On a recent trip to Washington, DC, I was determined to augment my usual schedule of visiting dozens of museums and eating a gigantic pile of Ethiopian food with an architectural adventure: a visit to a Moshe Safdie building that I had never seen in person before. As the managing curator of the exhibition Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie at the Skirball, I had been singing the praises of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) Headquarters, one of my favorite Safdie designs, in tour after tour. Now I wanted to see it for myself. So on my last day in the District, I braved a polar vortex that plunged temperatures below zero degrees and set out for USIP, located next to the National Mall.
After a quick ride on the Metro from Logan Circle, I took a ridiculously cold walk on 23rd Street toward the Mall. Along the way I passed several office buildings, including the staid facade of the Department of State. As I approached USIP, I immediately noticed that the structure both blended in with and stood out from its bureaucratic neighbors. The windows facing 23rd were not altogether different from many office buildings, but the warm color of the stone was a nice contrast to the grey tones that dominated nearby facades. I reflected that this was a nice example of “progressive contextualism,” Moshe Safdie’s philosophy of using cues from a building’s physical and cultural surroundings in its design.
Arriving at the front of the headquarters, I caught sight of one of its best features: translucent glass sails held aloft by a steel frame. Safdie intended for the sails to bring to mind the wings of a dove, symbolizing the USIP’s mission of promoting peaceful resolutions to international conflict. To me, they exemplified one of my favorite things about Safdie’s work: while his buildings blend in with their surroundings, they are entirely unique entities. The USIP Headquarters was definitely unlike any other building or monument on the Mall.
I hurried to the entrance excitedly, ready to see those sails from the inside. My enthusiasm was quickly tempered by reality, however, when the guards informed me that I couldn’t go inside without an appointment. Continue reading