Greater Greater Washington

HUD building up for landmarking

HPRB just released the agenda for June 26. Among the buildings slated for landmarking is the Department of Housing and Urban Development building at 7th and D Southwest. This is one of DC's Brutalist buildings, whose lack of engagement with the streets create the desolate feel around L'Enfant Plaza. On the other hand, if there's an iconic Brutalist building that best embodies the style and represents the work of a master architect, this is probably it.


Photo from HUD.

Built by influential architect Marcel Breuer, this building came about after President Kennedy issued an executive order calling for higher architectural standards in federal buildings. The AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington DC writes, "Breuer's design for the HUD building was immediately newsworthy as a departure from the plain, boxy structures that had become standard for mid-twentieth-century government offices." It is shaped like a curved X, based on Breuer's Y-shaped design for the UNESCO headquarters in Paris.

The empty, windswept plazas common to buildings from this era afflicted this building until the 1990s, when HUD commissioned a better plaza design from landscape architect Martha Schwartz. The AIA Guide says, "The solution is only partially successful. While the hovering translucent donuts are jaunty at first glance, for instance, they are disengaged from the seating areas, rendering them almost useless as shading devices in warm weather. [Schwartz] had originally planned to introduce bright colors into the composition, which would have helped to give it life, but sadly the National Capital Planning Commission vetoed that aspect of the proposal."

When talking about controversial landmarks, proponents often argue that architectural tastes change, and one goal of historic preservation is to retain notable examples of other styles even if they are out of fashion. This is a building where that philosophy makes sense. It was and is better and more notable than the boxes next to it, even if the row houses torn down for urban renewal in that area are the greater loss.

However, we should ensure that landmarking this building does not permanently impede the creation of an active street here. If HUD chooses to improve the plaza, perhaps by moving the donuts, adding color, or changing the furniture, the historic nature of the building ought not to stand it its way. In Washington Itself, author E. J. Applewhite writes, "the building suffers from an ungainly relationship to its neighbors; it is surrounded to the south by a freewayno help for any structureand on the other three sides by monolithic office buildings that provide little contrast in texture or scale." We should never landmark those "egg-crate" boxes or create a historic district here, since removing most of the buildings around here would be a definite improvement. The non-rectilinear architechture of this building is historic and worth preserving; the area's failures as public spaces are not.

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

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I agree this is really tricky. There's seems to be an attitude that all archtectural styles were made equal. I don't agree with that. I believe that some styles are simply inherently inferior to others, particularly in urban settings. I understand the impulse of preservationists to not take an objectivist approach to comparing archtectural styles, but at some point I believe you have to be able to say that architectural history is not Lake Wobegon and not all architectural styles are above-average.

by reid on Jun 12, 2008 9:01 am • linkreport

This building is a travesty. Having worked in this area of town before, I'd be delighted to see it torn down or completely revamped like some of the other buildings in the area, where the facade is altered.

by SG on Jun 12, 2008 9:01 am • linkreport

The preservation movement is in serious trouble. It was never about protecting the old so much as protecting the good, but nobody was honest about that, so now that "old" and "good" aren't necessarily always synonyms, preservationists don't know what to do. The more they focus on saving nonsense like this, the more likely it will be that mainstream America abandons preservationism.

by BeyondDC on Jun 12, 2008 9:46 am • linkreport

The bar for historic status needs to be much, much higher for post-war buildings than for pre-war. The reason that historic preservation got started in the first place is that build quality and design both took a nose-dive after WWII, and many magnificent buildings were being torn down and replaced by crap.

Brutalist buildings don't deserve historic preservation protection for the same reason we don't extend endangered species protection to the smallpox virus.

by thm on Jun 12, 2008 10:26 am • linkreport

This would be very unfortunate. It would make it much more difficult to redevelop L'Enfant into a pedestrian-friendly area. This building sits directly on top of the Orange/Blue and Green/Yellow lines. 3-4 office buildings or residential buildings could probably be built one the land that is just occupied by the current HUD building. It's difficult to imagine a more inefficient use of land in such a central area of the city. Granting the HUD building historical status could also inhibit the redevelopment of Southwest and the DC waterfront that is already occurring. There has already been significant progress on rehabilitating the Nassif building (former DOT headquarters across the street). That building was perhaps an even greater eyesore than the HUD headquarters.

by Ben on Jun 12, 2008 10:39 am • linkreport

That light sculpture is the only part worth saving. (See photo: http://flickr.com/photos/mvjantzen/266640155/) - but the ridiculous thing is that while taking photos of the lights, a guard came out to tell me photography of the building wasn't allowed! What's the point of even trying to create an inviting space if your moronic security guards treat people like intruding terrorists?

by Michael on Jun 12, 2008 10:54 am • linkreport

That light sculpture is the only part worth saving. (See photo: http://flickr.com/photos/mvjantzen/266640155/) - but the ridiculous thing is that while taking photos of the lights, a guard came out to tell me photography of the building wasn't allowed! What's the point of even trying to create an inviting space if your moronic security guards treat people like intruding terrorists?

by Michael on Jun 12, 2008 10:56 am • linkreport

I agree with BeyondDC, the preservation movement is seriously misguided. I hate sounding like a bitter classicist, but the preservation boards have all been coopted by doctrinaire modernists. The examples of the buildings they consider most important to save, (Third Church of Christ Scientist) gives you insight into their philosophical bent.

