The former headquarters of Intelsat, a space-age building on Connecticut Avenue near the Van Ness Metro, will get a new entrance. The change will soften a harsh corner, but it won’t fully repair this non-urban building’s relationship to the street.

the new proposed entry. Bottom: the plaza today. Image from VOA via NCPC.

The existing plaza. Image from Capital City, yeah! on Flickr.

The current entrance on Connecticut Avenue is set back far from the street and up a huge flight of steps. It’s not ADA compliant, and it’s a pretty bleak, bricked-over expanse. The building’s new owner will remove the plaza and replace it with a garden, fountains, and a more visible entrance.

How this building came to be

The building, rebranded “4000 Connecticut Avenue,” is a product of DC’s unique relationship with the federal government. The State Department owns the land as part of the International Center, a campus meant for embassies and governmental buildings. It leased it to Intelsat when that was still an international treaty organization.

After Intelsat went private, Congress changed the law in 2008 to legalize Intelsat’s lease. That opened the door for the 601 Companies to acquire the lease and reposition the building as an office building.

The existing site plan with pedestrian improvements. The main entrance is at the right. Image from VOA via NCPC.

Opened in phases between 1984 and 1988, the building is one of the more notable modernist buildings in DC. Its architect, John Andrews, was an influential Australian architect who made his name designing dramatic brutalist buildings in Canada.

By the time Intelsat ran a competition to design its headquarters in 1979, the two energy crises had put the focus on efficiency. Architects worried that the new expectations would smother exciting design under layers of insulation. And so Andrews’ building won heaps of praise for delivering the large, energy efficient buildings corporations wanted without losing any of the expressive geometry he was known for.

Sectional diagram showing the ideal air flow. Image from the October 1985 Architecture Record.

One thing that earned Andrews particular praise is the way he repeated the same three or four elements, like the octagonal blocks, round towers, and courtyards, to create different effects. The main entrance on International Drive looks like a Battlestar Galactica set. The south entrance is a quiet corporate park. And the north entrance, at Van Ness and Connecticut, closest to the Metro and points downtown, echoes the monumental entries of neoclassical federal buildings and their brutalist successors. 

Section through the main entrance, showing the steep climb.

What didn’t work, and what will get better

Unfortunately, like most grand entries of the period, the entry comes across as stark and intimidating. So it makes sense that 601 Companies wants to make it more welcoming and visible as it becomes the main entrance of the building.

The changes, designed by VOA Associates, will also improve pedestrian circulation around the building, especially the green area along Connecticut which is apparently called “Squirrel Park.”

The new entryway will get rid of a large decrepit plaza. Image from VOA via NCPC.

More openness of the park areas is great. Like a suburban office park, the grassy areas around Intelsat are unwalkable or underused. These changes will make them more into an asset to the community. To me, new entry area is definitely an improvement, aesthetically, making it much more inviting. There are more places to sit, the high-end granite and marble will be nice additions, and the front door details are more humane than Andrews originally planned.

But it still feels like a more ambitious alteration would be appropriate. The accessible entrance is still separate from the main one, and the renovation does not fix the fundamental error of the building, one that goes back to when the site was the secluded campus of the National Bureau of Standards (now NIST).

Now, the site supports an office building that is part of the city. Andrews’s building has a lot of value architecturally, but its value to creating a distinctive place around a Metro station is equally important. The site deserves a bolder adaptive reuse, one that will fill in some of the unusable green space, correcting its outdated disconnection from the neighborhood, even as it preserves the existing building. A good adaptation would make the geometry of original building even more powerful.

But for now, this is okay.