Architecture as Diplomacy

At the World Bank, Architecture as Diplomacy

By ROBERT SHAROFF
Published: March 09, 1997

THE new World Bank complex now approaching completion here is about as un-Washington — and as un-banklike — as a building gets.

In a city known for its classical influences, there is nary a cornice or pediment in sight. Moreover, there is a total absence of such traditional materials as marble and brass. And with the exception of granite curbstones mandated by the city — and various wood veneers — all the building materials are manmade.

But the reasons for these departures are far from apolitical.

”The World Bank is in the business of assisting third-world countries and the whole language of classicism is very much connected to the issue of colonialism,” said William Pedersen of Kohn Pedersen Fox,the New York-based main architect for the project. ”We did not want to get involved in that debate.”

The complex, which occupies a square block along Pennsylvania Avenue two blocks west of the White House, comprises three buildings grouped around a 13-story atrium. One of the buildings and the atrium are new and two are what is left of the bank’s original headquarters, a complex of six fairly nondescript office buildings erected over roughly 25 years beginning in the mid-40’s.

The original buildings were linked on some floors, but not on others, and had separate climate-control systems. ”It was a complete hodgepodge,” said Tim Cullen, senior adviser for external affairs at the bank.

”The old buildings were very dark and there were a lot of problems with technology and with heating and cooling,” said Sven Sandstrom, managing director of the bank. ”They were hot in the summer and, given the darkness, had a very enclosed feeling. We also had asbestos problems, which made wiring and renovation very difficult.”

In addition, by the mid 80’s, the bank was bursting at the seams with personnel. The old complex held just under 4,000 staff members; another 4,000 were scattered in buildings the bank either owned or leased in the area. Clearly, something had to be done.

In 1989 the bank held a worldwide architectural competition and received 76 proposals from 26 countries. This was later narrowed to 8, with Kohn Pedersen Fox the eventual winner. One of the terms of the competition was that the two newest buildings in the original complex be retained temporarily for economic reasons. The winning proposal went a step further and incorporated them into the finished plan.

”They’re serviceable buildings by good architects and we thought we’d be a step ahead of the game in terms of the bank’s master plan if we used them,” said Mr. Pedersen.

One of the retained buildings was designed by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill who also designed Lever House in New York and many other office buildings in the 60’s. The other is by Vincent Kling in association with Clas Riggs, now Clas Riggs Owens & Ramos. The older buildings, with their austere modern facades, appear to be embedded in the new and larger aluminum and glass structure.

BUT what really carried the day, said Mr. Sandstrom, was the way the design introduced natural light not only to the center of the building but also to two underground floors by way of the vaulted atrium. The atrium is 178 feet tall, considerably above the 130-foot limit in the district, but allowable because the extra height is not used for occupancy. It has a 28-foot waterfall, elevator banks, planters and a number of seating areas.

”It has the feeling of a main street where people get together, talk, eat lunch,” said Mr. Sandstrom. ”We’ve never had that before.”

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