Among the Intellectualoids

A Brutalist Bargain

Members of D.C.'s Historic Preservation Review Board show themselves to be a bunch of concrete blockheads.

By 12.17.07

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How many dollars does it take to change a light bulb? Well, if the defunct bulb you're replacing has been illuminating the Third Church of Christ, Scientist in downtown Washington, you could be looking at a bill of up to $8,000. That's because unscrewing a blown bulb in that concrete monument to impracticality is tantamount to a construction project. According to one church official, you've got to build scaffolding just to reach some of the bulbs.

Why should anybody care about the Christian Scientists' maintenance budget? Because their light bulbs, along with the rest of their building, are at the center of a series of issues from property rights to the separation of church and state that may be coming soon to a courthouse near you.

If you haven't yet had enough of Washington and religion this campaign season, take a stroll a couple of blocks north from Lafayette Square to 16th and I Streets, where one of the country's least welcoming houses of worship sits in sight of the White House.

If at first you don't at first recognize the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, as a church at all, don't be embarrassed; most people probably mistake it for a fortress intended to protect the president's house against a tank assault. It's a largely windowless octagonal tower made of raw, weathered concrete, and it's surrounded by a sterile "plaza" that seems to have been emptied to keep the line of fire clear. The site inspires few people with a sense of spirituality.

That includes its own congregation, which has always disliked the building and dearly wants to be rid of its ugliness and its crushing costs, but which has been prevented from replacing the structure by Washington's local preservation authorities.

Not that the church is either old or historic. It was designed in 1971 in an effort by the Christian Science church to establish a signature architectural presence in the heart of the capital. (The office building surrounding the "plaza" was part of the project, too.) The church tapped I.M. Pei's firm for the design; Araldo Cossutta, who was also responsible for the city's unloved L'Enfant Plaza, was the architect.

IN TERMS OF FULFILLING its function, the project misfired. It's uninviting to the community not only because it has the feel of a bunker, but because its front door is, by design, hidden. The cold plaza is generally avoided by the church's neighbors.

The sanctuary seats 400, though the active congregation has shrunk to some 50 worshippers. The building's concrete exterior is already deteriorating, and the maintenance costs are overwhelming. Money that would be better spent on the church's mission, members say, is eaten up by the building itself.

So why has the city's Historic Preservation Review Board unanimously declared the Third Church of Christ, Scientist to be an official D.C. landmark, preventing not only its demolition, but even its unauthorized alteration? Because, it turns out, it is a sterling example of the mid-century school of design known as Brutalism.

Admirers of Brutalism include numerous architecture and design specialists, and some of these persuaded the preservation board that when it comes to raw concrete and the rejection of ornament, the church "is in a league of its own" and must be preserved.

That action has drawn harsh criticism, especially from Washington Post Metro columnist Marc Fisher, who called the building "antagonistic to human spirituality" and an "example of a failed and arrogant architectural experiment."

Defenders of the building have dismissed Fisher and others like him as design philistines, and regard the whole issue of the building's aggressive ugliness as an irrelevant matter of taste. "Preservation isn't always about whether we like and not like buildings," one of the board members observed before she voted to make the church a landmark. "You can learn enough to have an appreciation for it."

WHETHER AN APPEAL to expertise in Brutalism trumps philistinism, along with property rights, spirituality, and the church's own sense of its religious mission (and thus the First Amendment) remains open both to debate and to legal action

Federal law protects churches from local preservationist enthusiasms. Many congregations are cash poor, and are often housed in old buildings that may be appealing and arguably historic, but which they cannot afford to maintain. Forcing such congregations into a preservationist box may, as one lawyer told the Post, inhibit the congregation's religious expression. Whether that scenario describes the situation of this church will probably be decided in court.

Meanwhile, Brutalism's preservers remain vulnerable to the ironists. That's because the church is question is exactly the kind of building that energized the city's grassroots preservation efforts in the first place. Of course, the activist preservationists of decades ago were hardly seeking to save such buildings as this church; many were seeking to prevent them from being built at all (at least in an urban context).

In Washington, citizens disturbed by the rapid proliferation of faceless buildings -- and their often-deleterious effect on city life -- established a group called Don't Tear It Down. That was in the 1970s, in fact, just as the Third Church of Christ, Scientist was settling onto its corner.

The appeal that Don't Tear It Down used in its early days was explicitly about prevention. Its handbills portrayed D.C.'s redevelopment in terms of a visual choice, contrasting comfy, old Victorian edifices with the warehouse-like buildings that were replacing them. "This?" it asked over an image of an ornate old facade, "or This?" The latter alternative was illustrated by a building that looked like a giant tissue box. You might say that Washington's preservationists were once the very philistines that they are now warning us against.

Of course, many of the buildings that earlier preservationists embraced were deeply disliked when they were new. Nineteenth-century Washingtonians, for example, were dismayed to learn that the just-built Old Executive Office Building on Pennsylvania Avenue was fireproof. It was inevitable that the kind of architecture decried by preservationists of the 1970s would eventually have its own passionate defenders, and that preservationists would have to take their arguments into account.

Nevertheless, the idea of preservation has made quite a journey in hardly more than a generation. It's not that it has risen to power from the street; that happened long ago. What's striking is that preservation can now urge its constituency to contemplate the street from a Brutalist perspective.

Charles Paul Freund is a Washington writer.

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