The design of the AGU headquarters building was conceived in response to AGU’s strong desire to create an architecture identifiable with its organization and which expressed the spirit of its various scientific disciplines. At the same time, the building’s scale and materials are compatible with those of the surrounding historic district, making it a friendly addition to the largely residential area. The striking building near Dupont Circle in downtown Washington D.C. has five levels above ground plus two levels below ground, and AGU offices occupy 36,280 square feet including a state-of-the-art conference center.
Symbolism starts on the exterior of the building. Along the sidewalks, the planets and their orbits around the Sun are represented by brass and marble. A point representing the Sun is located in the plaza at the corner of Florida and 20th Street. The distance of the planets from the Sun are relative, with aphelion distances (when the planets are farthest away from the Sun) along Florida, and perihelion distances (closest to the Sun) along 20th Street.
The building’s facade mirrors the changes in density within the Earth. The thick precast bands (molded from a Pennsylvania limestone) at the base of the building are topped by lighter bands of brick. The recessed windows and curtainwall on the 5th floor add to the solid look of the masonry. The pattern on the frieze that encircles the building represents the disciplines studied by AGU members: space and the planets, the atmosphere, solid Earth and the hydrosphere.
In the foyer at the main entrance on Florida Avenue, the masonry strata dip into the building where the glass prism meets the ground. Inside the lobby, the panels of sapeli mahogany with their crossfire pattern recall the waves on a seismogram. The petrified wood on top of the front desk is a literal example of geologic forces; wood similar to that on the paneling has become stone. The petrified wood is from the Santa Fe Railroad’s right-of-way in Arizona. On the floor is a marble and granite compass rose, 10 ft in diameter that points true north. The circle at the center of the compass represents Earth and the outer ring of the compass is proportional to the orbit of the Moon and the Earth. The arc outside the entrance represents the diameter of the Sun as compared to the size of the Earth in the compass.
The building was designed by Shalom Baranes Associates and was completed in June 1994.