Review | How architects would fix 6 of D.C.’s most polarizing brutalist buildings

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Brutalism, the minimalist architectural style that takes its name from béton brut (French for “raw concrete”), might as well describe the violent reaction it inspires in some people. That’s especially true in Washington, where the style is widespread — and widely despised. A 2023 analysis by the British building materials company Buildworld, for example, claims the FBI headquarters is the ugliest building in the country, and the second ugliest in the world.

The feeling of disgust is not universal.

As noted in the wall text for “Capital Brutalism,” a new exhibition at the National Building Museum that examines the love/hate relationship this city has with one of its defining architectural styles, some folks simply adore it. As evidence, the museum cites a 2021 Washington Post article, “Brutalist buildings aren’t unlovable. You’re looking at them wrong.” (Full disclosure: I edited that story.)

A lover of brutalism might blanch to learn that the museum has gathered proposals from six architecture firms for reimagining six of our most polarizing buildings. But why fix something that ain’t broke?

Almost all the buildings featured here are at least 50 years old. Most are out of favor with both contemporary tastes and technology, and are showing signs of age. Widespread office vacancies in the era since covid have left parts of federal Washington a ghost town. But tearing down and rebuilding ugly or underused structures generates carbon emissions.

As the exhibition notes, the most sustainable building is one that already exists. The show asks: How about a refresh rather than a demolition?

Along with the proposals, “Capital Brutalism” includes gorgeous architectural portraits of brutalist buildings by Ty Cole. It’s a fascinating, sometimes tongue-in-cheek look at sites the show calls the past, present and potential future of brutalism in Washington.

Robert C. Weaver Federal Building

451 Seventh St. SW

Year completed: 1968.

Lead architect: Marcel Breuer.

Fun fact: The Department of Housing and Urban Development headquarters was the first federal building in the country to be made of precast concrete.

What’s wrong with it? Former HUD secretary Jack Kemp once described the building’s dismal interiors as “10 floors of basement.”

Can it be fixed? The architecture firm Brooks + Scarpa proposes surgically removing the core of the building, leaving its curved exterior wings, which form an X shape when viewed from above. About half the building would become affordable housing, the rest offices. A new central garden would be shared by residents and workers.

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