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The Ugliest Building in Washington: Students navigate federal pressures and local values in rethinking FBI site

FBI Building in Washington DC

In late July 2020, Congress could not reach a compromise on a new coronavirus relief package. One reason for the deadlock concerned an item in the bill unrelated to any pandemic concerns: the $1.75 billion earmarked by the White House for a new FBI headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue. It infuriated Democrats, confused a number of rank and file Republicans, and even seemed to put Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on edge.

For years, it has been widely acknowledged that the J. Edgar Hoover Building requires attention. Since it opened in 1975, Washington residents, tourists, and architecture critics have derided the aesthetics of the 2.8-million-square-foot Brutalist structure designed by the Chicago firm Murphy & Associates. The travel website Trippy.com once declared it “the ugliest building in the world.” But much more critically, the concrete edifice is crumbling, with netting installed to protect pedestrians from falling debris. The fire-alarm system and other infrastructure have long needed maintenance, too. And then there is the ideological desire to shift away from the oppressive tough-guy, Big Brother persona inculcated by Hoover that the building’s hulking design perpetuates. The FBI instead seems to want to exude a more subtle, streamlined, cybersecurity-focused expression of power that would require new technology which the building, as it stands, cannot support.

A proposal was put forward in the early 2010s to raze the Hoover building and move the FBI to a nearby suburb. But the Trump administration shelved the plan, and the president continues to insist that the bureau will remain on Pennsylvania Avenue, across from the Justice Department, on an edge of the area known as the Federal Triangle. The administration may want a new design in “the classical architectural style,” in the words of Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again, the leaked executive order draft from earlier this year. (The draft is a total deviation from New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s insistence in his Building Principles for Federal Architecture, written in 1962, that “design must flow from the architectural profession to the government.”)

Or perhaps Trump, whose predilection for the Rococo is out of tune with Brutalism, wants to keep at least the skeleton intact (or, arguably more likely, any plan in limbo) because he believes the structure’s presence heightens the attraction of his Trump International Hotel in the nearby Beaux Arts–style Old Post Office. It also means that a competing hotel won’t be built on the site.

Whatever the reasons for the back and forth, one thing is certain: every moment the FBI headquarters stays on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue, the space it occupies remains separate from the commercial, social, and private lives of the city’s residents. Negotiating this clash between the federal fabric of Washington and the lived experience of its residents was a primary focus of Thomas Luebke’s spring 2020 studio, Public Figure/Private Ground: Redevelopment of the FBI Site in Washington, DC.

Are you going to play by the rules or break them? Are you going to uphold the underlying sociopolitical constructs of this power landscape or invert it into something that’s a natural system?

Thomas LuebkeOn challenging students to question how public space manifests itself, and for what audience

Luebke has served since 2005 as secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, where he leads federal design reviews for projects in Washington, DC. He considers the 7.5-acre site, and the capital broadly, an ideal case study for students to consider what they believe urban form and space should be. He explains:

“Washington is a little bit inverted compared to other cities in terms of its res publica and res privata, as formulated in the 1790s by Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant. Most often in cities, the private realm—where what people normally do takes place, in commercial, residential, and other buildings—is the urban figure. But in DC, which has a national rhetorical role, the figure is actually the streets as diagonals, circles, and squares; the intersections; the monuments; and the federal buildings. DC is also one of the few places in which this relationship is readily apparent and strong, as other cities have a much wider range of acceptable urban formal expression. That DC never abandoned its height limit, which pushes development into squat boxes, contributes to this. Federal buildings tend to try to announce themselves. There’s a wonderful tradition in Washington that starts with 19th-century classical revival temples and carries into the 1950s and even ’60s. They don’t have a Miesian kind of expression but rather tend to gravitate toward heavier masonry expression. This DNA of the august federal box remained a DC phenomenon until about the early 1970s.”

The fortress-like Hoover building serves as one of the last vestiges of that culture, though it sits somewhat in a liminal space within this figure/ground inversion. Pennsylvania Avenue connects the Capitol building with the White House and serves as the primary thoroughfare in the nation for major processions, most prominently as the path taken by presidents following their inaugurations. It also acts as the northern border of the Federal Triangle that includes Constitution Avenue to the south, which stretches along the National Mall.

