New and Old Monumental Sights

Passing through this city of monuments recently, I was drawn to a stunning new one nearing completion, a venerable one being given new life and one a few years old growing increasingly more impressive.

The latest monument is the new headquarters for Intelsat, the international telecommunications satellite corporation, sitting incongruously on a hill on the edge of a residential area in the verdant upper northwest quadrant of this quadrant-conscious city.

Sitting is perhaps the wrong word. The glistening, glass-and-aluminium-clad structure composed of a series of octagonal pods and space-frame atriums appears rather to be resting temporarily on a grassy knoll, not unlike a giant space ship from a distant galaxy that has touched down for a brief visit.

Coming upon the $50-million conglomeration at the southwest corner of Connecticut Avenue and Van Ness Street--into which the Intelsat organization is moving--is definitely a close architectural encounter of the third kind.


Got Something Distinctive

It was designed with an expressive, accomplished high-tech flair by John Andrews of Australia, with an assist from the Washignton architectural firm of Notter Finegold & Alexander and landscaper Richard Strong. Intelsat was said to have wanted something distinctive, and it got it.

Of course, the sprawling, stunning structure does not relate well to the dull, pedestrian neighboring buildings. How can it? And its entrances are a bit confusing, but then again, you would not expect to enter a space ship through what seems to be a front door, would you?

The venerable monument is the landmark Pension Building, designed and constructed 102 years ago by Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs as a low-budget, high-profile structure for use for both offices and state functions, in particular inaugural balls.


The result was a well-scaled, relatively modest exterior, which belies a magnificent interior court the size of a football field, towering a stunning 16 stories up to a sky-blue ceiling. In the center of the court, known as the Great Hall, are eight Corinthian columns, said to be the largest in the world.

The space lined with balconies is one of the most dramatic interiors in the world, higher than the nave of Notre Dame in Paris and into which the Pantheon of Rome could fit with ease. Nevertheless, when the processing of pension payments for veterans was transferred to a more modern building after World War II, the structure was threatened with demolition.

Came to the Rescue

To the rescue came preservationists and historians, who lobbied Congress to save the structure and, in 1980, have it declared the National Building Museum. It was a most appropriate dedication.


Under the watchful eye of museum director Bates Lowry, the Great Hall has been restored to its former splendor while adjacent offices are being renovated as exhibition galleries. The effort is quite impressive.

The renovation is scheduled to be completed in September, in time for an inaugural exhibition of architectural drawings for landmark federal buildings, including, of course, the old Pension Building itself.

The monument growing more impressive with time is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the Constitutional Gardens on the Mall, which I visited over the Memorial Day weekend, along with, it seemed, tens of thousands of others in sorrow and silence.

Designed by Maya Ying Lin when she was a 21-year-old Yale architecture student, the polished, simple black granite walls seemingly sinking into the earth and inscribed with the names of the more than 58,000 Americans who perished in the war, is both beautiful and heart rending, and as evocative as when it was dedicated in November, 1982.


Fear of Distraction

There was a worry that the subsequent placement of a flagpole behind the wall and, worse, a realistic bronze statuary grouping of three war-weary, armed soldiers sculpted by Frederic Hart near the entrance to the wall would detract from the memorial. Indeed, the statuary does appear to be a cartoon of sorts, as critics, including The Times’ John Dreyfuss had feared at the time it was proposed.

No doubt the site without the statuary and flagpole would be more in keeping with the intent of the memorial. But because the impact of the black wall cutting into the earth is so strong, so compelling and so moving, the statuary and the flagpole are all but ignored, as they should be.

Visiting the memorial, one is reminded of those who attacked the design of the wall as, among other things, looking like an an erosion-control project and as “Orwellian glop.”


Some of the strongest words came from Tom Wolfe, who, writing in the Washington Post, implied that the design was too modern to be understood by the general public. He called the wall “a tribute to Jane Fonda” and the jury that had picked the design “Mullahs of Modernism.” In keeping with his attacks on modern architecture, he had launched with his book, “From Bauhaus to Our House.”

For his efforts on behalf of regressive and elitist design theories, Wolfe has become a featured attraction at various architecture functions, including serving as one of the keynote speakers at the national AIA convention that opens today in San Francisco. (See related story on Page 15.)

Sideshow to Celebration

Of course, the speakers and panels are really only a sideshow to the institute using the convention to celebrate itself and its members. Among local architects to be honored by being elevated to Fellowships will be John Oliver Cotton of Kamnitzer + Cotton; Albert A. Dorman of Daniel Mann Johnson & Mendenhall; Robert S. Harris, dean of the USC School of Architecture, and Toshikazu Terasawa of O’Leary, Terasawa, Takahashi & DeChellis.


And who knows, maybe someone at the convention will say something or do something that actually might go beyond the profession to possibly raise the public’s design consciousness. In architecture, as in life, hope springs eternal.