PUBLIC FIGURE/PRIVATE GROUND: Redevelopment of the FBI Site in Washington, DC

In 1790, Washington, DC, was established as the seat of political power in the newly formed United States. The plan and building form within the core of the city reflect an underlying premise: that the public sphere is primary to the private—where public spaces, buildings, and monuments are emphasized as the figure of the city, and private uses are construed as the background or urban fabric. This emphasis continues to this day in the regulatory processes that promote streetscape development, limit the height of buildings, and control the location of public projects; it gives Washington a character that is unique in American cities.

Designed by the Chicago firm Murphy & Associates and constructed between 1965 and 1975, the J. Edgar Hoover FBI headquarters building is a 2.8 million square foot complex in a Brutalist style on a seven-acre parcel facing Pennsylvania Avenue, the city’s primary ceremonial avenue between the US Capitol and the White House. Despite its highly prominent location, the building is inwardly focused around a central court and with a fortress-like perimeter. It has been labelled by some critics as the ugliest building in Washington. Due to its age, deferred maintenance, and changes in the workplace, the building has been deteriorating and considered in poor condition for the past decade. It was the subject of a proposal in the mid-2010s that would have relocated the FBI to a suburban location and allowed the building to be razed for redevelopment. These plans for the site—diagonally across from the Trump Hotel in the renovated Old Post Office building—were halted by the Trump Administration in 2017.

This studio will explore possible scenarios for the building and site, informed by the wide-ranging constraints, possibilities, and complexities of the property. Themes to be considered include the expression of political power in architecture, the potential preservation of iconic Brutalist architecture and the urban landscape legacy of Pennsylvania Avenue, the relationship to the history of urban redevelopment in DC and the Pennsylvania Avenue context in particular, the integration of innovative or resilient systems, as well as the opportunities for new uses on the site—whether public or private, single- or multi-use, monumental figure or background fabric. Central to the studio will be contending with the property’s symbolic and rhetorical potential.

Beginning with a thorough analysis of the building, site, and Pennsylvania Avenue context, students will work to develop a deeper understanding of the patterns of history, use, urban systems, and physical design that have shaped the property. A planned trip to Washington, DC, is included in this initial research period and will give the students first-hand experience of the existing architecture, its immediate setting, and its place within the capital city. Based on this research, students will develop their own program for the site, leading to a design that addresses the salient issues of preservation, design expression, public space, and symbolic context.

Given the complex, cross-disciplinary issues raised by the project, students from different appropriate backgrounds are welcome and encouraged in order to promote collaboration and insight.