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Brutality Bites

Mar 10, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 25 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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The Scrapbook confesses to a soft spot for the preservation of historic architecture. We understand, of course, that cities are dynamic, not static, and that sometimes progress demands sacrifice. But we also understand that the march of “progress” sometimes points us upside-down—has New York ever recovered from the 1963 demolition of its 1910 Beaux-Arts Penn Station?—and that today’s monstrosity might well be tomorrow’s masterpiece.


Washington is full of examples of this ongoing debate. In the early 1960s, for example, the Kennedy White House was gung-ho to demolish its Second Empire neighbor—the old State, War, and Navy Building (1875)—and replace it with something like, well, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (1971), known locally as the Box the Watergate Came In. Fortunately, that never happened. And while the structural defects of the Kennedy Center keep it under siege by scaffolding and construction crews, the old State, War, and Navy Building has lately been reborn as the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, a much-loved landmark in the nation’s capital.

Which brings us to the Third Church of Christ, Scientist building (1970) in downtown Washington, a stark concrete octagonal structure in the Brutalist style, designed by a student of I. M. Pei. It never quite worked as a downtown house of worship, and few Washingtonians would describe it as appealing. But when the Christian Science church sought to divest itself of the property, a protracted battle ensued between developers and preservationists. In the end, the preservationists lost, and as The Scrapbook writes, the building is being demolished.

Some of our friends argue that the Third Church is, indeed, a dramatic example of Brutalist architecture, and assuredly different from its glass-and-steel-box neighbors. But while conceding the point, The Scrapbook must conclude that the Third Church is also exceedingly, and defiantly, ugly—and we find ourselves in this case cheering the wrecking ball. Whatever comes next must be an improvement.

And we offer this consolation as well: The last great surge in the growth of the federal government occurred in Great Society days, when Bauhaus and Brutalist design reigned supreme. Now that the Third Church is about to disappear, competition for the status of Washington’s most hideous structure—L’Enfant Plaza (1968), another I. M. Pei monstrosity, or perhaps the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building (1975)—may begin.

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