The distinction between "old" and "good" is a good place to start making discriminating choices, but it still leaves you with the problem of what is "good." Today most preservation boards will say that good is "architecturally significant," ie, designed by a big name architect. Well just because a building is built by Breuer or IM Pei does not make it a good building. Nor is a building by an insignificant architect "bad."

The further argument that "architectural tastes change" is a spurious one at best. The mod-preservation would like to say that Penn Station was "out of style," but it was in fact only in the domain of the architectural critics. In the realm of common folk, a building like Breuer's has always been out of style and despised, and Union Station will always be "in style" and always loved.

by Boots on Jun 12, 2008 11:31 am • linkreport

"Today most preservation boards will say that good is "architecturally significant," ie, designed by a big name architect."

That's my point. If all you need to do is show that a building was important to a movement, it doesn't matter that the movement was inherently misguided. If you have the courage to say, hey this whole movement was a bad idea, than it doesn't matter how significant or representative a building is, it's not as worthy for protection.

by reid on Jun 12, 2008 11:37 am • linkreport

The problem is that "good" preservationism hinges on a question of taste. It's been observed that modern architects had two negative effects on our cities. The first is new ugly, inconvenient buildings. The second is historic preservationism, the tendency to "preserve every piece of flotsam and jetsam that survived the Corbusian flood". So old ugly buildings (Eg, the Old Post office on Pennsylvania Avenue) were preserved only because people were more worried about what might replace them.

I'm not sure how to remedy the problem, a start would be kicking professional architects off of preservation boards.

by Steve on Jun 12, 2008 2:47 pm • linkreport

Reid, I agree wholeheartedly.

Steve, I completely disagree that the Old Post Office is ugly, in fact I find it to be a great building, though admittedly havent been in it. It's very victorian, but it holds the street well, and is as you say MUCH better than anything that would have replaced it.

I think kicking architects off the boards might be nice. Most of them are two bit hacks trying to make a name for themselves as they have little to their own credit otherwise.

by Boots on Jun 12, 2008 4:01 pm • linkreport

Is there anything old the preservationists do NOT want to preserve? Sometimes it seems the point is to freeze the city in amber. Beauty, functionality and the potential for wholesale improvement are irrelevant.

Popular taste says this building is overbearing, awkward, grim, desolate, vaguely totalitarian. The cynical postmodernist (and I have talked to people like this) say yes, that's true, and it perfectly expresses the values of the institution within! Therefore it's a good building!

The historic preservation movement was born out of the excesses of urban renewal. It's doubly ironic that an icon of urban renewal is proposed for preservation, thus preventing wholesale urban revitalization.

Sometimes we just need to admit mistakes were made. Since that can involve invalidating someone's career and life's work, it is easier said than done.

by Laurence Aurbach on Jun 12, 2008 4:16 pm • linkreport

Boots beat me to it, but I really like the Old Post Office building.

And this points out the problem with landmarking based on what we like: we don't all agree. I suppose a board of non-architects could be appointed to decide, but it'd be quite subjective. What about the Old Executive Office Building? I love it, but to this day I know people who hate it.

Historical significance is at least a factor that can be somewhat quantified. If it were up to me, I'd say that the standard should balance the building's individual merit with its contribution to a greater whole, so that an extremely meritorious building should be landmarked, and so should an average row house that fits in with a neighborhood character and contributes to a lively streetscape.

by David Alpert on Jun 12, 2008 4:16 pm • linkreport

David, your criteria sound quite logical, esp about a building's contribution to the whole. Certainly the HUD building fails in this regard, as its contribution to the wholeness of the District is clearly in the negative direction.

I esp like consideration of an average row house. Taken by itself a row house might not be much, but an entire street of row houses is indeed greater than the sum of its parts.

