Beginning in the mid-1980s, Washington experienced an architectural counterrevolution. Many of the city’s new office buildings were designed in a style—-variously termed “postmodern,” “historicist,” or “contextual”—-that drew on 19th and early-20th-century models. Glass curtain walls and poured concrete were out. But architecture schools still instill reverence for the “new,” even if most of what they prize as novel is now almost a century old. So it was inevitable that the vogue for huge glass boxes would return, and recently it has. But D.C.’s latest examples of the new appear oddly antique.
The recently completed office building called 1101 New York Avenue NW (which actually fronts on I Street) shows how the mid-20th-century “International Style” has degenerated. Although the 12-story structure is clad entirely in glass, it lacks the bold, simple geometry essential to the work of such Bauhaus masters as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The bulk of the box is reduced by dividing the frontage into two large protruding bays, with the center of the facade recessed. The corners have a series of shallow notches, designed to facilitate more window offices. In short, 1101 New York has the massing of a old masonry (or recent historicist) structure. Designed by old-school modernist Kevin Roche, the building is a neoclassical edifice in unconvincing Bauhaus drag.
Like most contemporary Washington white-collar palaces, 1101 New York shortchanges the street level, and provides a hostile environment for retail businesses. But perhaps the worst thing about the place is its stripped-down portico. This crude shelter over the main entrance is the architectural equivalent of a cheap plastic sun visor you might buy on the boardwalk in Ocean City. Ironically, such an overhang could have been integrated much more elegantly into a neotraditional design. It was the decision to go “sleek” that made this feature turn out so gawky.