Nolen Swinburne Associates

Robert C. Weaver Federal Building, Headquarters for Department of Housing and Urban Development

Added by jon buono, last update: October 14, 2011, 8:18 pm

Robert C. Weaver Federal Building, Headquarters for Department of Housing and Urban Development
Location
451 Seventh St., SW
Washington, D.C., DC 20410
United States
38° 53' 2.4576" N, 77° 1' 19.236" W
Identity of Building / Site
Primary classification: Administration (ADM)
Secondary classification:
Federal, State, or Local Designation(s) and Date(s):

National Register of Historic Places: August 2008; Washington, D.C. landmark: June 2008

History of Building/Site
Original Brief:

The building was originally designed as the federal headquarters for the Department of Housing and Urban Development to accommodate 6,000 employees. In the summer of 1963, initial negotiation began with Marcel Breuer, Herbert Beckhard, and Nolan-Swineburne & Associates. In 1964, Breuer et al. received tentative approval for the building design and landscaping. Construction broke ground in July 1965 and was completed in 1968. Significantly, the project was $3 million under budget, illustrating that federal architecture could be cutting-edge and affordable. Upon opening, the building was immediately heralded as a success by architectural critics and politicians. Breuer’s original landscaping for the six-acre site was not fully implemented until 1976. His plan called for a flagstone paved plaza, concrete lampposts, bollards, and a monumental sign.

Dates: Commission / Completion:Site-testing: 1921 (c) / Commission: 1964 (c) / Start of construction: July 1965 (a) / Completion: 1968 (c)
Architectural and other Designer(s): Architects: Marcel Breuer, Herbert Beckhard, and Nolen Swinburne Associates; Structural Engineer: Paul Weidlinger & Associates Project Manager: General Services Administration; Builder: John McShain, Inc.
Others associated with Building/Site: In 2000, the HUD building was named in honor of Dr. Robert C. Weaver, the first Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and first African American Cabinet Member.
Significant Alteration(s) with Date(s): Throughout the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, while the façade of the building remained intact, the interior spaces of the building were continuously remodeled and reconfigured to meet the needs and demands of new administrations. In 1990, Secretary Henry Cisneros initiated plans for a redesign of the HUD building’s plaza space in conjunction with the repair work needed for the underground garage. Landscape architect Martha Schwartz was commissioned for the redesign of the entrance plaza. In Schwartz’s original design, the canopies and planned surfaces were brilliant oranges, reds, yellows, and blues. Andrew Cuomo, Cisneros’ successor, was not on board with Schwartz’s avant-garde proposal and called for a review of the design. Ultimately, the bright color palate was rejected; Schwartz and the GSA compromised on white.
Current Use: The building is currently used as it was originally intended, as the federal headquarters for the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Current Condition: The HUD building has retained much of its interior and exterior integrity. Over the last forty years, changes have been made to the interior spaces, especially to the large swing spaces and office corridors. The main lobby retains its original brush-hammered concrete finish and flagstone flooring. The executive offices on floors 4 through 10 also retain much of their original finishes. The original amenities—a cafeteria, library, health office, and credit union—exist in their original locations. However, they have been remodeled. The exterior of the building is in good condition and has not been altered.
General Description:

The basic plan shape of the building is an elongated “X” with a central core curving out into diagonal wings. The ends of each wing have no windows and are veneered in granite. The building is ten stories high, has two basement floors, and a garage under the front entrance plaza. The ground floor is set back fifteen feet behind the columns, creating an arcade space around the base of the building. Flagstone paving is used continuously from the plaza into the lobby space.

Construction Period:

The main structural window-walls are made out of precast concrete that rests on cast-in-place concrete “trees.” The concrete trees were cast in plank-lined steel forms and retain the wood’s texture, which provides a visual contrast to the smooth upper massing.

Original Physical Context:

The HUD building is located in Southwest D.C., in the area of L'Enfant Plaza, which was part of D.C.'s first urban renewal program in the 1950s. During this program, a series of modern movement office buildings were constructed alongside one another. I.M. Pei designed the preliminary urban plans, as well as the buildings that comprise L'Enfant Plaza. Breuer's design for the HUD building stands out as a different form of modernism, set against the surrounding rectangular office buildings.

Evaluation
Technical Evaluation:

The HUB building was the first federal building to utilize precast concrete and poured-on-site concrete for structural and aesthetic purposes.

