HPRB just released the agenda for June 26. Among the buildings slated for landmarking is the Department of Housing and Urban Development building at 7th and D Southwest. This is one of DC’s Brutalist buildings, whose lack of engagement with the streets create the desolate feel around L’Enfant Plaza. On the other hand, if there’s an iconic Brutalist building that best embodies the style and represents the work of a master architect, this is probably it.
Built by influential architect Marcel Breuer, this building came about after President Kennedy issued an executive order calling for higher architectural standards in federal buildings. The AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington DC writes, “Breuer’s design for the HUD building was immediately newsworthy as a departure from the plain, boxy structures that had become standard for mid-twentieth-century government offices.” It is shaped like a curved X, based on Breuer’s Y-shaped design for the UNESCO headquarters in Paris.
The empty, windswept plazas common to buildings from this era afflicted this building until the 1990s, when HUD commissioned a better plaza design from landscape architect Martha Schwartz. The AIA Guide says, “The solution is only partially successful. While the hovering translucent donuts are jaunty at first glance, for instance, they are disengaged from the seating areas, rendering them almost useless as shading devices in warm weather. [Schwartz] had originally planned to introduce bright colors into the composition, which would have helped to give it life, but sadly the National Capital Planning Commission vetoed that aspect of the proposal.”
When talking about controversial landmarks, proponents often argue that architectural tastes change, and one goal of historic preservation is to retain notable examples of other styles even if they are out of fashion. This is a building where that philosophy makes sense. It was and is better and more notable than the boxes next to it, even if the row houses torn down for urban renewal in that area are the greater loss.
However, we should ensure that landmarking this building does not permanently impede the creation of an active street here. If HUD chooses to improve the plaza, perhaps by moving the donuts, adding color, or changing the furniture, the historic nature of the building ought not to stand it its way. In Washington Itself, author E. J. Applewhite writes, “the building suffers from an ungainly relationship to its neighbors; it is surrounded to the south by a freeway—no help for any structure—and on the other three sides by monolithic office buildings that provide little contrast in texture or scale.” We should never landmark those “egg-crate” boxes or create a historic district here, since removing most of the buildings around here would be a definite improvement. The non-rectilinear architechture of this building is historic and worth preserving; the area’s failures as public spaces are not.