Peace in a Polar Vortex

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.

The Department of State on the left and USIP on the right—located next to one another on the National Mall.

The Department of State on the left and USIP on the right—located next to one another on 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. Skirball_safdie_Institute of Peace 2Safdie 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. I was used to waltzing in and out of DC’s plentiful public spaces at will, and it hadn’t even occurred to me that some buildings can only be accessed by appointment. I headed back out into the cold with a phone number for the USIP front desk. Several phone calls later, I was back inside, rescued by the kindness of Steven Ruder, USIP’s Public Affairs Specialist.

Steven kindly took a little time out of his afternoon to show me around the space and talk to me about USIP’s peace-building work. While we discussed exhibitions, press events, and visits from heads of states, I soaked up the architectural details: the stunning atrium, with the glass sails overhead, was easily my favorite space. Skirball_Safdie_United States Institute of Peace 3Skirball_Safdie_Institute of Peace 4

Equally impressive, however, were the views of the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and, in the distance, the United States Capitol. Skirball_Safdie_Institute of Peace 5kirball_Safdie_Institute of Peace 6We wrapped up our conversation and I headed off to yet another museum. I left a little warmer, a little wiser when it comes to planning, and with a visit to one more Safdie building under my belt.
Skirball_Erin Curtis_Institute of Peace_Washington DC

Posted in Design, Exhibitions and tagged , .

About Erin M. Curtis

Erin M. Curtis is the Assistant Curator at the Skirball, where she has worked on Decades of Dissent: Democracy in Action, 1960–1980, Creating the United States, Gary Baseman: The Door Is Always Open, and Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie, and most recently, Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip. When she is not finishing up her dissertation, she swims, reads, travels, takes photographs, and scours Los Angeles for donuts and handmade Chinese noodles.

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