Requiem for a Nightmare

The fate of the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover Building—maybe the most despised structure in Washington, D.C.—is virtually sealed. As Brutalism edges toward extinction, cities should take stock.

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Mark Plummer/Flickr

"Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work," Gustave Flaubert once said. I come back to this quote any time there is news of a Brutalist building being demolished or endangered. Whenever a Brutalist structure is scheduled for demolition, the city that hosts it grows that much more more regular and orderly. And that much less original, and, yes—in a couple of different senses of the word—less violent.   

This week came the news that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is leaving its home in Washington, D.C. While plans to keep the bureau downtown were always a longshot, a short list of candidates released by the GSA confirms that the FBI will build a new consolidated headquarters in either Maryland or Virginia. Washingtonian spotted the release and wasted no time in celebrating the FBI's departure—despite the fact that the move will send as many as 4,800 jobs to the suburbs.

That's how much D.C. residents hate the J. Edgar Hoover Building. And really, that doesn't come close to painting how passionately people hate this building. 

For sure, there are reasons to be glad to see the FBI gone. A study commissioned this time last year by D.C.'s former chief financial officer found that putting a new mixed-use development where the FBI Building stands would bring the city a slight gain in revenue. More importantly, though, the FBI's extraordinary security requirements would make the organization a bad fit for Poplar Point, a D.C. site that is still up for grabs. Even though the move will cost the city thousands of jobs, D.C. may be better off in the end with the FBI putting its 2.1 million-square-feet building and its astonishing 350-foot security setbacks—a fortress behind a moat—somewhere else.

Most importantly, from the perspective of thousands of D.C. residents, the District will finally be rid of the FBI's dark architecture. I will be sad to see the building go, as the city will almost certainly demand. Not only could it still potentially be put to good use, but whatever replaces the FBI Building will be regular, orderly, safe, and worse.

(Dave Pattern/Flickr)

"There is no government building that more accurately reflects the soul of the bureaucracy housed inside," wrote Benny Johnson, easily Brutalism's most viral critic, for Buzzfeed. Shortly after, he was deposed for plagiarizing other writings, but no matter: This was a deeply original thought. It is an awesome building, unrivaled in stature and authority. Were future civilizations to judge ours by our architecture alone, they would surely pick the FBI Building as the seat of power, not the White House.

Its critics will simply say that it is ugly, which is a meaningless criticism, and I don't mean that as an appeal to tastes. Washington is filled with ugly buildings. This just isn't one of them. The FBI Building is utterly unique, unlike any other building in Washington. The are other buildings rendered in Heroic Concrete in a handful of cities—rhinoceroses like the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore, Mummers Theater in Oklahoma City, Prentice Women's Hospital in Chicago. Two of those are endangered; one is extinct.

Another stripe of critic will say that the FBI Building crushes the streetscape, and to the extent that this is true (it is not very true), it is not the building's fault. Cross 10th Street NW on Pennsylvania Ave. NW from the Hoover Building and you can order a $12 lavender gin rickey at Central Michel Richard. Catty-corner to the building at 9th and E Streets NW is Minibar, a molecular gastronomy restaurant with a $250 prix fixe menu. It is true that you cannot do these things inside FBI headquarters, but what do you expect? Whatever the totalitarian qualities of the structure, it hasn't cratered downtown.

While the FBI locked out street-level retail from its building, the same is basically true of the nearby Department of Justice, the Mellon Auditorium, and many other buildings in the federal core. This is not to say that storefront shops don't belong in federal buildings: One of the city's best coffee haunts, Swing's, is in the same magnificent Structural Expressionist building that once housed the Office of Thrift Supervision. Nevertheless—despite the fact that the FBI Building has denied the city another Cosi or craft cocktail bar—somehow Washington persists.

The former Office of Thrift Supervision, now the home of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. (Tom Paradis/Flickr)

The city's cost-benefit study of the FBI Building assumes that what comes next will generate revenue. (A mixed-use condo building is always a good guess for new construction in D.C.) But I hope the city at least considers preserving the building and putting it toward other uses. It's not guaranteed that it would be cheaper to implode and rebuild than to renovate (though a Government Accountability Office report from 2011 did suggest that demolition was the cheaper path for the FBI). It's just a thought, but I'd like to see the city consider the FBI Building as a facility for its growing homeless population, whose situation is truly brutal—and worsening. 

This week, NPR science blogger and astrophysicist Adam Frank wrote about the science of cities, and the dangers in the effort to make city strategy "as quantitative and predictive as possible"—regular and orderly, if you will. Cities are far from being too scientific in the way they approach planning, but the prospect of making cities utterly boring is real. "Cities clearly are more than a new kind of physics problem," Frank writes. "They are also creations of the human imagination and, as such, they live or die by the quality of the imagination we bring to them."

Frank is talking about the potential of public art, but I see the same problem with the destruction of public architecture. So much of the criticism of Brutalism treats it like a failed quiz—a problem to be solved, a problem for which there are correct answers, not a piece of history that could be preserved and improved upon. Innovative, courageous renovations have saved Brutalist structures in Houston and Boston; the MacArthur Genius architect Jeanne Gang came up with a plan for adapting Prentice Women's Hospital, but by then it was too late.  

No one has emerged with anything like a plan to save the FBI Building. I doubt anyone will. Critics will be only too happy to see it go, and some will point out rightly that any opportunity to build more housing in D.C. cannot be squandered. (On this fact, the science of cities is sadly correct.) But some want it gone because it's ugly. To those critics, I have to ask: What about Washington's recent record makes you think it could be replaced with anything better? What's the value in regular and orderly, if we lose everything that's violent and original?

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously a senior editor at Architect magazine, and a contributing writer to Washington City Paper and The Washington Post.