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William Pedersen’s new Gannett headquarters assures that D.C. architecture has a future. Too bad it’s in Tysons Corner.

In a lot of cities that, like Washington, consider themselves world-class, the arresting design of the Gannett Co. Inc.’s new headquarters complex at Tysons Corner would come as nothing more than a subtle sign of civic sophistication, a run-of-the-mill reminder of the local culture’s forward motion. Brought here, though, this glittering blue apparition along the Dulles Toll Road is a more conspicuous success, one that seems both thrilling and depressing: thrilling because it sets a tough standard of refinement for new architecture in the region, and depressing because the standard will scarcely mean anything in the end.

But the building is even more surprising given that Gannett has worked so hard over the years to turn journalism into another form of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits, with its patronizing insistence on slogans and summaries over substance and complexity, from USA Today to WUSA and on down. When you look at its new headquarters, which is opening for business this month, you have to marvel that the company has done something the hard way, and it actually turned out beautiful.

It is a pain to get there, and sort of sad and ironic that you have to leave the city for the edge of the original Edge City to see a halfway decent new piece of architecture—but there it is, emerging from the trees by the highway, a chimera in Tysons Corner’s deadscape. From the toll road, the broad body of the nearly 800,000-square-foot complex at first appears to be one of those lenticular billboards, a hallucinatory Cracker Jack toy built to “a scale that relates to the speed of the highway,” as its architect, William Pedersen of New York’s Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, says. This view of the complex shows its least active side, yet it’s the last thing you expect to find on the dull drive to the airport. Above the trees rises a gigantic chamfered rectangle, 12 stories tall sloping down to about 10, with fragile-looking walls that reflect light in the colors of fresh lake water.

If the shape of the Gannett headquarters seems a little unhinged, its wrapper is more rational, with thin, silvery lines scoring the surface vertically. It looks rational, however, only until you get up close and note that the lines are mullions holding narrow fins of glass that refract the light, collectively softening the edges of the structure and making its great mass dissolve into the air like a mirage.

Once you take three lefts off the toll road and go down a long, lonesome hill through an office-park valley to the proper entrance of the 300-acre Gannett property, the sidewalks take you into a sheltered plaza tucked between two large buildings, one for the Gannett Co. Inc. and the other for USA Today. Behind this forecourt, two glass cubes skew this way and that before stepping up to a low-rise office block that connects the complex’s dominant structures in a dissonant orchestra of lines and grids. Atop the low-rise, a terrace of trees floats quietly.

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The complex’s money shot, however, would have to include the scheme’s sine qua non, two elevator towers pulled out of the buildings and expressed as architecture rather than concealed as guts. The composition would please the constructivists, and those slender towers, in particular, would delight Willem Marinus Dudok—they’re ringers for the campanile that the Dutch architect designed for the town hall of Hilversum, the Netherlands, in the ’20s.

Pedersen has betrayed his admiration for Dudok’s overlapping, interpenetrating designs before—notably in the design of the World Bank in downtown D.C., completed in 1997. With the World Bank, Pedersen was trying to tell us all something about our city that many had failed to see: The building offers a depressing critique of Washington’s commercial architecture in its canted, faceted glass walls, in the cubist collages of its metal skin, and in the sheer excitement that it radiates from every angle—especially the vaulted glass roof peeking up just so superciliously above the surrounding buildings as if to look beyond the savage mediocrity of downtown’s eclectic ’70s and ’80s milieu. The World Bank building quickens rather than deadens the block and has set a daunting threshold for new architecture in the area—one that hasn’t been equaled until now, by Pedersen.

Like Dudok, Pedersen is sometimes accused of being just a stylist, a plastic surgeon who can make the skin of a building look less boring than the structure within. That charge is only partly true—and only partly a slam—for, after all, people despair about the state of architecture mainly because of what they can see from the street. And Pedersen’s instincts as an urbanist are scarcely in doubt: Since the early ’90s—with his DG Bank tower in Frankfurt, for example—he has perfected the art of shoehorning skyscrapers into difficult urban places so that they look like not one building but a cluster of several, with each side showing a different attitude toward a different part of the city. The DG tower was the first built example of what Pedersen calls, with debts to Bach, a “three-part” building, a large mass broken down into discrete contrapuntal sections. Each part has its own personality, yet all contribute to a coherent whole. It’s an interesting formal conceit, and yet in context it makes for good urbanism, too. The city is not the same on all sides, so why should the building be?

After decades of Mies van der Rohe derivatives and worse on the world’s skylines, the DG building came like a bolt from the blue. The multiplicity of its approach rehumanized the high-rise and re-established the skyscraper’s relevance just when people who loved cities had begun to hate the bullishness of tall buildings. The silhouettes and gossamer surfaces of Pedersen’s other breakthrough projects, such as the tower at 1250 Boulevard René-Lévesque Ouest in Montreal and the Chifley Tower in Sydney, seem inevitable and organic—not strangers but friends you haven’t met.

