Visual Arts

South Florida FBI building is unexpected architectural jewel in the wetlands

 alastairgordonsskyline@gmail.com

The Benjamin P. Grogan and Jerry L. Dove Federal Building, named after two FBI agents who were slain in the line of duty, was built on swampy land in Miramar to house FBI offices. It was conceived by the Chicago-based firm of Krueck + Sexton under the government program called "Design Excellence" and dedicated in April 2015.
The Benjamin P. Grogan and Jerry L. Dove Federal Building, named after two FBI agents who were slain in the line of duty, was built on swampy land in Miramar to house FBI offices. It was conceived by the Chicago-based firm of Krueck + Sexton under the government program called "Design Excellence" and dedicated in April 2015.

South Florida’s latest architectural jewel is not a looming luxury tower by the beach, nor was it designed for billionaires. Rather, it was built on a swampy, inland lot, for the federal government — more specifically, the FBI.

It’s one of the last places you’d expect to find High Design: about 20 miles north of Miami, just to the east of Interstate 75 in the city of Miramar, rising up like a beacon of hope from an otherwise nondescript stretch of suburban sprawl characterized by beige subdivisions, drainage swales and Taco Bells. But there it is, with its multifaceted facades glinting in the sun, the product of a government program called “Design Excellence” that promotes creativity and the selection of top-notch architectural talent — in this case, the Chicago-based firm of Krueck + Sexton. The building is quite a coup, both for the firm and the FBI.

Originally, the site was a native wetlands. But this peripheral offshoot of the Everglades was destroyed by a developer who filled in the swampy areas with gravel fill.

“We vowed to bring the wetlands back,” said Mark Sexton, who with his partner Ron Krueck convinced the client, the General Services Administration, to consider such a vision.

From the beginning, the architects conceived of the architecture within the context of a semi-wilderness setting. “Our argument was that restoring the natural environment would improve security,” Sexton said. “In a sense, we would use the natural landscape as a protective barrier, and the GSA agreed. It seemed like a win-win situation.”

The architects used the natural landscape of the wetlands as a protective barrier.

The old fill was removed and repurposed to elevate the building’s foundation 18 inches above grade, to protect it from flooding. The wetlands were then painstakingly restored to their original condition with several ponds, a marsh and a canal running along the southern edge of the property. All of the plants in the landscape restoration were native to the area, including palmettos, buttonbush, rose mallow, wax myrtle, wiregrass and broadleaf arrowhead, among dozens of other species. (A half-mile pathway loops around the wetlands site and can now be used for recreation by government workers.)

The building that sits to one side of the 20-acre site is at once inviting and repelling (and also slightly intimidating) as it both reveals and conceals itself with a rippling skin of fretted metal, something like the scales of a reptile. The project called for the very highest level of security around its perimeter, what’s called “protective hardening” and “blast mitigation” in the security business. But while designed to withstand explosions and other indignities, the building appears light and airy, almost hovering above its watery site like a ghostly presence.

To achieve such an illusion, the architects employed all manner of sleight of hand: dematerializing the building’s 375,000-square-foot mass by breaking it up into different sections, spreading out its bulk, opening it up with twin courtyards, lifting the outer perimeter on a colonnade to give it elevation and detach it from the ground plane. The roughly “H”-shaped plan runs east to west, and the courtyards are set between two narrow, 400-foot-long blocks that are linked in the middle. Undulating curtain walls of specially treated glass are protected by a zigzagging mesh of perforated aluminum that helps to diminish the heat of the sub-tropical sun while allowing views of the surrounding landscape from within.

The courtyard to the east is the public entry point. It features a reflecting pool and formally planted landscape elements. The courtyard to the west, used by employees only, opens to the restored wetlands and is less formally composed. “We cracked it open to create more movement,” said architect Sexton, who compares the building to an agate that’s been split in half.

The architecture makes a sculptural statement while also providing security against hurricanes and terrorist attacks. “How do you make a high-security building that doesn’t look like a prison?” Sexton asked. In place of “anti-ram” bollards and ugly barriers, the ponds and pre-existing canal become a kind of protective moat, complete with alligators.

“We wanted to create something that reflected the changing sky, clouds and shadows,” Sexton said. “We wanted to create a kind of intimacy.” Even though the facility is shut tight against intruders, the flexing skin makes it appear porous and even inviting. At night, it glows like a Chinese lantern. In place of the boxy, mirrored facades that one normally sees along highway hinterlands, the building engages both the wetlands and the bog-reflected light. The long facades undulate from east to west and the zigzagging metallic scrim not only breaks the heat of the sun but catches the light to further animate the outer surfaces.

The enclosing envelope of glass was folded and stretched in places to break monotony and create a more fractured, reflective surface. Sidewalls were extended beyond the end of each section — something like the sliding flats in Kabuki theater — to express the thinness of the glass envelope, create a sense of lightness and diminish the overall sense of weight. (The facility is not open to the public, but one can view the exterior at a distance from Southwest 145th Avenue, or while whizzing by on the interstate.)

Over the long run, the building’s $156 million price tag will be somewhat mitigated by such green features as a rainwater reclamation system that reduces water consumption by 95 percent, while photovoltaic panels on the roof of an adjacent parking structure will produce almost 20 percent of the building’s energy needs. To avoid the kind of bland repetition that many federal buildings suffer from, the architects bent the floor plan to avoid long straight corridors inside, and each floor has a different footprint.

“We cranked it to give it movement, like a winding street,” Sexton said. To animate the somewhat static lobby, a 23-foot- tall wood sculpture by Ursula von Rydingsvard has been installed as part of the GSA’s Art-in-Architecture program.

The building was officially dedicated April 11 of this year as the Benjamin P. Grogan and Jerry L. Dove Federal Building, named after two FBI agents who were slain in the line of duty.

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