The Bombproof Institute after Bombproofing

Continued from Building a Bombproof Institute.

When the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) moved from the National Mall to Walter Reed army medical center in the 1950s, its new building was a windowless, bombproof monster. The first and last building in the DC area to be built to resist an atomic blast, Building 54 is a striking example of a Brutalist building whose brutal features are shaped almost completely by functional demands. Though the new facilities were far more advanced than those in the AFIP’s previous home, space constraints meant that the Army Medical Museum, the core from which the AFIP had developed, could not be accommodated in Building 54 until the construction of an expansion in the late 1960s.

While the original building had been designed by the firm of Faulkner, Kingsbury, and Stenhouse, the extension was the work of a notable architect with a string of major government commissions: Edward Durrell Stone. Before the Second World War, Stone had made his name as a modernist, the architect of numerous stylish homes as well as the International Style façade of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. During the war he designed homes for workers in planned communities near Pittsburgh and Cherry Point air base. But in the years after 1945 he truly hit his stride as a proponent of a softer, more aesthetic and even – shockingly – ornamented approach to using modern materials such as concrete, steel, and glass. As Mary Anne Hunting explains in her study of his architecture, Edward Durell Stone: Modernism’s Popular Architect, Stone’s work has been judged as populist or even kitsch, but at the time he was one of America’s best-known architects.

Stone’s reputation as an architect for the federal government stood on two major projects completed in the 1950s, the US embassy in New Delhi and the US pavilion at the 1958 world’s fair in Brussels. Following guidelines that encouraged embassy architects to integrate local architectural styles while also creating striking, modern buildings, Stone screened the embassy’s glass walls from the sun by wrapping them in a concrete and marble grill and shielding them from above with a flat, overhanging roof.


The US Embassy in New Delhi

In Brussels, it was US Information Agency exhibits office Paul Child, Julia Child’s husband and former OSS Presentation Branch officer, who encouraged his superiors to commission work from a star architect such as Stone. The US was engaged at the time in a veritable openness offensive against the USSR, overly and covertly funding literature and the arts to counterpoint Soviet totalitarianism with Western pluralism – it was for Brussels that the CIA printed thousands of bootleg copies of Boris Zhivago’s banned novel Dr Zhivago in order to bombard Soviet visitors.

For the fair, Stone designed an open, circular two-story pavilion whose walls were composed of plastic laminated sheets held together by a light steel latticework. Like his embassy, the pavilion attracted public and critical acclaim for combining a transparency emblematic of America with elegance and ornament. The Soviet pavilion, in contrast was vast and cavernous. Hunting describes it as more like a factory or hangar, and while that may be overstating things, the building certainly looked more towards the assembly line than the Space Age.

Though Stone would massively overuse his signature grillwork on dormitories, factories, and even his New York City townhouse, New Delhi and Brussels cemented his reputation. He was a finalist for the design of the US embassy in London (which he lost to Eero Saarinen) and the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC, and the architect for the Kennedy Center too.

None of which really explains why he became the architect for a modest expansion to a military facility isolated from public view on the lands of Walter Reed. Though his design was not required to be bombproof, Stone did try to ensure that the extension harmonized with the mountain to which it was attached. Though it matched the massing of the original building, it did not share either its “brutal” roughness or its windowless monumentality. Instead, Stone’s design consisted of a broad base, extending out of the downslope of the hill on which Building 54 had been built, on top of which sat a smaller cube with square, deeply inset windows, closer to government Brutalism than Stone’ usual, more expressionistic concrete designs.

The results, at least to my eye, aren’t very impressive. The extension is not as blatantly brutal as the bombproof structure to which it is attached, but neither does it do much to soften the overall effect. Still, it consolidated the Institute under one broad concrete roof. Ground was broken for the expansion on March 22, 1968, and on May 21, 1971, the Army Medical Museum had its grand opening. The museum’s old home on the National Mall, known as “Old Red Brick,” was demolished to make way for the Hirshhorn Museum, which holds the Smithsonian’s modern art collection.

Images: New Delhi Embassy and 1958 Worlds Fair photographs courtesy Wikimedia; Building 54 expansion, Legacy of Excellence: The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, 1862-2011, p. 146.


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