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Thomas Luebke, FAIA, Honored with 2015 AIA Thomas Jefferson Award

AIArchitect 

Feb. 20, 2015 

This year’s Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture honors Thomas Luebke, FAIA, for his steadfast leadership of the United States Commission of Fine Arts during a time of unprecedented change for the federal core of the District of Columbia. Luebke, the Category Three recipient, and one of two 2015 Thomas Jefferson Award recipients, is celebrated for his commitment to public architecture as an integral part of the nation’s cultural heritage.

From its earliest beginnings, Washington, D.C., has been as much a symbol of the nation as it is a city within it. A planned city from the outset, the 1791 scheme by Pierre L’Enfant has determined Washington’s scale and organization.. The city’s ceremonial, axial boulevards named after states; it’s green National Mall and surrounding monumental core; its diamond shape originally sliced out of Virginia and Maryland; and its low-rise character meant to protect view corridors of monuments: All of these flow, explicitly or implicitly, from the L’Enfant plan and subsequent revisions. And all of these features were meant to create a national capital that is physically and symbolically accessible, open, democratic, and transparent in its operations; a place meant to stitch together and welcome the people and varied interests of a vast and diverse country with shared values expressed in architecture.

But these values don’t persist by themselves for more than 200 years, even when writ in granite and marble. One federal agency is responsible for maintaining the symbolic character of federal Washington: the United States Commission of Fine Arts. Over the past decade, this group has encountered extraordinary challenges to the integrity of Washington’s federal core, from the clumsy imposition of security measures in the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11, to the explosive growth of Washington’s public and private real estate sectors that has fundamentally changed the city’s architectural context. Fortunately, in this time period, the Commission of Fine Arts has had a leader well-equipped to manage these disruptions and channel them into constructive additions to the city: Secretary Thomas Luebke, FAIA.

The commission

The role of the Commission on Fire Arts is to advise the president, Congress, the federal government in general, and the government of the District of Columbia on the design and aesthetics of the nation’s capital. It has purview over public buildings built by the federal government in Washington, D.C., the Old Georgetown Historic District, and private buildings adjoining federal lands in a handful of D.C. neighborhoods. The commission, managed by Luebke, is composed of seven experts of various design specialties: architecture, landscape architecture, art, and urban design.

The commission was created in by Congress in 1910, largely as a regulatory body for statues, fountains, and monuments in Washington, but President Taft’s Executive Order 1259 expanded the commission’s purview to all federal buildings built in the city. The need for this new agency grew out of the 1901 McMillan Plan for the city’s federal core—the first major urban planning initiative for the capital since L’Enfant’s. Inspired by the Beaux Arts 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the City Beautiful urban planning movement it spawned, leaders in Washington wanted to ensure that the federal government’s physical presence would be represented by the highest ideals of democracy and the boundless ambition of a young nation growing into a superpower for generations to come. The McMillan Plan charted a course for the intermediate term, and the commission would be charged with protecting the federal character of the capital in perpetuity.

Capital city aesthetics as national values

Luebke attended Washington University in St. Louis, and graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1991. He worked as a preservation historian for Alfred Mullet’s Old Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., before practicing with several local architecture firms. Before joining the commission as its Secretary in 2005, Luebke became the city architect for Alexandria, Va., a historic suburb of Washington that predates the L’Enfant plan by decades.

Luebke’s role is to act as a mediator between designers and the rest of Washington D.C.’s regulatory stakeholders who, unlike the commission, are often wholly consumed with cost, function, and any number of pet gripes that don’t recognize the aesthetics of the national capital as direct translations of national values. He is tasked with taking a given design and making it better, often through a complex and contentious regulatory process.

“Government review procedures can stifle creativity at worst, or with exceptional leadership, can be instrumental in elevating civic design to the highest level,” wrote David Maloney, Historic Preservation Officer with the District of Columbia Office of Planning, in a recommendation letter. “Mr. Luebke is one of those influential and inspirational leaders who has used his role as Secretary of the Commission of Fine Arts to make a distinct and lasting contribution to the civic design heritage of the nation’s capital.”