Social:

The Housing and Urban Development Act was passed in 1965, and in its passing, created the United State Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The HUD building was erected in the city’s first urban redevelopment area, in Southwest D.C. The placement of the headquarters was intended to symbolize the federal government’s commitment to its urban redevelopment projects, and “[embody] the values promulgated by HUD itself.”

Cultural & Aesthetic:
The HUD building was the first federal building constructed under President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 “"Guiding Principles of Federal Architecture," and the first federal building to use precast concrete for both structural and aesthetic purposes. The HUD building is significant because it redefined the next wave of federal architecture and kick-started the use of concrete as an architectural finish in public structures. It was also the first federal building to embrace modular design. HUD was seen as a turning point for the Department of Housing and Urban Development and for public architecture. In the HUD building, Breuer continued to develop the architectural language he had been experimenting with in the late 1950s into the 1960s. HUD’s sculptural precast concrete forms, unique windows, and curvilinear “X” floor plan are a clear extension of the architectural aesthetic Breuer worked with in the IBM La Guarde building in 1961, and even earlier at the UNSECO building in Paris in the mid 1958. In this way, HUD is a meaningful part of the story of Breuer’s work with precast concrete forms and his experimentation with the expressive nature of concrete. HUD was also Breuer’s first U.S. government commission.
Historical:

While at the time of its construction, and in the years immediately preceeding its opening, general consensus saw the HUD building as a modern, innovative, and "urbane" project. It was a builing for Washington, D.C. to be proud of, and President Lyndon Johnson said that it was "bold and beautiful." However, public opinion of the building and the Schwartz plaza have changed. When Breuer's building was up for designation in 2008, Washington D.C. citizens attacked the building for being out of context, irrelevant, and hostile to pedestrians. Although the HUD building was designated that year, many of these public opinions remain.

General Assessment:
The HUD building is a significant building designed by internationally renowned architect Marcel Breuer. This structure is critical to the understanding of the development of federal architecture and the use of precast concrete in expressionist modern architecture. Furthermore, the building is significant in light of its social, political, cultural, and aesthetic impact; it represent HUD’s ideological stance and hopes for urban redevelopment at its advent in the 1960s.
Documentation
Text references:

Alpert, Dave. "HUD building up for landmarking." Greater, Greater Washington. 12 Jan 2008.
Web. 4 Aug 2010 < http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post.cgi?id=945>.

Curtis, William J. Modern Architecture Since 1900. London: Phaidon Press, 1996 (3rd Edition).

Forgey. “Flying Saucers At HUD; Whimsy Saves Simplified Design.” The Washington Post 6
Jun. 1998, final ed: C01.

Gatje, Robert F. Marcel Breuer: A Memoir. New York: Monacelli Press, 2000.

Huxtable, Ada Louise. "The House That HUD Built: Architecture The House That HUD Built."
New York Times 22 Sept. 1968.

“HUD Building Seen as Turning Point for Department and Public Architecture.” Journal of
Housing 25.8 (1968): 405-408.

Hyman, Isabelle. Marcel Breuer, Architect: the Career and the Buildings. New York: H.N.
Abrams, 2001.

Marcel Breuer papers, 1920-1986. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Washington, D.C. McKee, Bradford. "White out." Architecture 45 (1 August 1998): 45.

Papachristou, Tician. Marcel Breuer: New Buildings and Projects. New York: Praeger, 1970.

Project for Public Spaces. Web. March 2004 .

Richard, Paul. “Public Building Boss Seeking Best in Design: Started With Doors Draw 'Name'
Architects.” The Washington Post 6 Nov. 6 1965: A5.

United States General Services Administration, Public Buildings Service. Growth, Efficiency,
and Modernism: GSA Buildings of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.Washington, DC: U.S. General
Services Administration, 2003.

United States General Services Administration, Public Buildings Service. United States
Department of Housing and Urban Development Building; Historic Landmark Designation
Case No. 08-15. U.S. General Services Administration, 2008.

U.S. General Services Administration. Web. March 2004 .

Vitra Design Museum. Marcel Breuer: Design and Architecture. Weil am Rhein: Vitra Design
Museum, 2003.

Von Eckardt, Wolf. "Breuer's New HEW: Fine Designs, Dollar Signs: Cityscape." The
Washington Post 13 May 1972.

Von Eckardt, Wolf. “Exposed Concrete’ Buildings Denting a Stone Wall Here.” Washington Post
18 April 1965.

Authoring
Recorder/Date: Sarah Modiano / March 4, 2010
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