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An Interview With: Colden "Coke" Florence

Washington, D.C.
An Interview With: Colden "Coke" Florence

An Interview With: Colden "Coke" Florence

Coke has no official title these days, but is so illustrious that we’re giving him the one above, owing to the fact that, at 75, he’s one of Washington’s longest practicing and most noted architects. He grew up in Chevy Chase and Cleveland Park, went off to Princeton for an AB in Architecture, then a Master of Fine Arts, but got his first industry job when he came back home one summer during grad school. He says that in those days it was hard to find something in contemporary architecture, but he’d read about Pines Springs and Holmes Run, housing developments in Northern Virginia that were unusual in featuring modernist structures with preserved trees. So he got a job with their architect in the summer of 1954: Keyes, Smith, Satterlee, and Lethbridge, located in a DuPont Circle townhouse. After graduation, he went to Navy OCS, then was assigned to the Navy Civil Engineer Corps in Madrid designing bases around Spain (in the days, he says, “the Costa del Sol was just fishing villages and hadn’t been ruined”). In 1957 he returned to DC to work for successor firms. In 1975, his name was added: Keyes Condon Florance. In 1996, the CEO of an old line Detroit firm, Smith, Hinchman, and Grylls, came by to propose a merger: “They needed our design skill and we needed their infrastructure and reach for the 21st century,” he says. After much soul searching, they got together, and in 1999 the firm was renamed SmithGroup, now one of the country’s biggest architecture firms, with 800 employees, including 200 in Washington, who are architects, urban planners, interior designers, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, and program managers. Based on a lineage that dates to the 1850’s, SmithGroup lays claim to being the oldest continuously operating architecture firm in America.

Bisnow on Business: What’s your basic philosophy of architecture?
Architecture should present a clear and big idea. It should excite. It should be top quality craftsmanship. And, as well as excite, it should be forward looking and forward moving.

Why did you become an architect?
My father thought it was a good idea, because it might be a way to make a stable living. We sort of came from a family of artists. Although he was an executive with the telephone company, he was an artist. And then I went to school and found out that they gave you grades for drawing pictures. He had a stroke of insight which worked out to his great credit.
What are the most notable things you’ve been involved in here?
My practice has been design but with a lot of investment in civic Washington. I have been on the Commission for the Arts and Humanities, and the Preservation Review Board, the Federal City Council, those kinds of things. My focus has really been somewhat urbanistic, but buildings of a rather wide variety. Working years ago on the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria. A couple of very interesting school buildings at St. Albans. The master planning for a great deal of the Southwest Waterfront. Bolling Air Force Base in Anacostia, the Anacostia River Park. And as the city began to recover after the riots of 1968, we became involved through Oliver Carr in the new speculative development that took place in the West End office buildings there, near 23rd Street. We then began to do some significant downtown office buildings such as the reworking of the Washington Building at 15th and New York, the reworking of the Commercial National Bank building at 14th and G, then 555 12th, where Arnold & Porter is, and the Greyhound building that was a major preservation battle. Perhaps the most civically complex project of all was the MCI Arena.

What is your role in these things?
Typically as partner in charge and design leader, but always working with a strong design team. And getting out and around, rainmaking, giving some administrative leadership. And then sticking with major projects. None of these projects are done by a single hand. They’re always done by a strong team: Two, three, four, and as many as 12 people working on a project as the design evolves. And as the partner in charge, you have the responsibility of overseeing it and making sure it’s moving in the right direction, that it’s got the big idea and is a strong design. In my case at Keyes Condon Florance there were a number of very strong designers, the strongest of whom was a man named David King, and he is now the chairman of the entire SmithGroup nationally.

What have you been trying to do by your civic involvement?
Couple of examples. Way back at the Board of Trade, I headed up a committee at the request of Mallory Walker to revisit downtown zoning regulations and, among other things, to allow residential in the downtown commercial district. More recent was working with the committee of the Federal City Council to promote a national music museum.

What kind of architecture are you identified with? And what do you think of the trends today in Washington?
Our work is modernist, although we went through the post modern period where we were more focused on historic reference in our building. If you look at the Greyhound, the building that we built behind is modern, but it has all kinds of referential qualities that make it compatible and seem respectful of the little Greyhound building itself. It has a kind of an art deco appearance, but it’s a modern building. When I first began my practice after college and the Navy, it was hard to find a firm that was practicing modern architecture as opposed to traditional in Washington.

