It’s a small mistake. So, too, the glass atrium spine that faces west and brings so much light into the cafeteria that you need sunglasses on a bright day. There are plans to figure out some kind of shade system for the space. For all it’s buttoned-down, neat-and-trim dressing, even Safdie’s most corporate work still needs tweaking.
As with any new building, there is an essential, existential question: Do we need it? Which raises an even more essential question: Do we need an Institute of Peace?
A recent editorial in The Washington Post, by peace advocate and educator Colman McCarthy, noted, “the institute’s record has been all gums and no teeth.” And for a simple reason.
“From the beginning, the legislation Congress passed assured that the institute would be forbidden to engage in advocacy or dissent,” wrote McCarthy. “Not a murmur, much less a foreign policy speech, has been heard about U.S. support of dictators in Bolivia, Chile, Iraq, Nicaragua and the Philippines, to cite the short list.”
The institute has defended itself vigorously against that criticism, arguing that the country’s benefits from its research and impartial approach to intractable international problems. The institute helped convene the Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan panel which issued a report in 2006 that helped change Bush administration policy, and it still has extensive operations seeking to stabilize Afghanistan and Iraq. The institute also has powerful supporters in Washington, including in the military, arguing that the work it does saves lives and has had a profound, if not always well-trumpeted, impact in some of the world’s most dangerous neighborhoods.
Which is the best reason not to build a new building facing the Mall. The institute’s leaders describe their work as a wonkish, sometimes dangerous, but deeply constructive engagement with the problems of broken societies. Safdie has built them a luxury home for a nest of noble policy experts, not a building that reflects the gritty hard work and engagement of peacemaking. The best building to represent that would be no building at all, but the cheapest, most serviceable office space with the lowest overhead.
But by the time you build a trophy building, it’s no longer really about peace, is it? It’s about real estate, cocktail parties, fabulous views and the full-time employment of specialists to manage your congressional affairs, your intergovernmental problems, your outreach and educational activities and, of course, your press and publicity. And so Washington has another government office building.