Pennsylvania Avenue’s federal identity has long been considered as restricted to its south side, though. “The avenue is part of the figure of the city, but it’s also a divider,” says Luebke. “The way it gets used, it feels like an edge rather than a street with a strong double-sided character. It doesn’t compare well to other great ceremonial streets like Paris’s Champs-Élysées or La Rambla in Barcelona because it doesn’t have that embracing grand retail experience. Retail doesn’t do very well there because it’s so single loaded. As a result, the Federal Triangle generates a kind of asymmetrical quality to the avenue.”

A singular exception to this Janus-faced nature is the Hoover building. Hoover, who allegedly referred to his department’s home as “the greatest monstrosity ever constructed in the history of Washington,” wanted it situated across the street from the Justice Department. This position held a degree of practicality in the 1970s in terms of ease of communication between the offices. The same held true for the building’s massive size. “There were telex machines, paper files with carbon copies, fingerprint files for hundreds of millions of people, shooting ranges, and secretarial pools the size of cruise ships, all of which had to be contained in one big building,” says Luebke. “It’s hard for modern office workers to understand how different it was, by necessity.”

The building’s symbolic potency was no less effective. As a metastatic growth of the Justice Department that results in the department flanking the avenue, the design and its location suggests to anyone there—new presidents included—that Hoover’s ghost and his institution always watch over the country.

That this creep of the federal was permitted may have been helped unconsciously by the building’s Brutalist design. It exudes strength and simplicity, as advocated by Gordon Bunshaft, a key figure in the Commission of Fine Arts in the mid-20th century, whose influence also resulted in the stark uniformity of Washington’s Metrorail. And the structure resembles, at least abstractly, the nearby neoclassical monuments and offices—none of which are built on a human scale either. So the Hoover building, despite its aesthetic differences, paradoxically fits into the city’s urban figure and expands its boundaries rather than reinforcing the existing dimensions of the Federal Triangle in the way, for example, a postmodern building might.

This intrusion of the institutional federal identity into an area that was historically subdivided and comprised of smaller commercial lots was not the only proposal for the avenue discussed at the time. Luebke explains:

“Some of the models to redevelop, in a grand way, what was considered a tired, shabby area were pretty radical. In retrospect, a few looked very Soviet, of the Khrushchev era, in that they were abstractly modern, with an underarticulated massiveness. GUM department store kind of plans. The era had extremely optimistic ideas, and they were putting all the eggs in the ceremonial basket rather than the Jane Jacobs basket. But this is the only block where it really was done with no holds barred. By the time they got around to redeveloping the other sites, we were into the late seventies and early eighties, and the postmodernist sensibility started to kick in, which meant a dialing back on that superimposition of scale.”

The studio gave the students the opportunity to reconceive the site once again, but in their case without restrictions. “It was perfectly acceptable to keep the building or destroy it completely,” says Luebke, who was curious about how the students would navigate the questions that this site, on an undeniably ceremonial axis, prompts. “It leaves you to ask what you value in urban design. Are you going to play by the rules or break them? How does the public space manifest itself and for what audience? Are you going to uphold the underlying sociopolitical constructs of this power landscape or invert it into something that’s a natural system?”

Many students chose to blow out the middle of the existing structure and create a courtyard building. Their designs varied considerably in aesthetics and programs, though. Among them were an apartment building that would help address the city’s housing crisis; a hub for buses as a solution for declining bus ridership; a site that explores DC statehood and the split between local and national culture through a meditation on open, public spaces; and an urban-landscape project that utilizes the building’s sense of impermeability to create a fantasy world that encourages joy and freedom over surveillance and power.

Yifan Wang's proposal for the Federal FBI Building in Washington DC
Yifan Wang's proposal for the Federal FBI Building in Washington DC is a double mask made of semi-transparent fabric that wraps around the largely intact exterior of the existing building.

Yifan Wang (MLA ’20) was most engaged with the public persona of Hoover’s FBI, especially as it manifested in popular media, and how the building acts as what he defines as a “protuberance of the Justice Department.” “The fantasization of the FBI became very dominant in my personal interests,” he says. “The ‘masked’ character of the agents, the mysteriousness of the national apparatus as it was built up in Hollywood movies. Part of this story was built up intentionally by Hoover, and that’s also why the building became a top tourist destination.”

