1735 New York Avenue, NW
Dear Mr. Ayers:
In its public meeting of 21 April conducted by videoconference, the Commission of Fine Arts reviewed a proposed concept design for renovations and alterations to the American Institute of Architects (AIA) national headquarters building and site at 1735 New York Avenue, NW (case number SL 22-074). The Commission expressed general support for the project but did not take an action, providing the following comments for the development of the design and requesting another concept submission.
The Commission members commended the AIA for its intention that this comprehensive renovation project serve as a national model demonstrating its commitment to sustainability, equity, and innovation. They noted that the role of the AIA, as the national professional organization for architects, demands the highest standards in undertaking a model project such as this in the planning and design of both the architecture and landscape. In addition to advising close collaboration between the design disciplines on the project team, they recommended consultation with other interested and expert groups—for example, with the community of mobility-impaired people regarding the best accessible routes through the site, and with scholars of Black history for the potential recognition of Black contributions to the built environment.
For the site, the Commission members encouraged designing the landscape as a thread that pulls together the site’s two buildings—the Brutalist AIA headquarters building and the Federal-style Octagon House—and commented that the contrast in scale between these very different buildings may best be resolved with a strong, active design for the landscape, exemplified by inclined paths that would lead visitors through a series of site features. However, they found that the many disparate elements of the proposed design seem to compete for attention; they recommended a design that relies less on structures and more on landscape elements such as trees, plantings, and manipulations of the ground plane. Some questioned the architectural character of the wood trellis framing the central space and its potential displacement of existing trees; they suggested studying alternatives, perhaps using actual trees in accordance with the project’s goal of incorporating biophilic principles. In general, they emphasized the importance of safeguarding the health of the existing mature trees within the garden and along the sidewalks, noting that oak trees are particularly susceptible to construction impacts, and that the proposed work comes well within the critical root zones of several of the trees.
In their discussion, the Commission members emphasized the importance of providing universal accessibility within the site in a more gracious and equitable way. Accordingly, they recommended studying the relatively level route from 18th Street into the site as a key piece of the entrance sequence that can also connect to routes between the upper plaza and the lower garden behind the Octagon. Understanding that the segment of the sculptural wall at the main site entrance is no longer proposed to extend into public space, they recommended refining the design of the zigzag sloped walkway from New York Avenue, possibly making it wider and with more generous landings, in order to accommodate people moving at different speeds and to enrich the visitor experience along this important path. For the treatment of the central plaza, they questioned the proposed paving of irregular red sandstone blocks, which they observed may compromise universal access; in general, they recommended developing the design to encourage occupancy of this space—which is potentially the most compelling focus within the landscape.
For the building alterations, the Commission members expressed support for the undulating array of glass panels proposed for the main facade, finding the concept of biomimicry for the design of the panels to be poetic and engaging. However, they observed that the panels’ design appears to have a character between the extremes of quiet backdrop and sculptural expression; they suggested studying a panel assembly that is more emphatically expressive of the stated biophilic intent. For both the building and the site, they recommended selecting materials that support the AIA’s message of sustainability, not just by offsetting the resultant carbon load off-site, but through careful study of the materials’ intrinsic experiential and sustainable qualities and their visible on-site presence.
The Commission looks forward to further review of this project. Please coordinate the next submission with the staff, which is available to assist you with the development of the design.
/s/Thomas E. Luebke, FAIA
Stephen Ayers, Project Executive
American Institute of Architects
1735 New York Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20006
cc: Conor Dunn, EHDD Architecture
Walter Hood, Hood Design Studio
Mary Kay Lanzillotta, Hartman-Cox Architects