Safdie knows first and foremost how to get commissions, and he delivers functional, well-dressed buildings. But he has also over-extended himself, exhausted his ideas, grown prone to repetition and all too comfortable substituting cheap symbols for real thinking. The Institute of Peace, with its roof explicitly meant to suggest a dove’s wing, is classic Safdie: An ill-assembled array of rigid boxes, topped by a blunt and almost painfully meretricious reference to the building’s function. He seems unembarrassed by his endless reiteration of the “duck”— a term borrowed from architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, who defined it as a building that is its own sign or symbol. Safdie is basically building donut shops that look like donuts, but for a higher price tag and a classier crowd.
With its lazy glass wing dangling rather drunkenly over the main atrium, the Institute of Peace is a duck amuck. If you like it, however, you’ll also enjoy Safdie’s design for the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv, which deploys many of the same elements, including the saillike roof design, with similar results. If you like the ATF building — and there’s no evidence anyone does — he also has a few neat knock-offs of that, too.
Safdie’s Institute of Peace, which belongs next to a five-lane highway in Orange County rather than facing the Mall, is worth looking at closely. This is the Valhalla of Think Tank Architecture. If you’re a very good Washington foreign policy expert, and you know all the right people, one day perhaps you, too, might be assumed body and soul into this palace of navel gazing, where along with an impressive business card you will have access to the private cafeteria, sun-drenched lobby spaces, lovely library and, if you’re very lucky, the gorgeous patio outside the well-appointed boardroom, where the Lincoln Memorial feels so close you could almost touch it.
It’s strange how undemocratic so much of this city’s architecture has become. Although the institute will have public areas, where museum exhibits would justify and explain the work of the institute, the building feels closed off from the city. The executive offices, which also face the Lincoln Memorial, are down a long corridor, Versailles-like, making them remote from general circulation. The boardroom is exquisite, high-end everything, and opens on to the Mall-view patio. This is the locus of power, the place hardest to reach but blessed with the most spectacular vistas. The public is kept to the ground floor and the basement, where the exhibition space will expand after funding comes through.
Visitors to the Institute of Peace must enter an outside pavilion on 23rd Street NW, pass through security and then ascend to the main reception level before they are properly in the building. It is a convoluted and disorienting way to enter a building, but it enacts the basic drama of both security and social climbing: Only by suffering a little humiliation can you gain the rewards of being an insider. There is, however, a special porte cochere for real VIPs to enter the building more directly.