Marcel Breuer's only building in Virginia, the former American Press Institute (API) in Reston, was slated for demolition until last-minute outcry and online petition from preservationists and architecture enthusiasts propelled Fairfax County executives to take another look at the building. The API Building sits within a 4.6-acre parcel that, according to a report by Karen Goff for Reston Now, was the subject of a rezoning proposal by development company Sekas Homes, and was cited in that proposal as having "no known heritage resources" on the property. Now, officials are reconsidering the rezoning application and weighing potential options for adaptive reuse strategies, following a June 16 Fairfax County Planning Commission meeting in which the commission admitted to "a major screw up," as Goff reported today.
The 25,000-square-foot API Building was designed in 1972 and completed in 1974, with a planned 13,000-square-foot addition realized in 1980. The two-story building rests on a bucolic, sloping site alongside a small lake within what is now a Reston office park, opposite a golf course, roughly 40 minutes by car or public transportation outside Washington, D.C. Concrete is the prevailing material, with deep-set window bays of 26-foot-high precast structural concrete marking the east and west façades and supporting a clear-span roof. Column-free conference rooms on the upper level looked out over the lake, with administrative support offices occupying the building's lower level.
The API Building served as a training facility for journalists until the API moved to Arlington in 2012 following a merger with the Newspaper Association of America; it has sat vacant ever since. As ARCHITECT contributing editor Amanda Kolson Hurley noted in a piece for The Washingtonian, the AIA wrote a letter of support for the API Building to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, calling it "a gem of a building." The API is, however, too young to be included on the National Register of Historic Places, which require buildings to be more than 50 years old.
The API Building is a prime example of Brutalism, the once popular, now controversial architectural style in which Hungarian-born Breuer designed many of his late-career buildings; Washington, D.C. residents are more likely to be familiar with his 1968 Robert C. Weaver Federal Building, which houses the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) or his 1977 Hubert H. Humphrey Building, which is home to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Breuer had previously gained international acclaim for his work on the 1958 UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, which he designed in conjunction with Italian structural expressionist Pier Luigi Nervi and French architect Bernard Zehrfuss.
Midcentury architects such as Breuer appreciated the plasticity of structural concrete, which could be used as both exterior and interior finish material while supporting long spans, as well as the economical benefit of its low cost and ease of construction. Detractors of Brutalism conflate the English word brutal with the style's French roots; béton brut (raw concrete) was a frequent description used by early adopters of the material such as Le Corbusier, who is often credited alongside British architects Alison and Peter Smithson as originators of the term by the likes of architectural historian Reyner Banham. Authors Mark Pasnik, Michael Kubo, and Chris Grimley have attempted (in these pages) to recast Boston's precast architecture as Heroic, as opposed to Brutalist, and representative of the urban ideals of the era. On the other side of the coin, former Washington Times critic Deborah Dietsch once described Breuer's D.C. duo of government structures as representative of "the worst aspects of modern architecture: stark, unfriendly buildings fronted by empty plazas."
Ironically, although many Brutalist buildings were considered economical at the time of their construction, in many cases the lack of built-in maintenance budgets to patch weathered concrete has led to demolition by neglect, with disparagers of the aesthetic citing repair or modernization costs too high to be worthwhile, as was the case with Araldo Cossutta's Third Church of Christ, Scientist, also in Washington, D.C.; John Johansen's Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore; and Paul Rudolph's Orange County Government Center in Goshen, N.Y.
In Reston, at least for the time being, the bulldozers have been kept at bay. But for how long? Planning officials will meet in a public hearing on July 26 to discuss the building's future.
This post has been updated with a date for the public hearing to decide next steps.