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The K Street Box, the stout office block that became Washington’s preferred commercial building by the ’70s, doesn’t get many accolades. There’s not much room to make architectural magic when the prime directive is to max out the available square footage. So when Dan Emberley decided that K Street would be the subject of the featured tour for this year’s Architecture Week, he wasn’t hunting for spectacular design. “I asked myself where the city was,” he says. And that led him to the unspectacular heart of Lobbyists’ Row.
“I thought I was going to be taking potshots at famous architects for the work they did in D.C.,” says Emberley, a 40-something office manager and architecture aficionado who lives in Dupont Circle. But then, with Mary Fitch, executive director of the D.C. chapter of the American Institute of Architects, Emberley researched the area for the tour they planned together. “I discovered that even though there wasn’t great architecture, there were a whole lot of things that worked. I went from looking for great architecture to ‘Let’s look at a neighborhood.’”
The neighborhood, for the purposes of Emberley’s Sept. 6 tour, begins at the southeast corner of K and 16th Streets NW. Several dozen people gather in front of the ornate St. Regis Hotel, which once marked the eastern boundary of commercial development ambitions. To the east, many of the buildings are still early-20th-century palaces like the St. Regis; elegant art-moderne buildings from the ’40s occupy the northeast and southwest corners.
But on the remaining corner sits a charmless concrete-framed box with windows like perforations, an early version of the architecture that went on to shape the K Street canyon west of 16th. The Solar Building, 1000 16th St., sits unoccupied, awaiting the addition of three floors, more glazing, and the day it can unveil its new “distinctive” identity: 1601 K Street, “Washington’s new power address,” as its construction billboard puts it.
K Street is more impressive on letterhead than in person; it’s invoked more often as a concept than as a place. Wall Street has the icon, the colonnaded stock exchange, the image filed away in every stock film library. But when HBO airs K Street this falla semi-reality series advertised on actual-reality K Street bus shelterswill there be any exteriors of the real thing? Will George Clooney know it when he sees it?
With an amplifier hung around his neck to project his voice above the traffic, Emberley warns the gathered tourists that they are about to see where architecture meets the bottom line. He asks them to keep an open mind.
Among the first stops is the I.M. Pei-designed Christian Science complex on 16th Street, a half-block south of K. Emberley herds the group into the brick-paved plaza between the two concrete buildings and asks how many have ever been in the space before. Two raise their hands. “I would call this a failure,” Emberley says. “This could have been K Street. We did not make this decision. If we just copied what they did in New York, you’d have a lot of these running around the city.”
Unlike their New York counterparts, says Emberley, D.C. developers aren’t compelled to build open-air public plazas. So they build right to the sidewalk and up to the 130-foot height limit.
In Emberley’s estimation, this architecture of greedy motives beats out the architecture of good intentions. Build a plaza in D.C. and you get an underused, sun-baked void. Instead, K Street is a continuous corridor of structures, granting the area a sense of place that sprawling, unwalkable commercial districts in Houston and Los Angeles don’t have, he says. K Street works. It channels pedestrian traffic along wide, tree-lined sidewalks and car traffic along four center lanes, with buffer areas in between for service access.
At Farragut Square, Emberley points out one of the neighborhood’s purported tragedies: the Army Navy Club, a handsome Italianate building finished in 1911, which was expandedthe interior gutted, the façade “bumped out” horizontally and a penthouse addedin the ’80s to maximize rentable office space. A leading local architectural historian mentioned it in a book about destroyed architecture. Emberley plays devil’s advocate: “On the flip side, it serves its original functionaccommodations and office space.”
The history of K Street is that of the slow triumph of function over form. Emberley and Fitch hold up historical photos of the old Farragut Square. “Think about being in Sheridan Circle,” he says. “You are surrounded by mansions in a genteel square.” And then the genteel square becomes modern K Street: Mansions are converted to apartments, then into cramped offices for lawyers and lobbyists, and finally into the enormous wedding-cake boxes, with garages below, retail on the first floor, large indoor atria to maximize window offices, and floor plates stacked as high as local codes allow.
“I think these represent a reverence of commerce,” Fitch says. “Washington’s downtown means business….No one expects a lobbying firm to be fun.” The tour reaches imperious International Square, a mass of concrete that in three pushes between 1974 and 1981 stamped out almost the entire 1800 block between K and I Streetsbut today, a Saturday, the entrance to the atrium is locked.
The free market had its way with K Street. But, as Emberley repeats many times, it could have been worse, the way it is at L’Enfant Plaza, where “the entire neighborhood is leveled,” he says. “That was an option! K Street never happened that way. It happened very incrementally.” One brain wasn’t in charge, but many, he says, making small changes over a long time according to a few basic code constraints. As a result, K Street is much more varied than it seems at first glance.
A building at the corner of 20th Street sports a toylike corner turret. “[Architect] David Childs wouldn’t have built a Lego castle if the other buildings weren’t so dull,” says Emberley. In the mid-’90s, at 19th Street, Cesar Pelli crafted a glass castle with delicate steel spandrels. Another favorite is on 21st Street: the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services Building, completed in 1970 with a ribbon of white concrete arches serving as a canopy at ground level.
A tourist sidles up to Emberley on the way to the next stop to suggest that K Street could have been more people-friendly. “Frankly, I don’t care,” he replies.
But some considerations do rate in Emberley’s judgment. The tour nears its end at the International Finance Corporation building, built in the mid-’90s at 22nd Street, a low note. Emberley chastises architect Michael Graves (or his client) for replacing a number of smaller-scale buildings with a giant structure that doesn’t offer anything at street level other than glimpses of a cafeteria. Many K Street buildings appear monolithic from a distance, but Graves’ building also seems inaccessible when you get up close. And that’s breaking the rules.
“Georgetown isn’t an important architectural stop because of architecture,” says Emberley, referring to individual structures. “It’s brilliant because it’s an ensemble of buildings that work together.” K Street, he argues, “is becoming an ensemble.”
The tour ends at George Washington University. Later, in a sudden flight of mixed-use fancy, Emberley imagines removing the Kennedy Center superblock from its isolated plinth, slicing it into five pieces of one theater apiece, and then slipping the portions between the boxes of K Street to give the neighborhood more life. Maybe, he muses, the office blocks will someday be converted into apartments.
“Any building can be any building,” he says. CP