City Desk

What’s Next for D.C.’s Brutalist Buildings?


Last week marked the beginning of the end for the Third Church of Christ, Scientist at 16th and I streets NW, better known to the public as “D.C.’s ugliest church.” The 1970 structure had few fans (least of all its own congregation, which fought the building’s designation as a historic landmark in 1991 and applied for a demolition permit in 2007), but its destruction marks the loss of one of the city’s more prominent examples of Brutalism. If a Brutalist church isn’t sacred, what is? A survey of some of D.C.’s most brutal buildings reveals a mixed future for the style.



Gelman Library at George Washington University
2130 H St. NW
Completed: 1973
Brutalist cred: Concrete façade, vertical windows divided by concrete slabs
Bonus brutality: Described in a 2012 Yelp review as “the perfect place to die.”
Conservation status: Not threatened. A year of construction and renovation, completed in August 2013, resulted in more natural light, more outlets, and more technology-enabled study rooms.


lenfantplazaL’Enfant Plaza
Southwest D.C.
Completed: 1968
Brutalist cred: Concrete, fortresslike
Bonus brutality: Even I.M. Pei, the designer of the space, hated the plaza’s Forrestal Building.
Conservation status: Vulnerable. Though hailed as a masterpiece when built, L’Enfant Plaza has for decades drawn scorn from critics and urbanists alike. In 2013, 10 developers responded to a request by the federal government for information about transforming the area; the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel is under new ownership and due for a major overhaul.

Metro_ConcreteThe Metro
Completed: First line in 1976
Brutalist cred: Exposed concrete, repetitive design motifs
Bonus brutality: Delays and escalator outages inspire daily Twitter lashings.
Conservation status: Not threatened. The American Institute of Architects recently announced that it would grant Metro its Twenty-Five Year Award for “an architectural design of enduring significance” that “has stood the test of time by embodying architectural excellence for 25 to 35 years.”



J. Edgar Hoover Building
935 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Completed: 1975
Brutalist cred: Cast-in-place concrete, bronze-tinted windows
Bonus brutality: Named after J. Edgar Hoover
Conservation status: Critically endangered. Though the design initially drew praise, critics quickly soured on the building, which also struggles with structural decay. The Government Accountability Office proposed demolition as one option for dealing with the thing.



Lauinger Library at Georgetown University
3700 O St. NW
Completed: 1970
Brutalist cred: Designed as a concrete Brutalist interpretation of the adjacent Flemish Romanesque Healy Hall
Bonus brutality: A shocking lack of electrical outlets
Conservation status: Not threatened (barring a student uprising). The university’s 2010-2020 campus plan only promises an addition to the library, not a demolition.


Third Church of Christ, Scientist by Darrow Montgomery

Metro photo by Darrow Montgomery

Gelman Library photo by Flickr user pasa47. CC 2.0 Attribution

Hoover Building photo by Flickr user cliff1066TM. CC 2.0 Attribution

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  • A Vibrant Brand of Urban Concrete

    You forgot HUD -- which is to me the principal example of brutalist building architecture in D.C. Doubt it's going anywhere.

  • DC

    Brutalism is particularly ill suited to the urban context. But I have come to like it, or at least not hate it, in the campus context. Lauinger is not a beautiful building, at all, but it doesn't cause nearly the turd-laying that a building like the FBI does. In more rustic campuses, they can work even better.

  • Shipsa01

    And around the corner from HUD, don't forget the horrific beehive-like Hubert H. Humphrey Building (headquarters for HHS): An interesting note, which should help it's nomination as worst building in DC: it sits less than half a mile from the Capitol with zero obstructions between - yet, ... because of the way the building is designed (with blinders on the windows & and no windows on the corners) there are *no* direct views of the Capitol!

  • n8tiv

    The Frances Perkins Building, or the Department of Labor HQ at 200 Constitution Ave. NW.

    I would prefer they tear this down and start over, especially in light of the development that will take place north of the building:

  • Firebird

    Also the hideous library at UDC.