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Design Doctrine: 1960s—Robert C. Weaver Federal Building

By Elizabeth Milnarik

“It should be our object to meet the test of Pericles' evocation to the Athenians, which the President commended to the Massachusetts legislature in his address of January 9, 1961: ‘We do not imitate—for we are a model to others.’” —Moynihan’s “Guiding Principles”

A series of tradition-defying structures by leading architects and commissioned by the GSA in the 1960s energized the concept of federal architecture, which had long dwelled in a historicist Neo-Classical mode. In 1963, the agency held a competition for a new U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) headquarters on a constricted site south of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. In a city marked by both great and somewhat indifferent historicist facades, the GSA selected the potent Brutalist submission of Marcel Breuer, FAIA, Herbert Beckhard, FAIA, and the firm Nolen & Swinburne.

Christened the Robert C. Weaver Federal Building, the office was the first major federal building in Washington constructed in a Modern style. Commissioned just as Luigi Moretti’s nearby Watergate complex opened, HUD’s forceful Brutalism was en vogue when its headquarters opened in 1968—a punch in the gut to early Modernism’s idealization of volume over mass.

The 700,000-square-foot, 10-story concrete structure is a curving double Y-shape in plan. Those curves, along with chamfered concrete window frames, create ever-changing swoops of shade and shadow that play across the façade’s precast panels. The building stands amidst a large open plaza, creating a public viewing platform at the foot of its pilotis. It’s a satisfying, muscular sculpture, and although palpably massive on the exterior, the large windows bring plenty of light to interior offices. Curving hallways vary circulation routes through the building. The project came in under budget, proving—as Moynihan said—that good design is not necessarily an added expense.

Sited to align with the adjacent L’Enfant Plaza, designed by I.M. Pei, FAIA, the Weaver Building did much to define the Brutalist character of its neighborhood. As one of the first federal structures built in a Modern style, the Weaver Building proved that the GSA eagerly embraced Moynihan’s challenge to model rather than imitate, and achieved a level of excellence in federal buildings.

Back to Design Doctrine: Five GSA Case Studies >


Robert C. Weaver Federal Building, Washington, D.C. Image courtesy of Taylor Lednum, GSA Design Excellence Program.


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Back to AIArchitect July 27, 2012

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