Peace on Earth

Architect Moshe Safdie’s work often emphasizes glass and windows, as well as other dramatic features. His newest design, the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C., which officially opened in September is no exception. Located at the corner of 23rd Street and Constitution Avenue, the new headquarters building, which spans a total area of 150,000 square feet, occupies the northwest corner of the National Mall.

Photo by Timothy Hursley

As the organization’s first permanent home, the $186 million building was specifically designed to support the critical mission of international conflict management, and includes administrative offices, research facilities including a library and an archive, a conference center, and an interactive educational center dedicated to the theme of peacemaking.

The building is organized around two atria that fan out from a corner entrance, one facing the Potomac River and the other the Mall and the Lincoln Memorial. The roofs form a dramatic series of wing-like elements constructed of steel frames and nearly 1,500 white insulating glass units fabricated by Bischoff Glas Technik in collaboration with Okalux. The south roof has a 12,000-square-foot surface area and spans 80 feet between buildings; the north roof has a 7,500-square-foot surface area and spans 55 feet.

The first atrium serves as the centerpiece for the spaces devoted to scholarly research, while the second is focused on public activity and conferences. According to the architects, the structure defines its purpose and symbolically represents peace on the capital’s skyline. The atria are roofed by a series of undulating spherical and toroidal wing-like elements constructed of a steel frame and white translucent glass. The roofs were designed to appear opaque and white on the exterior during the day and glow from within at night.

According to Safdie, “The two central atriums serve several purposes. They allow daylight to penetrate every working space in the building and provide, even for the inner offices, views of the city. Above all, the purpose was to make the institute a community of participants. The atriums encourage interaction, providing places to share a lunch or have a conversation. Five levels of offices feature window walls that open onto the atriums; in this way, work and activity in the building are not secretive but visible.”

Safdie explains that several interpenetrating elements form the roof, and they are all made of segments of spheres and toroids, which are in themselves pure, rational shapes.

“The use of sphere and toroid enables the roof’s structure to be orderly and repetitive, and the glass panels allow for the consistent curvature of the roof’s surface. In the finished roof, there is a sense of geometry and general mathematical order even though the overall cluster of elements appears somewhat fluid and haphazard. During the day the steel-and-white-glass panels bring sunshine into the interior, and at night the building glows outward from within. The roof forms are visible from a great distance, and the institute joins the other monuments along the Mall—white, glowing, and light.”

The Germany-based firm Seele L.P., which has U.S. operations, Seele Inc., in New York, handled the glass installation. According to company information, the free forms of the “dove of peace” and the “olive branch,” two self-supporting shell structures, place great demands on structural engineering as they cannot be analyzed linearly.

“The multiple-cranked steel sections for the transverse beams were welded together beforehand and bolted to the intermediate beams via end plates during erection. Aluminum glazing bars on top, concealed retainers and a continuous silicone joint form an aesthetically sophisticated roof glazing solution,” notes Seele. “White membranes spanning across aluminum frames suspended below the roof glazing filter the incoming daylight and scatter it evenly across the interior below. During the day, the roof surfaces appear white, at night they radiate like luminous objects.”

According to Peter Arbour, sales manager for Seele Inc., the project was very in-line with what the company does, “as it’s both technically and structurally challenging and required an innovative and thorough design strategy … there was nothing easy about this project. It brought special challenges we felt were in the realm of innovation where we like to work.”

Arbour adds, “We did extensive studies including multiple mock ups of the glass assembly to achieve the perfect quality of light coming through the roof.”

The firm was also responsible for four glazed curtainwall façades, designed to meet a high blast-resistant specification.

According to Arbor, the vertical façade also has a high level of transparency, as it features very slender structural elements and large glass panels.

It was in 2001 that the board of directors of the United States Institute of Peace announced the selection of Moshe Safdie and Associates, based in Somerville, Mass., to design the Institute’s permanent headquarters facility. The selection followed a rigorous review process overseen by a special committee of the Institute’s board of directors. In April 2001, more than 50 architectural firms from throughout the United States were invited to submit their qualifications for the project’s design. After reviewing materials submitted by the 26 that responded, the committee selected five finalists who were invited by the committee to participate in a series of interviews and a formal presentation of their vision concepts for the headquarters. The committee then made recommendations to the Institute’s full board, which approved the final decision.