Robert C. Weaver Federal Building, Headquarters for Department of Housing and Urban Development
National Register of Historic Places: August 2008; Washington, D.C. landmark: June 2008
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.
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.
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.
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.
The HUB building was the first federal building to utilize precast concrete and poured-on-site concrete for structural and aesthetic purposes.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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