman Advanced Strategies
Neighborhood: Pentagon (Arlington, VA)
The Pentagon Memorial was built to honor those who lost their lives in the attacks of September 11, 2001. It opened to the public on the 7th year anniversary of the attacks, with a layout of 184 cantilevered stainless steel benches, one for each person that died that day. The benches seem to hover over individual reflecting pools that are illuminated at night with a soft greenish light. The benches are organized in rows according to the age of the person when they died and are oriented to either face toward or away from the Pentagon depending on whether they died in the building or on the plane.
The Memorial’s design succeeds in its purpose by allowing one to spend their time either seated on a bench to reflect a single life lost or walking between and around the benches to take in the collective loss of that day. Regardless of how you choose to experience the Memorial the best time to visit is at dusk when the crowds of tour buses depart and each bench begins to glow against the darkening sky. This dramatic effect serves to underscore the design’s message of remembrance.
Smithsonian Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture (Kogod Courtyard)
Architect: Foster + Partners
Set against one of Washington DC’s finest examples neoclassical architecture, the reputable London-based architecture firm of Foster + Partners has created a glass and steel canopy that floats atop the Old Patent Office Building. The soaring structure is supported alone by six slender columns that both funnel rainwater down from the roof and allow the adjacent historic buildings to remain undisturbed in their place. Also contributing to the Courtyard’s successful design are comfortable white marble benches that serve as planters for a few mature trees, as well as a series of minimalist water fountains that push thin sheets of water between discreet slots in the granite floor.
One interesting fact of the nearly 30,000 square foot space has to do with its acoustics: over 9,000 pairs of denim blue jeans were shredded and installed just below the glass ceiling in order to provide an acoustically absorbent surface. The resulting public space created by all of these elements has become one of Washington’s favorite places to rest tired tourist legs, take lunch, or simply kill a few minutes between a myriad of other activities.
Embassy of Finland
Architect: Heikkinen-Komonen Architects
Neighborhood: Embassy Row
Far from the masonry mansions of traditional embassy design, the Embassy of Finland is a prime example of Scandinavian minimalism. Its architectural success stems from its simplicity, set against the backdrop of Rock Creek National Park. Granite, glass and translucent glass block materials represent a majority of the building’s materials palette. Large expanses of glass used on the north and south walls create a fluid transition from the gallery and administrative spaces on the interior to the dense forest beyond. Deciduous vines have been planted on a metal screen across the south elevation to shade the interior from the harsh summer sun while allowing the warming winter sun to enter.
This and many other sustainable design features helped the building to earn a prestigious LEED Gold certification from the United States Green Building Council. The Embassy opens up its doors to many free cultural exhibits throughout the year which make for the perfect opportunity to experience the simple elegance of Finnish architecture while taking in the charming character of its art.
U.S. Institute of Peace Headquarters
Architect: Moshe Safdie and Associates
Completed: est. 2010
Neighborhood: National Mall
Moshe Safdie and Associates’ addition to the National Mall wears contextual clothing with a distinctive top hat. The U.S. Institute of Peace’s new Headquarters just north of the Lincoln Memorial and just east of the Roosevelt Bridge seeks to be the setting for resolving conflicts and instilling peace whereas many of the adjacent iconic structures on the Mall honor the service of Americans in wartime. Integral to the design process was a study of the building’s surroundings and its client’s mission.
To acknowledge its Washingtonian neighbors and the scale of adjacent buildings, the Headquarters are clad in precast concrete and constructed of three separate forms. The space between the rather predictable, rectilinear five-story forms is captured beneath a sweeping, white-fritted glass roof that evokes the image of a dove in flight. Despite its literal connotation the roof succeeds in diffusing direct sunlight during the day and interior light at night as well as advertising the reason for the Headquarters’ existence.
The atrium created by this combination of iconic gesture framed by reserved surroundings should provide the city with yet another signature public space, scheduled for completion in October of 2010.
Smithsonian National Musuem of African American History and Culture
Architect: Freelon Adjaye Bond / Smithgroup
Completed: est. 2015
Neighborhood: National Mall
The newest Smithsonian museum on the Mall is set to open in 2015. NMAAHC’s prominent location on Constitution Avenue (near between the American History Museum and the Washington Monument) holds special significance because of its history as a shipping port for people and goods entering Washington, particularly slaves. The team of firms that won the prestigious design competition, Freelon Adjaye Bond / SmithGroup, have included plans to incorporate an actual slave ship into the building’s design. Another prominent architectural feature of the museum will be a gleaming bronze corona that harks back to ancient African traditions as well as stands as a distinctly contemporary capstone.
Beneath the corona lies a wealth of public, performance, and exhibit spaces. While today the site may sit empty, there are big plans brewing for the world’s largest museum complex. Three of the architectural firms involved with the project, Davis Brody Bond, David Adjaye, and The Freelon Group have also designed two neighborhood libraries each for the city that will open in late 2010.