Playing now to rave reviews: Robo-Building

ARCHITECTURE REVIEW

August 08, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

Amid the green pastures of Prince George's County, architect Joseph Boggs has taken a brave stab at putting a face on the future.

In a new office park just off the Capital Beltway, Mr. Boggs has forged a turbo-charged time machine for the information age, a gleaming metal Robo-Building that not only gives occupants a taste of the next century but looks as if it belongs there as well.

This $22 million adventure in cyber-tecture is the headquarters of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. It was designed to house, appropriately enough, offices for the union whose members design and manufacture jet engines, turbines and other high-tech machinery that will run the world of tomorrow.

When union leaders decided several years ago to sell their 1956 headquarters in downtown Washington and build a new one at the Presidential Corporate Center in Upper Marlboro, they wanted a building that would take them to the 21st century in form as well as function.

They also wanted a building that not only could be constructed entirely by union members but also would showcase many of their skills -- a landmark that would celebrate the machine aesthetic.

They got all that and more from Mr. Boggs, a partner of AI/Boggs of Washington. He responded with a sophisticated structure that is a direct descendant of the Machine-in-the-Garden aesthetic pioneered by the European architect Le Corbusier -- but with a 21st-century twist.

A veritable collage of machine images -- suggesting everything from a jetliner's fuselage to the rocket-launching gantries at Cape Canaveral -- the metal and granite building at 9000 Machinists Place strongly evokes the space-age machinery its members build. In many ways it is a machine in itself and from various angles looks as if it is about to fire up and take off.

"This is my seminal work," said Mr. Boggs, a resident of Annapolis. "I've spent eight years trying to get it right."

Located on a 10-acre tract, the 125,000-square-foot building starts with a fairly conventional layout. It is a long, four-level structure with a slightly off-center elevator core that provides access to the union's different departments -- education, legal, executive and administrative offices as well as support services such as a computer center, auditorium, cafeteria and fully equipped television studio.

Aided by design team members Michael Patton, Frank Kaye and Barry Weiner, Mr. Boggs clad the building's three upper levels in a silvery metal skin that recalls the jets that fly in and out of nearby Andrews Air Force Base. But he set the building on a granite base -- a concession to clients who wanted it firmly anchored in the landscape.

Perforated sunscreens and vertical trusses shaped like launching pad gantries help give the building a more three-dimensional quality while further evoking the aerospace industry; so do the end facades, whose arched roofs and ventlike louvers recall the exhausts of a giant turbine.

The machine motif continues on the inside, where four L-shaped granite walls frame the central space. On one side of the atrium is a three-story staircase, which looks like an over-scaled worm gear working its way downward through the building. The

soaring interior spaces are articulated by machinelike forms and materials, signs that this organization appreciates fine workmanship. The barrel-vaulted skylight frame, for example, is reminiscent of an airplane fuselage, while the interior atrium evokes the inside of a precision-engineered machine housing.

Many spaces make reference to the work of the union members, including the metal-clad receptionist's desk and carefully calibrated elevator cabs. One of the most engaging spaces is the board room, a museumlike chamber with a curved metal ceiling that resembles the underbelly of a 747. Lining the wood-paneled walls are glass cases filled with scale models of the union members' products -- tractors, rockets, Trident submarines. All the union's extremes are captured in that one room -- the small and the great, the parts and the whole.

The executive suites are lavish, but the group work spaces are attractive, too. As might be expected, this is one building where copiers, fax machines and computer terminals look right at home, rather than sticking out like alien creatures. Given the proliferation of office machines today and the difficulty of incorporating them into the workplace, that is no small feat.

The metaphor that drives this design, of course, is that the employees or visitors are actually inside one of the machinists' machines. But unlike the dark, Chaplinesque world of Modern Times, the silent film in which the future was presented as a nightmare of over-industrialization where people literally got caught in the gears of bureaucracy, the machinists' building offers a far brighter take on the future.

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