Yet at Tysons, Pedersen is dealing not with the ecology of the city but with that of one of your more perverse suburbs—with the emphasis on “sub.” If the Rotarian rhetoric holds and Tysons is indeed on its way to growing into a “real” city, I’m too busy driving to notice. In its adolescence, Tysons has acquired a familiarity that makes it all the more surreal when you consider how readily a pitiable human being, left to his or her own defenses without a car or driver, drowns in the pell-mell infrastructure of its streets, which are nearly all as wide as Las Vegas Boulevard.

It’s one thing to steer your car conveniently into the Container Store parking lot on a Saturday to stock up on jars, but it’s another matter altogether to run like hell across six lanes of traffic during a weekday to get lunch at McDonald’s. Life is yours to defend along Leesburg Pike. One Wednesday, I saw several clots of office workers, some in slingbacks, others in sneakers, trudging down the asphalt shoulder at noon, their keys and cell phones in hand and a whole lot of hot, smelly traffic whizzing by just a few yards away.

People who work for Gannett and USA Today won’t have to worry about walking anywhere, of course, because this is a media-age work environment—the main medium being gasoline. The complex isolates itself a good mile from anything you could call services, including Metrorail. The company’s old headquarters in Rosslyn sits just a couple of blocks from the subway, and you have to question the wisdom of taking 1,700 employees off the rail grid and having them schlep just beyond the Beltway every day in what will most likely be their cars. Gannett, however, has made it possible to park your car, go for a run, pick up the dry cleaning, fill a prescription, play volleyball, and buy carryout for the whole family without ever leaving its campus. Self-containment serves as a solution to Tysons’ particular pathology, even if it was also very much a factor in its development.

Because the Gannett site has no bearings architecturally, Pedersen had ultimate sculptural advantage in designing the compound. Specific overtures to surrounding structures would be ridiculous, because there’s no such thing as good company in Tysons: You can’t see neighboring buildings, and they’re all ugly anyway. So Pedersen created an object as much as he created a building, a structure aloof and hermetic for all its gregarious transparency. In the design of the immediate grounds, Arlington landscape architect Michael Vergason responded in kind, installing an irregular cascade of linear stone walls converging down a small slope from the entrance plaza and directing a stream of water into a pond. (The stone, incidentally, is largely Carderock hewn at Tri-State Stone on Seven Locks Road in Bethesda.)

Gannett’s spokespeople cannily decline to disclose the cost of the complex (“Oh, we don’t need to go there,” says one), but, materially, it’s as nice as the Ritz-Carlton and perhaps nicer, with no scrimping on the interior’s Georgia marble floors and black Impala granite, the silk-on-silk damask in the boardroom, and the wood finishes that get richer as you go upstairs, from sycamore to cherry to sapele. The cheapest thing that Pedersen brought into the project was natural light, by keeping the larger buildings shallow and situating them to take full advantage of the sun. Daylight penetrates even the heart of the complex, into those minimalist rows and rows of Vitra furniture and Artemide lamps that define the neomodern office.

Presumably, if you were to go to work at Gannett, you’d learn your way around the place soon enough, but, frankly, it’s a little dizzying the first time. When you enter the deep, triple-height main lobby, your choices are several—to the left for the training and conference center, to the right for USA Today, downstairs for chow, and up the lyrical, lightweight suspended stair to God knows what. And if you take the elevator, you have a choice between a regular cab and a glass one. The latter whooshes up smoothly through a quartzite canyon carved between panels of metal-limned glass. It deposits you on any of several upper floors opening onto mesalike terraces, which are planted up handsomely to serve as a sort of tonic during those long double days at the paper.

Knowing what I do about Gannett’s journalism, I might have expected a more conservative, kit-of-parts design for its HQ, a scheme reliant on the lowest cost estimates and maximum usable space. At least, that’s what we’ve come to expect with most new office developments in the Washington region. Dramatic forms? Forget it. Eccentric interiors splendid with sunlight? You must be dreaming. Office space is at a premium. That’s always been the excuse for Washington’s dull buildings, from the old K Street to the new East End, and it seems to apply at Tysons as well.

But as a corporate architect, Pedersen has a discreet gift for bringing his buttoned-down clients close to—but not over—the edge. He would never be counted among the world’s more radical talents—the Germans might even consider him a bore—but the Gannett project, following the World Bank so closely, marks him as among the more exciting modernists to have come to town. For a moment, it seemed that the thrill of the World Bank building might have proved infectious to the commercial real-estate barons of downtown, the John Akridges and Herb Millers, who have asserted themselves like whales in a lap pool. But although we’ve seen those developers and others turn so many idle parcels throughout the central city into new office blocks (what is it, 20 new buildings since 1996? I’ve lost count…), the most heartening thing you can say about downtown D.C. is that there is more than an ample supply of architects badly copying Pedersen’s ’90s works out there: Notice all those sine-curved canopies, cleverly interrupted masses, and doodad pylons.

But after you get in the car, take a long, long drive out to the ‘burbs, and take one look at the real thing, that stuff isn’t heartening at all. CP