A look at Victor Lundy's D.C. masterpiece.
It is, perhaps, Victor Lundy’s most monumental project. Both Bauhaus and Beaux Arts, the United States Tax Court building is a bold modernist interpretation of the classical Washington tradition. The prestigious federal commission (located in a prominent D.C. location) arrived on Lundy's desk at the height of the architect's eclectic career. Already admired for his contemplative church designs and pop-inspired sculptural pneumatics, the experimental Lundy proved to be a clever choice for the General Services Administration. His muscular design, underscored by straightforward symmetry and innovative technology, reimagined the formal devices of federal architecture to create a convincingly modern monument.
At first glance, the United States Tax Court building (1969-76) might seem like just another modernist box, its unornamented facade flat and austere. But after a second look, Lundy's hulking composition comes alive, gradually emerging as a dynamic synthesis of floating rectangular volumes. Lundy once described his approach to the building, saying, "what I've done is taken a monolithic block and broken it apart." And indeed, the angular form resembles a deconstructed cube. With a deliberate hand, Lundy placed four distinctive but connected office blocks on a massive podium, each granite-clad section separated by expanses of bronze-colored glass. Best viewed from the adjacent plaza, the dramatic building's main facade centers on a massive 200-foot-long courtroom block (weighing a whopping 4,000 tons) that cantilevers over a deep staircase in what can only be described as a feat of structural magic (thanks to a series of more than 100 post-tensioned steel cables). It is an audacious act, one that speaks volumes about Lundy's inimitable artistry and technical bravura.
As Lundy cracks open the conventional box, he is, in effect, taking apart tradition to produce something that is both of its own time and looking to the future. The carving of the building into separate parts allows for an unexpected light-filled interior- bright, airy, and responsive to context and purpose. The interior's central (and most compelling) space, the four-story Hall of Justice is simple and elegant, a study in the quiet power of a reflective sanctum. With walls of glass, clerestory windows, granite walls, and a tapestry of teak slats, the hall functions as the building's main circulation area, while its rich materiality and generous transparency nods to the court's democratic mission. In deference to the building's role as a "podium of justice," the marriage of granite (classical) and glass (modern) provides a knowing sense of balance and order.
Practicing at the intersection of art and architecture for several decades, Victor Lundy is the rare creative force. More than just a builder of boxes, Lundy utilizes expressive forms, daring engineering, and material agency to depart from modernist norms. The culmination of a long career, the United States Tax Court building proved to be the architect's most high-profile commission and garnered instant acclaim for its novel approach to federal monumentality. Praised by critic Ada Louise Huxtable as a "progressive, sensitive, contemporary solution fully responsive to Washington's classical tradition and yet fully part of the mid-20th century," Lundy's design is timeless, its sophisticated symmetry and smooth, modern materials working together in a exuberant expression of the monolithic ideal. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and still serving its original function, the Tax Court building is a modernist monument in the classical city- a true testament to Lundy's enduring architectural vision.
Photograph at top:
U.S. Tax Court Building, Washington, D.C. Courtesy of the General Services Administration.
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