Copper Stands Out in Two New Downtown DC Office Buildings


People use all kinds of metaphors to describe buildings. Le Corbusier said that a house was a living machine. A prankster once joked that the Kennedy Center was the box the Lincoln Memorial went into. After seeing two new downtown office buildings, I started thinking of one as the grown-up version of the other.

The baby building is the new Australian Embassy at 16th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW. I imagine when it grows it will look like Midtown Center, which was completed in 2018 three blocks from 15th and L NW streets.

What strikes me about these two buildings are the vertical copper accents. On the Australian Embassy, ​​the vertical ribs are the russet color of new, barely emerging copper. On Midtown Center, the multiple panels are green, like copper that ages after being exposed to the elements.

You might not care about their modern design, but I think you’ll agree they’re similar. It’s not unusual. Like musicians growing up listening to the same popular songs or getting hooked on a new instrument — the synthesizer! Auto tune! – and integrate these styles and tools into their own music, so that architects draw on similar sources of inspiration.

This is especially true with classic buildings, of which Washington has plenty.

“There are a lot of rules,” said Eric Jenkinsarchitect and visiting lecturer at the University of Maryland and the Maryland Institute College of Art.

“It’s almost a grammar,” Jenkins said. “You have to follow the grammar. If you don’t follow the grammar, you can say so. Most architects in Washington, DC – most classical architects – follow the rules very clearly. They know how to adapt them to different situations.

Over the decades, Washington architects have paid homage to some of the world’s best-known buildings, adding a few modifications.

“Apparently the portico of the National Portrait Gallery is an elevator from the Parthenon in Athens,” Jenkins said. “The facade of the Supreme Court building is the Maison Carrée in Nîmes, France, enlarged.”

Seriously, Google. The resemblance is amazing.

A classic building telegraphs its intentions quite clearly: Here is a serious place, a place of refined culture or sober jurisprudence.

“There’s a sense that it comes down to something that unites us all,” Jenkins said. “It’s not just a style. It is about maintaining a cultural heritage.

Of course, these two new buildings are quite far from the Supreme Court or the National Gallery in their designs. And that’s where advancements in construction techniques and materials come in. The modern office building may have something in common with Midtown Center and the Australian Embassy: thin exterior glass walls and tense which are hung like curtains. This allows architects to create as much floor space as possible – thick walls eat up space – and in a height-limited city like DC, space is limited.

Then there is copper.

“We see more copper these days,” said the architect Mike Hickok of the DC Hickok Cole company.

He should know. His company made 1701 Rhode Island Ave. NW, which features shiny copper horizontal and vertical accents that remind me of lizard skin.

Although copper has long been used for roofs – the Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress has a magnificent copper dome – it’s not the easiest material to use for facades. It can corrode on contact with other metals. And over time, copper develops a patina, that verdigris color you either like or dislike.

The Midtown Center copper has been pre-weathered. The 14-story building was designed by ShoP architects. The copper facade, partner of Shop Gregg Pasquarelli says the Arch20 website, is “a subtle 21st century interpretation of a material associated with DC’s great architectural heritage”

It is certainly the same color as the many statues of Washington.

Hickok said architects always think symbolically, even if it’s not always obvious to people who see their buildings. His company designed the NPR headquarters on North Capitol Street. This building also has vertical accents: colored glass fins spaced at different intervals. Hickok said they represent a diagram of a sound wave, how it compresses and expands.

The Australian Embassy was designed by Australian firm Bates Smart, with partner architect KCCT of Washington. Director of Bates Smart Kristen White wrote on the company’s website that these copper ribs — which have been treated to stay that color — help evoke the light and desert landscape of Australia.

All good architecture has a thoughtful reason behind it, Hickok said.

“It may not always be obvious, but it doesn’t have to be,” he said. “It’s like a modern work of art. We like it or we don’t like it without necessarily knowing what the artist thought of it.

I like these two buildings.

Luz W. German