Private-public venture lures top architects. Scheme could enliven design of federal buildings throughout US

Design of most government office buildings throughout the United States in recent years has left much to be desired. One has only to look at the new Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. Federal Building in Boston or the United States Department of Labor headquarters here to see the lack of design inspiration and understand the resulting public disaffection with such buildings. Congress is considering an initial step to change that, however. Inspired in part by the Reagan administration's emphasis on public-private partnerships, a new provision may, for the first time, allow a developer to construct an office building on federal property. What has sparked the real estate community's interest is a government guarantee. Approximately 60 percent of the space in the building is pre-leased, in this case to the US courts for administrative offices. The developer is free to rent the remaining space at market rates.

Perhaps even more important than the economics are the aesthetics. The Architect of the Capitol, who is in charge because the Congress owns the land, is insisting upon architectural quality, and demanding that the structure be not just another mundane, speculative office building of the kind lining the streets of American cities. As a result, some of the country's most prominent architects are involved in a competition for the design.

Boston Properties, the real estate arm of publisher Mortimer Zuckerman's financial empire, is working with architect Edward L. Barnes, whose Dallas Art Museum has won wide acclaim. Trammell Crow (in joint venture with the Regan Company), a Texas developer with a growing national portfolio, has teamed with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, a firm noted for its corporate design over some 50 years. Gerald D. Hines Interests, the Houston development firm that pioneered the idea of using the finest architects - particularly Philip Johnson and John Burgee - for speculative office buildings, has asked Pritzker Prize winner Kevin Roche to be his designer.

The two other developers in the bidding are locally based. The Oliver Carr Company is working with Kohn Pederson Fox, considered among critics to be the hottest young up-and-coming firm these days, while Quadrangle Development (in joint venture with Aetna Life and Casaulty) has hired Henry N. Cobb of I.M. Pei & Partners. Cobb designed the new Portland Art Museum in Maine and Philadelphia's Commerce Square, now under construction. Interestingly, neither Barnes, Kohn Pederson Fox, nor Roche has ever built in Washington before.

According to Elliott Carroll, executive assistant to the Architect of the Capitol George White, the project makes great sense for the government. ``It saves money and gives as much design control as if the government built it,'' he notes. Last year, because of the budget crunch, the Congress refused to appropriate $71 million for a similar building. Under this new plan, the government, in return for providing the land, gets a cut rate on the rent and acquires the building for nothing after 30 years.

Design control is indeed important, because the site is immediately adjacent to the landmark Union Station, itself under renovation, and just down from the US Capitol. The Architect of the Capitol has issued strict architectural guidelines: a maximum height of 94 feet and a requirement that the building be covered in stone. Proposals are due March 2.

After that, Congress must still approve the creative solution, but the General Services Administration, which manages federal real estate except around the Capitol, is eyeing the concept as a possibility for emulation. That's none too soon.

Carleton Knight III reports regularly on architecture for the Monitor.

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