The architecture of the U.S. Institute of Peace on the mall

By Philip Kennicott
Sunday, September 12, 2010; E17

Economic downturns work their way slowly through the world of architecture. Coming up on three years since the great recession of the late aughts began, the building industry is still struggling to recover. That means delayed projects and architectural ideas left on the drawing board. The construction of speculative office space, which so defines the look of downtown Washington, has been particularly affected.

But government and public projects continue. Although the United States Institute of Peace headquarters, located on the northwest corner of the Mall, won't officially be open for business until spring, it is coming together rapidly and will take its place as one of the most prominent new public buildings in Washington. Designed by architect Moshe Safdie, it is already an instantly recognizable structure -- a 150,000-square-foot, five-story white building with what appear to be winglike structures drooping off its roof.

Safdie also designed the headquarters of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a fortresslike behemoth with a distinctive curving arcade, near the corner of New York and Florida avenues in Northeast. With the construction of the Peace Institute -- highly visible to commuters entering and exiting the city on Interstate 66 -- Safdie has put his stamp on two of the most heavily trafficked gateways to the District.

But it is the Peace Institute's impact on the Mall that will determine the success or failure of the building. The northwest corner of the Nation's Front Yard has generally been a fairly sleepy place, with Constitution Gardens, a somewhat run-down afterthought to the Mall, to the south and east. To the west and north of the building site there are, respectively, a spaghetti bowl of highway ramps and the high-security no-go zone of the Naval Observatory grounds.

The Peace Institute will bring traffic to this spot and raise the profile of the government-chartered, nonpartisan think tank, which devotes its energies to conflict resolution throughout the world. It will also be highly visible from the Mall, changing sight lines and casting light from its large, glass-fronted atrium. As Washingtonians begin to make their own peace with this new addition to the landscape, expect much discussion of sheds and ducks.

The terms are borrowed from Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, who in the 1970s articulated a fundamental distinction between the "decorated shed" (a functional building with a sign or symbol defining its purpose) and a "duck," an iconic structure that represents its purpose through its form. The authors were all in favor of the functionality and adaptability of the decorated shed, as opposed to, say, a hot-dog-shaped hot-dog stand that sells hot dogs.

So which will it be? Washingtonians can ponder the new Peace Institute, with its dove-like wings, over the course of the coming year, and ask themselves: Duck or shed? If it quacks . . .

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