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The ‘ugliest’ brutalist buildings in Washington DC – and how architects would fix them

The ‘ugliest’ brutalist buildings in Washington DC – and how architects would fix them

Brutalism, the minimalist architectural style that takes its name from béton brut (French for “raw concrete”), might as well describe the violent reaction it provokes in some people. This is especially true in Washington, where the style is widely used – and generally despised. For example, a 2023 analysis by British building materials company Buildworld claims that the FBI headquarters is the ugliest building in of the country and the second ugliest in the world.

The feeling of disgust is not widespread.

As noted in the wall text for “Capital Brutalism,” a new exhibition at the National Building Museum that examines this city’s love-hate relationship with one of its defining architectural styles, some people just love it. As evidence, the museum cites a 2021 Washington Post article: “Brutalist buildings aren’t unlikable. They’re looking at them the wrong way.” (Full disclosure: I edited this story.)

A lover of brutalism might turn pale when he learns that The museum has collected proposals from six architectural firms to redesign six of our most polarizing buildings. But why fix something that isn’t broken?

Almost all of the buildings shown here are at least 50 years old. Most are out of step with contemporary tastes and technology and are showing signs of age. Widespread office vacancy in the post-Covid era has turned parts of Washington state into a ghost town. But demolishing and rebuilding ugly or unused buildings creates carbon emissions.

As the exhibition mentions, the most sustainable building is one that already exists. The exhibition asks: how about renovation instead of demolition?

Alongside the proposals, Capital Brutalism includes beautiful architectural portraits of Brutalist buildings by Ty Cole. It’s a fascinating, sometimes ironic look at what the exhibition describes as the past, present and potential future of Brutalism in Washington.

Robert C. Weaver Federal Building

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Lead Architect: Marcel Breuer.

Fun fact: The headquarters of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development was the first federal building in the country to be constructed from precast concrete.

What is wrong with that? Former HUD Secretary Jack Kemp once described the building’s dreary interior as “10 floors of basements.”

Can it be fixed? The architecture firm Brooks + Scarpa proposes surgically removing the core of the building and leaving the curved outer wings, which form an X shape when viewed from above. About half of the building will become social housing, the rest offices. A new central garden will be shared by residents and workers.

James V. Forrestal Building

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1000 Independence Avenue SW

Lead Architect: David R. Dibner.

Fun fact: The building has been the headquarters of the Department of Energy since 1978 and was originally built as a “mini Pentagon” for the Department of Defense.

What is wrong with that? The 233-meter-wide building spans 10th Street like a giant billboard, obscuring the view of L’Enfant Promenade.

Can it be fixed? Studio Gang also proposes some trimming: remove part of the building’s middle section and finish off the ends with natural wood, opening windows and balconies to create living space. Once removed, the 96 prefabricated concrete facade panels could be reused for use on other buildings.

Joseph Mark Lauinger Library

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Lead Architect: John Carl Warnecke.

Fun fact: The dark gray of Georgetown University’s library resembles the stones used to build nearby Healy Hall: ashlars of Potomac gneiss.

What is wrong with that? Cole, the exhibition’s architectural photographer, called this misshapen structure a “friendly monster.”

Can it be fixed? Three fourth-year architecture students at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas envision a renovation rather than a reinvention. The plan calls for the building to be crisscrossed with corridors like a birthday cake, but retain its function as a library. The design will be guided by Jesuit principles of social justice, simple living, spirituality and community.

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

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Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW

Lead Architect: Gordon Bunshaft.

Fun fact: Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley acknowledged that the doughnut-shaped museum was controversial, but believed that given its content, namely modern art, some aesthetic debate was appropriate.

What is wrong with that? Its north-facing, slit-like window has been compared to a gun turret. “That’s not a particularly kind comment,” wrote critic Paul Goldberger in the New York Times, “but then again, this is not a particularly kind building either.”

Can it be fixed? Unlike other reinterpretations proposed for this show, Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s “Bubble” – a temporary inflatable performance space designed to bulge out from the Donut Hole and outdoor plaza – was actually supposed to be built until budget overruns derailed the project in 2013. The Hirshhorn is currently renovating its sculpture garden and making changes designed to make the museum more accessible.

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Year completed: Around 1974.

Lead Architect: Stanislaw Gladych.

Fun fact: Architect Nathaniel Owings, chairman of the Pennsylvania Avenue Advisory Council, originally wanted to build retail stores on the ground floor.

What is wrong with that? The FBI’s 260,000 square meter building occupies a total of two city blocks. Critic Wolf von Eckardt called it the “perfect stage for a production of George Orwell’s ‘1984’.”

Can it be fixed? Gensler, an architecture A company known for its philosophy of “hackable” buildings proposes building a soccer field on top and converting offices into large retail stores and a hotel.

Hubert H. Humphrey Building

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Year completed: Around 1977.

Lead Architect: Marcel Breuer.

Fun fact: Six office floors are suspended from a horizontal truss supported by columns that extend to the building’s penthouse level, creating the illusion of a floating monolith.

What is wrong with that? Critic Benjamin Forgey described the Ministry of Health’s headquarters as a “fortress-like building, removed from life on the streets.”

Can it be fixed? In perhaps the Building Museum’s most imaginative reinterpretation of unused office space, the Washington DC-set architectural film BLDUS proposes the creation of a cabinet-level department called the Department of Play. The new Temple of Play, topped by a giant pyramid, would be filled with tube slides transporting visitors from one level to the next, as Willy Wonka imagined. Is that plausible? Maybe not. But architects can dream, right?

When you go

Capital brutalism

National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW. 202-272-2448. nbm.org.

Permit: $10; $7 for seniors, students and children; free for members and children under 3.