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A Story to Tell: Washington, D.C.’s, Mid-Century Modernist Core

A half-century ago, a new architecture expressed a direct counterpoint to the Neo-Classical buildings and monuments of federal D.C.

By Ingrid Spencer

“Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space,” said Mies van der Rohe. In Washington, D.C., this epoch is usually defined by the picture-postcard Neo-Classical monuments and buildings that are visual signposts in the central narrative of what America was and is: the White House, the Capitol, the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials, and the Supreme Court, to name just a few members of the city’s elite monumental core. Their columns, pediments, symmetry, vestiges of antiquity, and pure white countenance are shorthand for a commonly held set of beliefs and aspirations. This was an epoch of bold declarations, heroic generals, and tri-corner-hatted revolution, now more than 200 years old.

But look closer at the urban fabric of D.C. while attending the AIA National Convention in May, and you’ll see that there is another core representing another epoch. It’s the mid-century Modernist core, and it is extensive, impressive, and in danger. Fifty years after Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture” paved the way for “the finest in contemporary architectural thought” in the capital, a slew of buildings built from the early ’60s to the late ’70s (federal and otherwise) are being recognized as historic and significant examples of a singular age in architecture.

Modernism’s total break with history did not come to Washington as soon as it did to New York or Chicago, but when it arrived, it was full-throated and forceful, and had evolved beyond its origins as a European academic exercise in lightness and transparency. For a time, the power and gravity of the U.S. government and the institutions crowded at its feet were expressed in raw concrete sculpted into aggressive, geometric abstractions. The old monumental buildings were imitations of a Classic style that no longer represented what America was, or how the world worked. The Cold War was aligning two halves of the globe against each other. The rocket ship, airplane, and automobile had eradicated distance and allowed the wholesale depopulation of central cities. Why should our government buildings be modeled after Greek temples? The Greeks never made it to the moon. But America did. “We do not imitate,” read Moynihan’s “Principles,” quoting Pericles, “for we are a model to others.”

From Europe, from America, new architecture
According to Joan Brierton, senior preservation specialist at the General Services Administration (GSA), her agency’s current interest in this group of Modernist buildings is no accident. “When a federal building hits the 50-year mark, we have to give it consideration under the National Register,” she says. “Many of these buildings are approaching this threshold, and whether you like them or you don’t, there’s no denying that their architecture expresses what was happening at a definitive time in our history and in the government, and we have an obligation to evaluate.” This half-century mark has also been recognized by preservation groups like DOCOMOMO that have sought to raise awareness about the history and vulnerability of aging Modernist architecture.

Dissect any building from this group and you discover evidence of a revolution in building technology. From engineering to materials to form, they present a fascinating collision of international design ideals mixed with an eclectic architectural education. “These buildings were designed by a generation of architects [trained] in both the classical Beaux-Arts traditions, and then or simultaneously by Modernists,” says Brierton. “Theirs is a story worth telling.”

Take Araldo Cossutta, FAIA, the 87-year-old former design partner at I.M. Pei & Partners who was an architectural intern in the studio of Le Corbusier in Paris in 1949. Beyond his influence on Cossutta, Corbusier’s late-period work with concrete Brutalism became a touchstone for many mid-century Modernist architects. Cossutta also studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in the late 1950s, and, with I.M. Pei, FAIA, designed L’Enfant Plaza, a prime D.C. mid-century Modernist landmark. “The world was separated before [WWII],” Cossutta says, “but as a consequence of it, the world merged. It was a very exciting time to be an architect in this country. The influx of European architects, like [Walter] Gropius, with these astonishing ideas, got the whole generation very enthusiastic. I was a part of it, and it gave me wings to fly.”

At the age of 89, Victor Lundy, FAIA, is another architect who made his way into the European-American design cross-pollination that established the theoretical framework for almost all 20th-century American architecture. “After [WWII],” Lundy says, “there was a feeling that anything was possible. It was reflected in the architecture.” The designer of D.C.’s 1973 U.S. Tax Court Building, Lundy got his best education advice from a prisoner of war. Just before WWII’s Battle of the Bulge in 1944, Lundy found himself discussing architecture with a captured German soldier who also was an architecture student. “He was the one who told me that Gropius had left Europe and was teaching at Harvard,” he says. After the war, Lundy, who had had a Beaux-Arts education, went to Harvard and studied with Marcel Breuer and Gropius. “Some of these guys looked and talked just like the guys I had just been supposed to be killing,” he says. And of the slew of Neo-Classical buildings that were already in Washington, D.C.? “I paid absolutely no attention to them,” he says.

Ignoring what was there was not the approach for George Hartman, FAIA, founding partner of Hartman-Cox Architects and designer of the 1970 Euram Building, a quirky office building in Washington’s Dupont Circle notable for its triangularly recessed front elevation. To him, context was everything. “We built our practice by putting up buildings that improved the life of the man on the street,” says Hartman.

What can we keep?
However, it’s rare praise for mid-century Modernist architecture to be called neighborly by the pedestrian walking by. These are harsh buildings that make heroic proclamations instead of offering warm invitations to neighbors. So why should these buildings see another of Mies’ epochs unfold? “The current thinking seems first to reuse what is already built,” says Brierton. “Why should we look at the Modernist buildings of the 1960s and ‘70s? Well, first of all because, they exist. We have this vast collection of Modernist buildings, and with an emphasis of sustainability. We’ve got to ask ourselves, ‘Can we make it work [to] meet modern standards? What can we keep?’”

“Not everything is beautiful to everyone,” acknowledges Rebecca Miller, executive director of the D.C. Preservation League, “but there needs to be a record of the time.” Case in point is the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, designed by Mies and completed in 1972. “Some may not like it, but it’s our only Mies building in D.C.” Only two of the buildings featured in this article have been designated historic landmarks. Sometimes the users and owners of mid-century Modernist buildings turn against their design, as in the case of Pei’s Third Church of Christ, Scientist in downtown Washington.

Architecture ill-suited for its context and function has no aesthetic preference, and these buildings are monuments to an era when the United States had something new to say about itself. Decades after this design sensibility arrived and faded from view, anyone who’s ever strolled the Mall and admired Pei’s angular, Modernist National Gallery East Building and its contrast with John Russell Pope’s original Neo-Classical West Building next door can realize that what these two divergent buildings say about each other is what’s most important: Architectural epochs blur into invisibility without contrasts to define their boundaries.


Click the image above for a map of D.C.’s mid-century Modernist landmarks.


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