Optical illusion makes architect Bjarke Ingels’ new Navy Yard building mesmerizing

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View of the 1200 Intrepid campus at the Philadelphia Navy Yard in South Philadelphia
View of the 1200 Intrepid campus at the Philadelphia Navy Yard in South Philadelphia / © Rasmus Hjortshoj

Ingels hasn’t reinvented the form with 1200 Intrepid, but he does manage to inject it with an impressive level of pizzazz, imagination, and even refinement.

It’s hard to tear yourself away from the Baroque, crashing wave of the building’s dazzlingly white, main facade. While 1200 Intrepid is constructed entirely of flat concrete planks, each piece is set at an angle, so the composition gradually becomes a curving wall.

The optical effects are mesmerizing. If you stand at the corner and look across the breadth of the facade, the front wall appears to be tumbling to the ground like a collapsing row of dominos. The curves are reminiscent of a Richard Serra sculpture.

Step away from the building a bit, and the wall becomes a sheltering canopy over the sidewalk. The curve – actually, two intersecting curves – were shaped to echo the circular park across the street, a recent design by James Corner Field Operations.

One of the popular amenities in that park is a circular running track, used by the Navy Yard’s growing office population. When I visited 1200 Intrepid with Ingels, he described the building as receiving “a pulse of energy” from the park that allowed “the powerful circle to expand beyond its limits.”

Like all good architecture, it takes a while to absorb Ingels’ details. The thick, 20-foot-high planks, poured and sandblasted at Lancaster County’s High Concrete, appear identical, but come in five variations, as do the windows. Rather than being stacked, the concrete panels interlock in a basket-weave pattern. There are no horizontal panels. Your eye is pulled upward, instead. When you glimpse yourself in one of the windows, it’s like looking into a carnival mirror. […]

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