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05/2006 A New Home for the AIA in 1973; A Greener Home in 2007

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 Architect’s Collaborative (TAC) to design the Institute headquarters, commented: “Few buildings in history—perhaps none—have 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 “who’s who” of Fellows of the Institute: Edward L. Barnes, J. Roy Carroll Jr., O’Neil 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 finalists
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 Chicago’s 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. Pei’s 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 firm’s five-story red-brick building featured a semicircular, mostly glass wall that embraced The Octagon and its garden,” Wrenn notes.

But it wasn’t as easy as that . . .
The jury chose Mitchell/Giurgola’s 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 architecture exhibits.

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 building’s 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 in charge.

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 TAC’s “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 building—typical of thousands nationwide—is 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 environment.

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 tour.

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AIA150 Rolling History
 A Beginning, 1857-1866
 The Second Decade, 1867-1876
 1877-1886: Westward and Upward
 1887-1896: A Decade of Outreach, Inclusiveness, and Internationalism
 Women and Women Architects in the 1890s
 1897-1906: The AIA Moves to and Changes Washington
 The Institute's Influence on Legislative Policy
 At 50, the AIA Conceives the Gold Medal, Receives Roosevelt's Gratitude
 Spinning a Golden Webb
 1909-1917: The Institute Comes of Age in the Nation's Capital
 1917-1926: A New Power Structure: World War I, Pageantry, and the Power of the Press
 1927-1936: A Decade of Depression and Perseverance
 The AIA in Its Ninth Decade: 1937-1946
 1947-1956: Wright Recognition, White House Renovation, AIA Closes on 100
 The Tenth Decade: 1957-1966
 1967-1976: New HQ and a New Age Take Center Stage
 A New Home for the AIA in 1973; A Greener Home in 2007
 Diversity and the Profession: Take II
 'The Vietnam Situation Is Hell': The AIA's Internal Struggle over the War in Southeast Asia
 1977-1986: Activism and Capital-A Architecture Are Alive at the AIA
 1987-1996 Technology, Diversity, and Expansion

AIArchitect thanks researcher Andrew Brodie Smith and Janet Rumbarger, director, special programs, AIA150, for their help with this article.

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