Les Grandes Marches

In our second of a three part exploration of brutalism, we examine one of the most elegantly understated buildings in the district.   The offices of The Department of Housing and Urban Development was designed by Marcel Breuer and was completed in 1968.  This pre-cast concrete facade houses one of the most important institutions of our forthcoming era.  With the rapid increase in global urbanization, sophisticated and robust planning initiatives must be deployed  if we are to meet the needs of the growing urban population.

Even though HUD here in DC doesn’t necessarily operate on an international level with these kinds of urban problems, it will become more and more important to be aware of these challenges in coming decades.  The figures are staggering, especially in developing countries.   Within just 30 years, cities in developing countries will triple their entire urban built-up area, generating the same amount of urban area as the entire world had cumulatively generated by the year 2000–much of it will be in the form of over crowded slums.   In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, slum dwellers make up 72 percent of the urban population, totaling more than 166 million people in 2001.  Their numbers are expected to increase to more than 325 million by 2020, more than the current population of the United States of America.

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In other news, Virginia Tech Architecture professor and National Building Museum curator Susan Piedmont Palladino gave a lecture on brutalism a few weeks ago and used a few Straight Torquer photographs.  She blogs about architecture and sustainability at: http://ganggreennbm.blogspot.com/

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2 Responses to “Les Grandes Marches”

  1. kwest Says:

    Good point about global urbanization, but:

    1. HUD doesn’t have anything to do with international urbanization, and

    2. the modernist experiment that this building is a near perfect example of, together with blatant racism, was far more destructive of the U.S. urban fabric than any other movement in history. This building replaced an old African American neighborhood (buildings like Capitol Hill) that was considered “blighted”, which of course meant that it contained working class African Americans and it was close to the city center. It was buldozed to provide people like Breuer and IM Pei empty canvasses on which to experiment (and to provide an opportunity for developers to make lots of money, mostly gov’t funded). This building, and many others in SW, uses its lot spoorly and has no relationship to the street, block, adjacent buildings, or neighborhood (such as it is). This building is a single-use dead zone.

    I prefer the mundane, boring, sometimes ugly buildings south of Dupont Circle to these over-designed starchitectural abominations, because the boring buildings have storefronts and restaurants and abutt each other and the side walk, and therefore create a livable, walkable, pleasant experience for the pedestrian.

    These issues might seem trivial, nitpicky, or merely esthetic, but the design of our cities, as many have point out (from Jane Jacobs to ) is an important determining factor in whether or not a neighborhood or city has high crime, poverty, and social unrest.

  2. Jo-Ann Neuhaus Says:

    The urban renewal areas in Southwest were not created for Breuer or I.M. Pei – or even for Webb & Knapp, Pei\’s employer at the time he first started working on southwest. ( As an asside, Pei\’s buildings include four identical residential buildings, two near Arena Stage and two at the other end of the Town Center commercial development that Bresler and Reiner completed using Chloetheil Woodard Smith as architect. Pei also designed two of the four buildings — the ones without the heavy cap that Kubeck designed — at L\’Enfant Plaza, as well as the overlook and what was called the 10th Street Mall though hardly a mall.)

    Perhaps Southwest\’s most famous resident was Al Jolson. I am not sure if the working class Jewish community that had lived in Southwest moved out to the suburbs as part of the great post-war migration that occured in most urban centers. But I do remember seeing photos of the alley homes that existed there and that today we would want to fix up and call the alleys mews. But it was a different era with those who did not seem to much care for cities writing about how they should be. I speak here of Le Corbusier with his Ville Radieuse and Frank Lloyd Wright. Not only in DC, but elsewhere around the world (Albany\’s government center and La Defense outside Paris come immediately to mind), huge swaths of urban land were being designed as superblocks with buildings raised on \"pilotis.\"

    Fortunately, we have come to our senses and even suburban malls are trying to emulate energized mixed-use urban neighborhoods that have lots of ground floor retail, with residences and offices above and are sprinkled wth parks and cultural venues.

    Without adressing how Breuer\’s buildings do damage to the urban fabric, I have never cared for their exterior massing or architectural treatment (which is not to say that I dislike all brutalistic buildings; I do like some.) Along with the FBI Building and, I would add, many of the bland non-brutalistic downtown buildings that were designed and built in the 1960\’s and 1970\’s, I would hope they would be demolished and replaced with buildings more appealing to the eye with active ground floor uses during my lifetime. One can always hope!

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