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Cool, but prizeworthy? (Gensler)

Every year around this time, the American Institute of Architects’ D.C. chapter picks the best recent projects designed by its members and from non-native architects’ work in the city. This year’s list is out, and the biggest winner—-picking up both a jury award for excellence and a Presidential citation for sustainability—-is PNC Place, the glassy new office building at 17th and H Street NW.

The jury and AIA’s chapter president used words like “restraint” and “simple” in their praise of the city’s first LEED Platinum certified office building. Makes sense—-it’s basically just a box, with perhaps more elegant than usual facade, and undeniably awesome green features. But what about it, design-wise, is particularly innovative or prizeworthy? Is there any way in which it broke new ground?

The irony is that the building could have been a lot more interesting. When they got the commission, giant architecture firm Gensler held an internal design competition, with landlord PNC Bank acting as a jury. Sitting in on a presentation by the brokers a few weeks ago, I saw the four alternatives, which were much more striking than what they ended up with. PNC, of course, went with the safest and most marketable option; the building’s broker called it “classy” and “something I think is appealing to everybody.”

Classy, fine. Universally appealing, even—-but to the point of blandness, fading into the genuinely uninspired buildings around it (with the exception of the much cooler specimen across the street). And yet, it’s rewarded with the local architecture group’s highest honor, in a decision that I think reflects the persistent conservatism of D.C.’s built environment.

Truly great architecture isn’t appealing to everybody, because it’s different from what everybody else is doing. PNC Place doesn’t clear that bar.