Moshe Safdie Builds for Peace
Further reinforcing the classical connection, the ground-floor facade of the USIP building serves as a largely monolithic base, while above it the regular arrangements of punched openings articulate the building's middle and top, and help it to fit in among the capital's memorials and museums.
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Safdie chose acid-etched precast concrete for the exterior surface to achieve the warm tone of limestone. The building's primary structural materials are reinforced concrete columns and floor slabs, steel frame at curtain walls, and a steel gridshell supporting the glass roof canopies.
Building for Peacebuilding
When the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) acquired the building's site — a historic piece of land important in the French and Indian War, and the last available building spot at the edge of the mall — it was serving as a parking lot for the Navy's Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, housed in buildings next door.
To accommodate the Navy's need for parking at the site, Safdie designed the headquarters with a three-level underground garage. (The USIP will soon acquire two of the Navy buildings for a planned professional training center for conflict resolution and peacebuilding.)
The new building's eastern entryway, facing 23rd Street, leads up two stories to a landing overlooking the first of the two atria: the light-filled, 11,800-square-foot (1,100-square-meter) Great Hall. To the south, a glass curtain wall more than 80 feet (24 meters) tall encloses the space, bowing outward toward the mall and the Lincoln Memorial.
A curved interior wall defining the northwest side of the atrium continues the geometric pattern of the exterior, with three stories of offices visible behind a grid of windows. Radiant heating is provided via the Portuguese limestone floor.
The undulating roof over this space, called the Ansary Peace Dove, is made of white glass supported by steel frames and covered on the inside by a translucent plastic film.
This atrium is dedicated to public programs and conferences and, in Safdie's words, "serves as a public crossroads and meeting place, underscoring the notion of the institute as a community of participants."
To one side of the atrium is a 230-seat auditorium designed to serve as the facility's global communications hub via built-in high-definition teleconferencing technology. The auditorium's ceiling is a series of rippling white curves and the walls are lined with a tasteful backlit wooden grillwork, which also help control the acoustics and, as Safdie put it, "keep the calmness in the room."
That calm aura extends to a nearby press/ conference room, thanks in part to the blond wood trim and the ceiling's lining of transparent, acoustically absorbent fabric.
On the other side of the Great Hall and down some stairs is the 20,000-square-foot (1,900-square-meter) Global Peacebuilding Center, a public, interactive educational resource dedicated to the theme of peacemaking.
The institute's Congressional charter includes a mandate for public education, which the center will satisfy by welcoming groups of middle and high schoolers, as well as the general public, to explore multimedia exhibits and participate in related activities.
The building's second atrium, located around the corner from the Great Hall and facing the Potomac River, is the focal point of the institute's office and research space. Behind the three stories of windows that line both sides of the 3,600-square-foot (330-square-meter) atrium are administrative offices, a library and archive, meeting rooms, and a conference center.
Overhead, a section of the roof canopy — a simplified companion to the Great Hall's roof — forms a curved, peaked roofline. Down below, USIP employees gather in chairs and tables among a few potted trees to eat lunch, chat, and collaborate. Institute staff began working in the building in March 2011, just a few months after its completion at the end of 2010.
The atria and extensive glazing help transmit daylight throughout the workspace, as well as providing views of the city and its monuments.
Other sustainable features at the USIP building include high-efficiency condensing boilers, water-conserving plumbing fixtures, and paints and other finishes low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
Since the $186 million building project was funded by a public-private partnership rather than by the U.S. General Services Administration, the rules of which strictly limit an architect's leeway, Safdie was able to influence the interior and furniture design. These tend toward sleek and classy, incorporating squares and gentle curves. The flowing yet geometric sensibility of the building and its interior create an ordered peacefulness.
The USIP's satisfied employees — as described by Richard Solomon, the institute's director — are living proof that Safdie's design expresses what he intended. While their former headquarters space, in the National Restaurant Association building on 17th Street, reportedly left no one inspired, the institute's new home has some staff members waxing poetic.
Robin Wright, a current USIP Senior Fellow, exclaimed with delight when she saw Safdie leading his tour through the building. "I love your building!" she told him. "I love the light. It makes me believe in God."
For a building meant to express and evoke the better angels of human nature, this is praise indeed.
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Katherine Gustafson is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and editor who has also published in the Huffington Post, Johns Hopkins Magazine, and the Christian Science Monitor, among many others. Her first book, Change Comes to Dinner, about sustainable food, will be published in May 2012. More by Katherine Gustafson