Thinking of architecture in the city is about thinking of buildings as parts of a whole, either they help the city function as a coherent and beautiful whole or they are cancers. The HUD building and L'Enfant plaza, a cancer. Old Post Office, generally a positive. I think considering preservation in this light will help shift the debate about a building's worth from "simply old," or "significant," to that of good vs. bad.

by Boots on Jun 12, 2008 4:25 pm • linkreport

I suppose "ugly" overstates my problem with the Old Post Office. Richardsonian Romanesque isn't my cup of tea, but it's drastically better than anything that came after WWII. My brief against the Old Post office is simply that it's in the way of the completion of the Federal Triangle. On any other corner, I'd think it was swell. (Granted to finish the Federal Triangle as intended, you'd have to demolish the Reagan Building- but that would be just fine with me).

by Steve on Jun 12, 2008 5:39 pm • linkreport

Steve: Is there something online about how the Federal Triangle was supposed to be completed?

I think most of the buildings in that area are pretty bad. Some are classical and quite attractive, but they all cut themselves off from the street with blank walls about as blank as they get.

by David Alpert on Jun 12, 2008 5:50 pm • linkreport

I couldn't find anything on Wikipedia or NPS but there is a plaque on the site that details what was intended. I took several photos of it and have put them on my Flickr account. Which is linked to this comment.

by steve on Jun 12, 2008 7:20 pm • linkreport

I'd love to see that Federal Triangle plan too. Is it part of Burnham's work on the McMillan Plan?

If the issue of a building blocking a better development scheme is the criteria, then I suppose I would say then that the Lincoln Memorial should be demolished or moved. That's because the original plan for the Memorial would reveal much more of the poetry of the siting that McKim had originally intended. The Lincoln memorial was to be an open circle, so that one could see Lincoln as a link between the North (the Capitol) and the South, (Lee's House) across the bridge linking them and across the newly formed Mall. Had this been done, Lincoln would have been seen properly as the one man holding together the Nation.

I'd love to see what exactly had been planned for the Federal Triangle though, and if it had the poetry of the McMillan plan, then I'm all for it!

by Boots on Jun 12, 2008 7:47 pm • linkreport

We're approaching this wrong.

We should not be deciding the historicity of every building, every time someone needs land. We do not have to look at each annoying slab and ask ourselves "Is this a good, historical example of Brutalism?"

We should be saying "Brutalism represented a serious architectural trend - let's landmark whatever the ten most remarkable/good, historical examples of Brutalism end up being. Then, we'll work to preserve those buildings, keep them usable and workably liveable through whatever means necessary that preserve the architectural style. We'll pick those buildings, and then move on to some other style."

by squalish on Jun 12, 2008 11:12 pm • linkreport

The endeavor is, you know, HISTORIC preservation, not "stuff that large numbers of people happen to find aesthetically pleasing preservation."

I'm worried about what replaces any building these days - have you looked at new buildings going up around the District? Cookie-cutter design, and safe. Lofts, especially, tend to be cheaply built boxes all decorated with the same brand of psuedo-hip curtain walls mixed in with random canopies. It's post-modern architecture only without the "post."

Is the HUD building a notable example? I'd wager that yes, it is. It shows, at least, clarity of intent, which few buildings of any age do.

What possible reason is there for removing professional designers from preservation boards? Would you extend that prohibition to the architectural historians as well? If you don't like the advice of people with training and experience in a field, you'd prefer to shun those people rather than talk about why they're offering particular recommendations?

by David Ramos on Jun 13, 2008 8:37 am • linkreport

I worked in the HUD building about four years ago. If you think the outside is bad, you should see the inside. Cement walls and floors lit by very heavy overhead lighting. At night it felt like a bunker. I think the entire area, HUD and the L'Enfant Plaza Mall, could be redeveloped into something more appealing. I'm glad the reface of the old DOT building is almost complete.

by BiLL on Jun 15, 2008 1:04 pm • linkreport

As someone who lives in Southwest and walks by this building every time I take the metro, I must say that I love the HUD building. I love the fact that the design provides me with cover from the weather, if necessary. I love the fact that I feel safe walking by this building because of the security cameras and guards - safe in a way I don't feel around other federal office buildings. Brutalism is not for everyone, but given the historical context of the rebuilding of Southwest, I think the HUD building is an important introduction into the quadrant that was designed to deliberately look different from the rest of DC.

by Ann on Jun 23, 2008 6:08 pm • linkreport

The problem about arguing about good, or what looks better, is a taste issue. Picasso is good. Mondrian is bad. Orange is good. Red is bad. Chocolate is good. Vanilla is bad. These are all taste judgments and no matter how academic someone spins it, it's a matter of taste.

But that's not what preservation is based on, nor should it be. Preservation is based on history. Is something significant because of what it represents about its time, how was it influenced, and how did it influence, what does it tell us about the people we are today. Is it important in this regard. You can have a rational, logical discussion about history, and differ about how important something is, but not about taste.

And if anyone does want to argue over taste, let's cut to the chase and just agree that my taste is better than yours. See?

by Brendan on Jun 24, 2008 7:06 am • linkreport

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