One fundamental undercurrent of Luebke’s role with the commission is to be an advocate for historic preservation and adaptive reuse. One such example is the St. Elizabeth’s Hospital campus across the Anacostia River, a sprawling 176-acre National Historic Landmark composed of 40 historic buildings. With Luebke and the commission’s leadership, all but three will be preserved, as the campus becomes the new home of the Department of Homeland Security. Additionally, he’s been a progressive advocate of adaptive reuse in the city, urging ahead the redevelopment of the Art Moderne West Heating Plant in Georgetown.

Day-to-day, the commission is responsible for evaluating the stream of new design proposals that flood the capital: monuments, memorials, museums, and more. In October, the Commission of Fine Arts gave the go-ahead for the embattled design of the Dwight Eisenhower Memorial by Frank Gehry, FAIA. Recent examples of projects Luebke’s agency worked with are Foster + Partners Kogod Courtyard at the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum, KBAS Studio’s Pentagon 9/11 Memorial, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial by sculptor Lei Yixin and McKissack and McKissack.

Currently under construction, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture, designed by David Adjaye, Hon. FAIA, provides an object lesson on the commission’s responsibilities to the sensitive and historic city around it. This new museum, located at the far northwest end of the National Mall, adjacent to the White House and the Washington Monument, had to appropriately address Washington’s most striking and vertical monument and the most famous American house in the world. It needed to act as the last urban gathering place on the Mall. And most importantly, it will be the last major Smithsonian museum added to the Mall—the final chapter of the nation’s cultural history in the federal core.

Adjaye’s design addressed each concern, melding ziggurat-like forms inspired by West African crowns with the tripartite organization (base, shaft, capital) of Classical columns in a way that acknowledged the traditionally Neoclassical White House and the over-scaled geometric abstraction of Robert Mills’ Washington Monument. A broad stone plinth and roof terraces will offer museum-goers places to gather. The museum’s never-before-seen-on-the-Mall façade made of perforated bronze marks it as a new aesthetic direction, while its subtly traditional tripartite organization acknowledges the history that came before it; an appropriate synthesis and summation of the museum’s role as the final Smithsonian museum on the Mall.

Adjaye credits Luebke for helping him get his design to take root in the national capital. “[Luebke’s] highly informed advice was critical for guiding and developing the design to address multiple concerns, including historic preservation, site planning, architectural development, and construction details,” Adjaye wrote in a recommendation letter. “As an opinion leader in the multi-agency regulatory process, Tom was an indispensable advocate for achieving the highest-quality design possible.”

Security vs. aesthetics

In the interests of democratic transparency, the nation’s founders envisioned Washington, D.C. as a capital city where any citizen can get as close to any and all government agencies and intuitions as basic function will allow. But in the wake of horrific terrorist attacks in Oklahoma City in 1995 and New York in 2001, this desire became subsumed by panicked and insensitive interventions that forced a false choice: “openness or security.” When Luebke began at the commission, concrete Jersey barriers had been unceremoniously dropped in front of some of the most historic buildings in the nation, altering their sensitively designed landscapes. Traffic patterns were also altered, with little recognition of how those acts would affect the context of the city. America’s civic icons seemed to be hiding in fear behind maze-grounds of steel and concrete.

Luebke’s agency had a simple message: With some time, a bit more money, and a thoughtful design, security and democratic access needn’t be mutually exclusive. Examples of this philosophy include vehicular security barriers at the National Air and Space Museum that double as sculptures, and less invasive, naturalistic stone barricades at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. The Washington Monument’s security design plan was one of the city’s most successful. Landscape architect Laurie Olin’s design re-graded the small hill the monument sits on into a circular, vehicle-proof 30-inch granite barrier, crisscrossed with arcing pedestrian paths. In each case, Luebke and the Commission on Fine Arts challenged stakeholders to design and build not what’s most expedient, or even most efficient; they asked for what’s best for the nation’s capital.

“In the last decade, Washington, D.C., has undergone unprecedented growth,” wrote Beyer Blinder Belle’s Hany Hassan, FAIA, in a recommendation letter. “Thomas Luebke has played a key role in directing this ongoing evolution and has challenged other key players to maintain the highest standard of quality.”

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