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Proposed Architecture of the MCI Center

Shaping The City...

Architectural Splendor Would Propel D.C. Arena Beyond Thrill of Victory

by Roger K. Lewis

reprinted without permission, from "The Washington Post" Saturday, August 5, 1995, p. E8-E9.

"It's the wrong site for an arena, so who cares about its architecture, it's just an exercise in decorating a box!"

That was one of the attitudes expressed during a recent Historic Preservation Review Board hearing on the proposed D.C. arena, now dubbed the MCI Arena (sic.). The remark was indicative of a belief shared by no small number of citizens and political officials. The "architecture" of proposed projects often carries little or no weight in public debates, as if architectural quality were inconsequential.

Indeed, matters of great aesthetic concern to architects--especially the composition of a proposed building's mass and facades--frequently are pre-empted by discourse focused solely on functional performance, regulatory conformity, traffic and parking impact, budgets and financing and historic preservation.

While these are vital, indispensable considerations, they should not exclude consideration of architectural aspirations that are primarily visual and symbolic in nature.

Consider what happens when architecture isn't on the agenda: the Washington Convention Center and Techworld come to mind.

Architecture does matter and matters a lot, especially in the life of cities. It should never be dismissed as incidental to the evaluation of a proposed project's merits or desirability. Nor should it be sidestepped because some people believe design to be merely a question of taste and aesthetic preference, a matter not susceptible to regulation or negotiation.

The MCI Arena (sic.), to be build in a site in Chinatown over the Gallery Place Metro station, is a good example of how treatment of the "box"--its public architectural visage--will be critical to the ultimate quality of the neighborhood and city in which it sits. It also exemplifies how a rigorous process of design and design review can contribute to the steady improvement of a project's architectural imagery.

Being designed for Abe Pollin's sports organization by a consortium of three architectural firms--Ellerbe Becket, Florance Eichbaum Esocoff King, and Devrouax & Purnell--known as D.C. Arena Associates, the project is advancing through multiple review processes even as its form and financing continue to evolve. Just a couple weeks ago, shortly after the preservation review board hearing, the latest architectural concept for the arena received the blessing of the Commission of Fine Arts.

Since design began, several cycles of transformation and refinement have made the arena's facades better and better, the result of a number of specific design philosophies and strategies adopted by the architects and their client.

The designers fortunately abandoned initial inclinations toward producing another Washington neoclassical mutant, an arena derivative of the architectural language of the Federal Triangle or the National Portrait Gallery, its immediate neighbor on the west side of Seventh Street. If pursued, a historical, classical-cladding approach probably would have led to an overscaled, disproportionate edifice sitting ponderously on its site and embodying little of the arena's intrinsic vitality, character and internal complexity.

Recognizing the diversity of the neighborhood and surrounding streets--each of the four sides of the site is unique--the design team appropriately has chosen to compose a building that responds circumstantially to varying contextual conditions around its perimeter. For example, the south elevation, facing F Street, is symmetrical, but the east and west elevations, facing Sixth and Seventh streets respectively, are dynamically asymmetrical. And the north elevation, facing Chinatown, has a strongly defined center, yet is not symmetrical.

Similarly, the architects have allowed the building's internal context, the arena's special interior spaces and functions, to sponsor dramatic articulations of the exterior. Contrasting planes of closed and open surface--opaque masonry walls interplaying with transparent walls of glass--will animate the facades of this block-long box both day and night.

To further reduce the scale of the box, the building mass is layered from inside to outside. This strategy avoids flat, uninterrupted wall planes stretching monotonously for hundreds of feet adjacent to surrounding sidewalks. For example, part of the arena's curvilinear bowl will be visible as a glassy, convex volume framed by screening columns and solid masonry walls along the east and west facades.

The block-long southern concourse--full of shops, eateries and, during events, thousands of people--will be visible through walls of glass subdivided by a systematized patter of horizontal and vertical mullions. In front of the glazed concourse wall sits a soaring portico, classically allusive but modern in structure and detailing, framing the arena's main entrance facing F Street.

At the arena's northwest corner, another major entrance is signaled, not by a lofty portico but by a great, gridded window wrapping around the building's corner and facing both west and north. Below this window and hovering above the sidewalk and ground floor entrances is a undulating canopy inspired by traditional Chinese architecture, an attempt to acknowledge the arena's relationship to Chinatown. The canopy shelters doors leading to both the arena and the Gallery Place Metro station. Canopy details still are being studied and refined.

Responding to the east and west approach vistas along G Street, which must be closed between Sixth and Seventh streets to accommodate the arena, the design team has proposed a tower-like marquee surmounted by a great lantern. This punctuating vertical element would constructively meet three worthwhile goals: to identify the arena and display event information; to interrupt visually the horizontal composition of the east and west facades as seen looking north or south along Sixth and Seventh streets and to provide a visual landmark, visible from a distance, aligned with G Street on both sides of the arena.

To lower the arena's perceived height and bulk, the architects have set back the attic level and vaulted the roof from the dominant street walls. Consequently, the height of the arena's primary cornice line will be comparable to that of nearby institutional and commercial buildings. Moreover, from many vantage points, the arched volume of the roof will not be visible at all.

Through use of a limited but varied palette of materials--limestone and brick, metal and, most important, generous helpings of glass--the arena has become increasingly less monolithic and more transparent. Invitingly porous and better connected physically and psychologically to the streetscape, it promises to be the destination that the city hopes it will be, thanks in no small measure to its architectural composition.

The architectural bottom line is that, happily, the arena's expressive form derives much of its inspiration from local urban circumstances, from unique demands and opportunities inherent in its program and from forthright use of modern construction materials and techniques.

The arena site is less than perfect. But if given the choice, I would choose an admirable work of urban architecture on an imperfect site rather than a mediocre work of architecture on a presumably less problematic site.

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Roger K. Lewis is a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland and a practicing architect.

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The design of the MCI Center has been officially revealed, as of 27 September 1995. Stay here for more details as they come available.

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