by Tracy Ostroff
Can you imagine the intensity back in the 60s when AIA
members decided to design their own headquarters building? When the
new building finally was dedicated in 1973, Max Urbahn, chair of
the jury that selected The Architects Collaborative (TAC) to
design the Institute headquarters, commented: Few buildings
in historyperhaps nonehave been the focus, either in
kind or in degree, of such architectural attention, involvement,
anguish, dedication, and criticism.
In the early 1960s, as the AIA had outgrown its two-story
headquarters behind the Octagon, the Institute held a competition
to design a new multistory building to wrap around the rear of the
Octagon. It was a tall order in an era when urban renewal
held sway, and the norm entailed clearing of existing buildings,
historic or not, and, especially in Washington, the construction of
uninspired boxes, writes Tony P. Wrenn, Hon. AIA, former AIA
archivist, in the May 1999 issue of AIArchitect.
The jury for the AIA headquarters building included a
whos who of Fellows of the Institute: Edward L.
Barnes, J. Roy Carroll Jr., ONeil Ford, Hugh A. Stubbins, and
J. Carl Warnecke. As daunting as the AIA program was, 221
architects and firms entered. Max Urbahn; Shepley, Bulfinch,
Richardson and Abbott; Edgar Tafel; Ralph Rapson; Allison &
Rible; Victorine and Samuel Homsey; C. Hornbostel; Henry Withey;
and J.A. Holabird Jr. were among them, Wrenn writes.
Seven designs for seven
The AIA named the final awards in November 1964. Of
the seven finalists, Wrenn writes, only Donald
Barthelme, FAIA, Houston, did not complete the last stage. The
plans of C. Julian Oberwarth & Associates of Frankfort, Ky.,
included a building of varied massing which promised an
emotional involvement between the Octagon, the garden and the
new building. Charles R. Colbert, FAIA, New Orleans, proposed
a heavily planted design on many planes that would 'reintroduce . .
. burgeoning plant life in our urban concentrations.'
Jean Labatut, FAIA, and Carr Bolton Abernathy, Princeton, and
Chicagos Perkins & Will Partnership were also finalists,
along with I.M. Pei Associates, New York City, who proposed
removing all existing walls and structures, except The Octagon
itself. Peis firm suggested a seven-story headquarters
building of concrete aggregate in a buff limestone color.
But Mitchell/Giurgola Associates, Philadelphia, received the
commission. It was the only one that retained the smoke house
(now identified as the ice house), though the garden was
diminished. The firms five-story red-brick building featured
a semicircular, mostly glass wall that embraced The Octagon and its
garden, Wrenn notes.
But it wasnt as easy as that .
The jury chose Mitchell/Giurgolas design, but that
scheme, too, had its critics, particularly for its failure to
retain the setting of The Octagon. The AIA Board also complicated
matters when they enlarged the program from 80,000 to 130,000
square feet, for which they purchased the Lemon Building on New
York Avenue for additional land adjacent to the AIA. To pay for the
sale, the AIA transferred ownership of The Octagon to the American
Architectural Foundation, which continues to operate it as both a
historic house museum and an exhibition space featuring
Romaldo Giurgola, the 1982 AIA Gold Medal recipient, won the
competition, but the path from boards to building was not an easy
one. Although the AIA approved it, The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts
rejected the design three times. It became clear that it was not
possible to execute his design within the space. The third time, in
1968, the AIA Journal
reported that the rejection was over a space well where the
buildings two wings would meet, and it is in this well that
approval for the project is said to rest.
This schism could not be repaired. Mitchell/Giurgola withdrew from
the process, Wrenn writes, with the AIA Board minutes recording
the impossibility of getting the Fine Arts Commission
approval for their design. The situation was also politically
complex, as the AIA itself had proposed establishing the Commission
of Fine Arts early in the 20th century and strongly supported
design review, Wrenn notes.
New jury, new design
A new design jury, including Romaldo Giurgola, Phillip Will Jr.,
and I.M. Pei, with Urbahn as chair, selected another seven designs.
From that group, TAC emerged the winner, with its selection
announced May 14, 1969. Norman Fletcher, FAIA, served as principal
The firm brought a new approach. The Commission of Fine Arts
finally liked what they saw, approving the gray concrete aggregate
design in 1970. Visitors to the national component building will be
familiar with TACs blind corners, respect for the
Octagon building line, repetition of Octagon forms, open-glassed
lobby offering views in from and out to the Octagon, along with the
redesigned Octagon garden and patio, Wrenn notes in a
description of the building.
The building, incubated in the late 60s and born in the
mid-1970s, also reflected a desire, Wrenn writes, for the
confluence of historic buildings and spaces with new
construction not competitive stylistically.
Getting to green
In the fall of 2003, the six-member Committee on the Environment
(COTE) Advisory Group undertook a 30-hour initial study, and
another dozen consultants donated their time to the Greening of the
AIA, through which an audit of the original buildingtypical
of thousands nationwideis resulting in a long-range plan for
enhancing resource efficiency and occupant comfort.
The AIA intends to incorporate the latest and most innovative green
technologies and methodologies in retrofitting the national
component's Washington, D.C., headquarters building. The building
will serve as an inspirational demonstration project, affirming the
dedication of the AIA and its members to promoting healthy, safe,
and sustainable work and living environments, while acting as an
enlightened steward of the earth's natural resources and protecting
The sustainability demonstration project will also be a
knowledge resource for the profession and the public. AIA Treasurer
Tommy Cowan, FAIA, chair of the subgroup charged with developing a
plan for greening the AIA building, reports that seven firms have
responded to an RFP for a facility needs assessment and plan for
greening the campus. The firms are SmithGroup, Burt Hill Kosar,
Quinn Evans, Beyer Blinder Belle, Davis Buckley, HOK/Architectural
Energy Corp., and Steven Winter Associates. The firms met at the
AIA building on April 3 for a pre-proposal meeting and building