Should the FBI’s Decaying Brutalist Landmark Be Saved?

While coeval works of Brutalism have rallied the arm-in-arm defense efforts of architecture preservationists, Washington D.C.’s J. Edgar Hoover Building, the monolithic concrete mass that has headquartered the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) since the 1970’s, has not incited quite the same response. Even senior curator of the National Building Museum Martin Moeller has considered the building “always an unfortunate work of architecture,” well aware that the raw concrete mass reflects the bygone architectural vogue of its time. As he told Associated Press reporters, the building is “ill-proportioned and ominous. It does not create a pleasant streetscape at its base. I can’t imagine I would have ever liked it under any circumstances.”

Moeller’s opinion is a toned-down version of the generally negative response to the decaying Brutalist landmark. To the General Services Administration, the agency that runs D.C.’s federal buildings, the hulking structure, designed by architect Charles F. Murphy, is not much more than a deteriorating artifact resting on a valuable piece of real estate. According to the Associated Press, last week, the agency sent out a request for proposals to developers, asking them to re-imagine a new D.C. location for the FBI headquarters and baiting them with a potential stake in the land on which the J. Edgar Hoover Building sits. If this plan carries through as intended, the FBI might find a new home within seven years, and its historic former headquarters might be razed and replaced by your standard, high-in-demand, mixed-use facility.

Preservation, however, is not out of the question. Specialists in the field have put forth a more sympathetic, though still tepid defense: “I don’t think the FBI building is so important that it’s worth reinventing the wheel to try to save it,” said Richard Longstreth, director of George Washington University’s graduate program in historic preservation, “but I think if it can be saved, it should be.” The building, in fact, had originally intended to be more or less “mixed-use” facility, incorporating publicly accessible shops, open arcades, and courtyards that express the civic-minded aspect of its beton brut style. But due to security reasons, these plans were modified to shut the public out with a fortress-like facade. Perhaps if the building were smartly readapted to serve a different function, it could finally fulfill the original desires of its Brutalist design.

- Kelly Chan