Rather than obliterate this notion of masking, in which the Brutalist structure acts as a physical manifestation of the bureau’s ominous public face, Wang instead calls attention to it by installing a double mask made of semi-transparent fabric that wraps around the largely intact exterior. This layering preserves the building’s historical identity while also drawing attention to, and even critiquing, the ways it helped sustain Hoover’s objectives.

“The ‘masked’ character of the agents, the mysteriousness of the national apparatus as it was built up in Hollywood movies. Part of this story was built up intentionally by Hoover, and that’s also why the building became a top tourist destination.”
Wang’s design was inspired by “the ‘masked’ character of the agents, the mysteriousness of the national apparatus as it was built up in Hollywood movies.”

Among Wang’s other concerns was giving the site back to the public in a manner that restores the avenue’s original redevelopment plans in the 1960s, in which an open balcony on every building, for parade viewing, was required. “Interestingly, the Hoover building was one of the first to follow that design while others abandoned it,” he says. “The initial design of the giant bunker allowed people to go directly to the balcony via the courtyard without any security checks or gates. I’m trying to give that free-flowing, modernist ideal back to the public by creating an open urban-nature environment.”

The landscape of Wang’s courtyard, separated into distinct sections with unique topographical manipulation, also resurrects a lost form of the site, albeit one much older than any existing structure in the area. As an ode to a spring that once flowed from nearby Franklin Square down to the Tiber Creek, he inserts a small stream between areas of grass and gravel. “It’s a kind of nostalgia for the original geology, a natural story I’m telling through the landscape,” he says.

String-pieced Columns the fabric of the civic figure Cecilia Huber site plan for the FBI's Hoover Building
Cecilia Huber's site design was “inspired by quilting and the women’s work that built D.C. in the years after emancipation.”

Cecilia Huber (MLA ’20) embraced this waterway as a focal point of her urban-park design. “Through an abstraction of the ephemeral line of the spring, I created a masterplan connecting Franklin Square to the FBI site, which becomes a public living museum of trees for the residents of DC,” she explains. “It provides them with a space big enough to occupy and gather. In this bridge between the federal museums on the Mall and the life of the city to the north, the residents of the city and city agencies can come together and actively participate in local cultural events and daily life.”

Huber utilizes multiple iterations of water across the plan in ways that she says “surface the past,” in that they have historical precedent at the site. These include mist, wetlands, and a basin as a reference to the area prior to its development, as well as runnels that recall a water system for the White House used in the 1800s. She also repurposes the multistory underground parking lot for the management of water along the entire avenue.

Jessie Pettway, Bars and String-Pieced Columns (1955), Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Jessie Pettway's “Bars and String-Pieced Columns” (1955) served as research material for Huber's urban-park design. Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Layering past eras onto the current site to suggest the possibility of union and a cohesive whole through heterogeneity was not her only intention. “I also sought to create a personal sensory experience that would draw a sharp contrast with the monumental scale of the Federal Triangle,” she says. “That scale is so hard to experience with your body.”

Through conversing with the site’s previous identities, Huber also conveys an awareness of time and evolution otherwise absent from the ossified character of Washington’s federal fabric. This is especially true with her use of trees. “The climate is rapidly changing the region and the urban forest will change over time, not just in DC but in many cities,” she says. “This park is a place to cultivate and observe the trees that will come to define the streets in the next century. As opposed to the Hoover building that now needs to be held up with netting, it doesn’t have a finite timeline as a structure because it’s full of living things.”

By designing a space in downtown Washington in which residents (and tourists) can meditate on change, Huber is breaking away from the notion of the country as a frozen utopia that the nearby federal buildings suggest.

The foregrounding of evolution in Huber’s design and its aleatory program, as well as the plans of many others in the studio, counter the fossilized federal architecture that surrounds it. Emphasizing elements of nature implies, too, that a nation’s identity is defined by much more than what humans can control. But whether those in power in Washington will resist more “museum building” in honor of their hubristic conception of the American empire and instead focus on the needs of living beings remains an open question.