Practicing ArchitecturePracticing Architecture
Design Doctrine: 1970s—Kluczynski and Dirksen Federal Buildings
“The committee is also of the opinion that the Federal Government … should take advantage of the increasingly fruitful collaboration between architecture and the fine arts.” —Moynihan’s “Guiding Principles”
On October 25, 1974, Chicago’s Alexander Calder Day parade culminated with the unveiling of the sculptor’s whimsical “Flamingo” at the city’s new Federal Center complex. Moynihan’s command to integrate art into building design proved particularly fruitful here, where “Flamingo” serves as a powerful focus to a three-building urban ensemble by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Designed near the end of both Calder’s and Mies’ lives, the collaboration challenged both masters.
The Chicago Federal Center is composed of the multistory Kluczynski and Dirksen Federal Buildings, sited in an L-shape along the south and east sides of the site. The single-story post office is moored to the northwest corner of the site, with a large internal plaza between the three structures. Taut detailing, black steel framing, and bronzed glazing unify the structures to create a cohesive landscape that’s reinforced by the black granite pavers that cover the plaza and flow into each building. The complex, says Ed Feiner, FAIA, former chief architect of the GSA, “established a standard for modern urban office complexes.” Set asymmetrically into the plaza, Calder’s sculpture brings a crimson vitality to an otherwise monochromatic assemblage.
This poetic synthesis of building and art resulted from a reinvigorated art initiative by the GSA. The federal government had a long history of commissioning art as a part of building projects, and the need for such a partnership was first codified during the New Deal, when the U.S. Treasury Department set aside 1 percent of construction costs for art selected by a panel of experts and critics. The initiative lay dormant for the most part in the years leading up to and during WWII, and led to few projects thereafter.
Another stumbling block was the initiative’s process for commissioning art. While the GSA budgeted for it, the agency charged the design architect with artist selection—an approach that produced mixed results. Moynihan’s 1963 principles renewed interest in art-in-architecture, but the cost of the Vietnam and Korean wars shelved the program again. Both Congress and President Nixon expressed dissatisfaction with the state of art in federal buildings, and in 1972 the GSA reinstated the 1-percent-for-art-policy, establishing rigorous selection procedures that have continued to the present day. Design architects now work with dedicated GSA staff and a National Endowment for the Arts panel of experts to encourage the selection of talented artists with independent standing. As the first commission of the program, Calder’s “Flamingo” set a stunning precedent as a strong work deeply embedded in its architectural design.