United States Institute of Peace Headquarters: Shaping the public realm, responding to the essence of place, and humanizing the megascale

I know Washington, DC is a little off the path for Mississippi architecture, but I think the relevance will become clear.  The photographs were taken from the upper deck of a moving bus, so obviously, the perspective will be affected, but it is the story of the building that I think is the more relevant–and I will link you to the architect’s photos for additional perusing.  Just click on “thumbnails” to see a variety of pictures of the Institute.  This is the new headquarters for the United States Institute of Peace, built on the “Mall’s last buildable lot” in the shadow of the Washington monument (Architectural Digest, October 25, 2011).  The architect, Moshe Safdie, is

…an architect, urban planner, educator, theorist, and author…committed to architecture that supports and enhances a project’s program; that is informed by the geographic, social, and cultural elements that define a place; and that responds to human needs and aspirations.

The 150,000 square foot building of glass and concrete is topped by

…a billowing roof, made of 1,482 glass panels…

The organization president said Safdie’s design was chosen because the other proposals “were basically square buildings.”  Safdie’s design features a

…sculptural roof whose two paneled wings cantilever over the heavy massing of the acid-etched precast-concrete building…[Safdie] conceived the roof as a series of fluid forms-‘like a flock of birds.’

Moshe Safdie Architects identified a list of First Principles for architecture and number one is:

Shaping the public realm: …to create meaningful, vital, and inclusive social spaces…responsible for shaping…its larger civic role of enabling and enriching the community.

The Institute of Peace was proposed in 1984, after efforts before (and after) had failed to create a Department of Peace with equal footing with the Department of Defense.  The stated purpose of the Institute is:

…our country’s global conflict management center. Created by Congress to be independent and nonpartisan, we work to prevent, mitigate and resolve international conflict through nonviolent means.

By shaping the public realm of the Institute, did Safdie achieve the goal to create a meaningful and vital and inclusive social space, capable of contributing to the enrichment of the community?  The space is filled with light during the day, and at night, the light glows from within the building, spilling out into a darkened sky.  Although Safdie himself reported he did not see himself as particularly overt about symbols, the roof has been compared to the wings of the peace dove.  The building’s openness suggests visitation into light-filled work space, encouraging interaction–the total opposite of a darkened and cubicle enhanced office space with heavy and ornate decor.

Can we see that the heavy and massive concrete box provides a firm foundation for all that glass and light, encouraging us to soar upward from foundations that can be rooted so deeply in the past that we fail to seek newer and more powerful visions that “respond to the essence of place?”  How does a building “respond to human needs and aspirations?”  Perhaps to help us visualize taking flight, bringing the transparency of knowledge into the built realm, and maybe, just maybe, being ever so slightly influenced by space that brings us closer together in a shared environment that encourages interaction and enables us to achieve together more than what we can individually.  Pretty tall order for a building, but then, architects have apparently always been dreamers, dreaming new dreams.

Categories: Historic Preservation

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