Roger Lewis: A Daunting but Worthy Mission for the FBI

(By Roger K. Lewis)
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By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, June 13, 2009

Deemed architecturally too "brutalist," the unloved Third Church of Christ, Scientist, seems headed for demolition, despite landmark designation by the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board. Could the FBI's equally unloved, brutalist J. Edgar Hoover Building someday meet the same fate?

Suppose that the FBI decided to move its headquarters, now looming ponderously over the nationally symbolic Pennsylvania Avenue NW. What then might become of this iconic structure?

Recurring cameo appearances in movies and television series have made the FBI building instantly recognizable, a kind of celebrity work of architecture. Yet, as the object of much aesthetic criticism, the building has long been on architecture's "most unwanted" list.

Critics deplore the massive building's hard-edged, fortress-like image. Its opacity at street level provides secrecy and security for the FBI, but for citizens, the building is mute and inscrutable. Given its presence on America's most important ceremonial avenue, it is an ill-fitting civic edifice.

Completed in 1974 after years of construction, the FBI building occupies the entire block bounded by Pennsylvania Avenue and 9th, 10th and E streets NW. It contains many hundreds of thousands of square feet, with almost as much space on multiple underground levels as aboveground.

When construction of the building, designed by C.F. Murphy & Associates of Chicago, began in 1967, aesthetic concerns were voiced but ignored. Pragmatic functionalism and concrete brutalism were in fashion. The FBI sought a building conveying "the idea of a central core of files," and it got it.

Like the church, the FBI building could be designated a historic landmark. After all, it kicked off Pennsylvania Avenue's historic makeover in the late 1960s, guided by the 1964 Pennsylvania Avenue Plan. Also like the church, the unwanted FBI building could be threatened with demolition.

It's not, and realistically, the building is just too big to tear down. The huge, robust concrete structure represents an enormous investment of embedded energy, materials and money, far too much to waste. But if the FBI were to move, the building could be repurposed. Reuse would be inherently "green," a big point-earner for the sought-after LEED certification.

What would be required is functional and aesthetic transformation inside and out to house an array of new uses.

Office functions would necessitate minimal interior changes. The General Services Administration undoubtedly could find federal as well as private tenants interested in occupying upper floors.

With more substantial modification, parts of the building could be creatively reconfigured to accommodate residential and hotel uses. Extensive meeting and conference facilities could occupy below-grade levels and still leave ample basement space for multi-level parking and mechanical services.

The exterior is most in need of dramatic transformation. A new, visually lightweight structural addition could wrap around the colonnaded, super-scale base of the building. Varying in depth depending on street setbacks, a transparent wrapper could house a mix of shops and restaurants open day and night. At last, the building would come to life at street level.

Finally, to humanize the five stories of concrete-framed egg crate above the base, a lattice of metal and glass could be superimposed. This multipurpose layer veiling the facade could provide solar shading, bounce daylight deep into the building interior and serve as a trellis for vegetation. Equally important, it would dramatically alter the building's perceived scale and texture.

Of course, this is all hypothetical, and designing a retrofit for the FBI building would be the easy part. The hard part would be funding it all and relocating the FBI.

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

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