In other words, by traditional you mean everything kind of looked like federal or Roman.

With exceptions like the Watergate.
Dramatic exception.

But then how about all those boxy, utilitarian things along around the city from a few decades back?
Mid-century modern architecture has now become an issue with the preservation community. The identification of the best mid-century modern work and its ultimate landmarking, like the Christian Science Church at 16th. That was designed by IM Pei’s office. And the church finds it now unsuitable for its use and would like to take advantage of the value of the property. But it is considered a prime example of mid-century modern architecture, and the preservation community has made an application to landmark that building, which then raises a lot of problems for the owner as far as what to do with it. Other examples would be in Southwest Washington, such as, Capitol Park, the two IM Pei residential buildings, and the new proposals for the Arena Stage.

Do people want to preserve these because they’re considered really cool or just because they’re historic?
Both. As a young architect there wasn’t much around that you could show your friends from school. It was not modern and most of what there was, was in Southwest Washington and then there was Dulles. All of those properties are valuable but need to be upgraded to meet current market and other physical issues. And how do you do that if they are landmarked? That keys into another big movement: sustainability. As these buildings are upgraded, the whole notion of energy efficiency, dealing with toxic air, that kind of thing, under the rubric of sustainability, is creating a direction in which we think architecture is going in Washington. The other issue is what to do with the innate conservatism of Washington. The World Bank building from the mid-90s, done by Kohn Pedersen and Fox on 18th and Pennsylvania, was an enormous breath of fresh air because it’s so non-traditional. Much riskier use of light, space, volume, glass, massing. Unfortunately, by contrast, the dramatic glass cover for the National Museum of American Art and the Portrait Gallery by the renowned British architect, Norman Foster, was substantially dimmed down by city review and will now be effectively out of sight.

What’s more recent that gets you excited?
Moshe Safdie’s ATF Building, which is under construction, around Rhode Island Avenue and maybe 4th Street. I like it because it meets all kinds of security requirements and yet it remains somewhat open.

The Finnish embassy on Massachusetts Avenue. It fits beautifully into the site and kind of expresses its own Finish region with an organic screen in front of the building. And Mt. Vernon Square, which we are doing for CarrAmerica. There is a landmark church which is a classic revival with Greek columns. We are working with CarrAmerica to develop a major office building behind and adjacent to the church with a kind of winter garden atrium separating the church from the office building which then steps up in various levels on Massachusetts Avenue. The façade is treated in a very modernist way which still reflects some of the character of the Massachusetts Avenue Historic District. But on the K Street side it is a fresh and contemporary glass office structure, and within the building there will be provisions for spaces to be used by the church itself, and the Wesley Methodist Seminary with a few dormitory rooms, residential spaces, for teaching urban ministry. We’re doing a small but attractive and very fresh Salvation Army Corps Center on Martin Luther King Avenue in Anacostia, and it is dedicated to workforce development. And I think you’re probably familiar with the new building for the Bricklayer’s Union which will contain the new Shakespeare Theatre. That’s one of ours, with the theater by Jack Diamond of Toronto, and we think that will be a real expression of a fresher, new, modernist approach.

Are we in any kind of ‘golden age’ of Washington architecture? Or is the jury out?
I would say the jury is out, but that a combination of a few good resident firms, like ourselves, like Shalom Barones, plus the periodic appearance of some good firms from out of town, like Norman Foster, Kevin Roche, or Jim Polshek doing the Newseum. The City is becoming substantially more cosmopolitan. It has not been for architecture a Mecca, and I think over the next few years we’ll begin to see a presence of architecture in D.C. that will cause it to seem more like a Mecca, and people will actually come to see some of the buildings that are being done here. We have the wonderful early to late 18th century, early 19th century, mid-19th century architecture of the Capitol, Capital Hill, the White House, and Georgetown. There’s been a strong desire to stay within that kind of architectural framework, and that has had a positive benefit on the one hand. But on the other hand, Washington has been described with the term “retardataire.” That’s a French term meaning behind, and it’s applied both to art and to architecture. In other words, retarded. :)