At U.S. Institute of Peace, building’s provocative design doesn’t entirely succeed

February 24, 2012

Driving into the heart of Washington at night, you can’t miss seeing the luminescent headquarters building of the U.S. Institute of Peace just beyond the northwest corner of the Mall. The institute is most visible and aesthetically enticing after dark. In daylight, its unique, idiosyncratic form appears somewhat less enticing.

At first glance, the building looks austere, an assemblage of three separate, pristine cubic volumes clad in light-beige, perfectly flat precast concrete panels. Windows in the facades are dark, recessed rectangles without detail. But austerity gives way to perceived whimsy as you focus on the curvaceous, membrane-like roof undulating above, visually disconnected and structurally unrelated to the rectilinear solids below. Clearly, the architect has created a provocative composition by juxtaposing starkly contrasting forms.

It is equally clear that this building’s architectural language bears little relation to the Mall’s diverse architectural languages or to any other nearby real estate. What is driving the building’s design, and why is it here?

Designed by Moshe Safdie and completed last year on a sloping site at 23rd Street and Constitution Avenue NW, the building is a short walk from the Lincoln, Vietnam Veterans and Korean War Veterans memorials, and only a few minutes more from the National World War II Memorial. Being near these war-related memorials is purposefully symbolic, as the institute’s central peace-building mission is to help nations avoid war by managing and resolving international conflicts.

Housing administrative, research and educational functions, the headquarters building contains offices and staff support facilities, a library and archive, a conference center and auditorium, classrooms and exhibition space.

The three geometrically distinct volumes encompassing these functions fan out to the south and west from the building’s primary vertical circulation core at the building’s northeast corner. Sandwiched between the volumes are two soaring, light-filled atriums. From outside, apart from the roof, rectilinear geometry dominates.

But the interior facades of each volume are concave or convex, rather than planar, resulting in curved atriums. The largest, most public atrium curves southward toward the Mall and is flanked by conference and educational spaces. Office and research spaces flank the less public atrium curving toward the west.

The institute’s overarching, translucent glass roof, literally perched atop the ensemble of solids and voids, allows softened daylight to pour into each atrium. Daylight likewise enters through clerestory glazing under the arching roof segments and through full-building-height glass walls where each atrium meets the structure’s exterior facade. Conversely, at night, interior light fixtures set the curved, milky white roof aglow, while light spills out of the building’s large windows.

The visual play and aesthetic exploitation of light — and its practical use — are the institute’s strongest design attributes. The roof, atriums and large windows enable daylight to penetrate deeply into the building, conserving energy while providing pleasant views of the surrounding vegetation and landscape, the city and nearby monuments, or even activities of interest occurring in and around the atriums. Offices and other spaces adjacent to exterior walls or curving atrium walls are especially pleasant places to work.

Throughout the institute interior, white wall surfaces intensify daytime brightness and awareness of the building’s geometry, but they also produce a starkly antiseptic ambience. Well-crafted, minimalist detailing enhances the relentless purity of the form and its austere interior. Over time, perhaps the building’s users will increasingly take ownership of their work spaces and relieve the pervasive austerity by adding color, texture and artwork.

The building’s unique roof has been described and interpreted using diverse metaphors. Reportedly there is a favored roof metaphor: wings of a dove, symbol of peace. But I doubt many people get this, even if it was the inspiration for Safdie’s roof design. Moreover, one part of the roof seems to convey an ambiguous message, always a risk when employing design metaphors.

On the building’s south side, the most visible roof segment, indeed, resembles a bird’s wingtip. But what kind of bird? Projecting outward and downward in front of the main atrium’s seven-story glass wall facing the Mall, the curving segment comes to a sharp point directly over the public entry plaza. This sharply pointed piece of roof looks as if it’s aiming at pedestrians below. It feels unwelcoming and menacing, connoting hostility and aggression rather than dovishness and peacemaking. Of course, this was not the architect’s intention. If situated elsewhere, this roof segment could look completely benign.

The Institute of Peace brings to mind a frequently quoted aphorism attributable to the famous Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier, who lived and worked in France. In his seminal, influential 1927 book “Towards a New Architecture,” he wrote that “architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light.” The institute’s building is indeed a “play of masses brought together in light.” But sometimes its design is not quite “masterly, correct and magnificent.”

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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