The first sight of it is otherworldly. The night is dark, and you are driving south down Seventh Street SW, under the railroad tracks, up the hill, and into the concrete-and-Carrara canyons of the federal ghetto. There are no people around. God knows why you’re down here after dark. You come to a stoplight at the corner of D Street and it turns red—bright, cherry red—the only color in the place. Between the sharp edges of the block, you see another light: A cold, white radiation issues mysteriously off to the right. When the light turns green-flavored and you roll farther south, the source gradually reveals itself.

It looks as though a battalion of seven flying saucers has floated down to Earth in front of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In reality, they are 40-foot-wide illuminated canopies that appear to hover, like phosphorescent Life Savers, 15 feet above the plaza floor. The disks, in fact, are cantilevered upon thin steel poles anchored to the sparkling concrete. Between them lie eight raised, circular planters of preternaturally green grass that itself shines in the dark. The light from the canopies washes the mammoth, 10-story walls and deep, chamfered windows of the HUD building with an ethereal glow. Once you can get up close and touch the apparition, you realize it is not from another world. But it is certainly not from Washington, either.

The alien landscape on HUD’s plaza is the most interesting piece of new architecture to appear in the city since the World Bank headquarters opened last year. But it’s not nearly as intriguing as it could have been—as it was supposed to have been.

Originally, the HUD plaza wasn’t supposed to be rendered in the blank, neutral white that it is today; it was designed to be saturated in a spectrum of loud primary colors. The installation was designed by Martha Schwartz, a landscape architect and Harvard University professor based in Cambridge, Mass., who is known for her cheeky, intensely chromatic pop-art visions. Schwartz, along with a team of several artists, designed the space in 1994 in a workshop sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, which was geared toward producing the most populist design possible by including people who worked at HUD as well as people who lived in the neighborhood.

“It was a very public process,” says a former HUD assistant secretary. “The concerns of a broad constituency were mapped onto practical concerns of the District’s redevelopment plan.”

Schwartz’s resulting design was much more feisty than what you see today: The canopies were specified in red, violet, yellow, and orange—kind of like the Five Flavors of the classic Life Saver roll. Almost all of Schwartz’s work, from her surreal landscape at the Solana office park outside Dallas to the plaza in front of the Jacob Javits Federal Building in New York, vibrates with mind-blowing color. The HUD plaza was to be no exception. All the powers that be—up to then-HUD Secretary Henry G. Cisneros—liked and embraced Schwartz’s rainbow scheme.

Then, late in the game, as construction was beginning on the plaza, Cisneros left HUD at the end of the first Clinton administration and was replaced by Andrew M. Cuomo, who was previously an assistant secretary at the department and who didn’t like Schwartz’s design at all. Cuomo, say several people close to the project, didn’t like the color, and, most of all, didn’t like the canopies. It seems the ambitious new secretary, a tough manager, did not cotton to the idea of erecting such a folly in front of the department’s building on his watch.

Cuomo’s 11th-hour objections, however, conflicted sharply with the government’s larger prerogatives. Schwartz’s design was conceived as part of a recent push by the NEA and the General Services Administration, which commissions most federal buildings projects, to pump up the aesthetic quality of federal architecture and landscapes by hiring top American design talent. Under the direction of GSA Chief Architect Edward Feiner, the government has been trying to make up for years of the banal, keypunch-card architecture that signified the federal presence in the nation’s cities. Currently, hundreds of courthouses and other federal properties—at an approximate cost of $5 billion over the next decade—are being designed by the lofty likes of architects Richard Meier, Michael Graves, Cesar Pelli—and Schwartz.

All of the GSA’s high-profile projects go through the agency’s rigorous design review, a process that brings in more leading talent to critique schemes and suggest changes. The objective, however, is to preserve the integrity of expression by the individual, to “embody the finest contemporary American architectural thought,” as prescribed in Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture, a 1962 executive treatise penned during the Kennedy administration and ignored by President Nixon and his successors.

Schwartz’s big idea was to breathe new life into the HUD plaza and, moreover, into the dour federal precincts of Southwest Washington—daunting as that prospect may have seemed in such an aggressively colorless, structurally tyrannical milieu. The opportunity to brighten the block arose when HUD’s plaza needed waterproofing—rain was leaking into the building’s underground spaces. But the visual pain of the place presented the most dire emergency.

The HUD building itself, completed in 1968, is a modern masterwork. It was designed by Marcel Breuer, a Bauhaus architect who later became one of America’s most active exponents of the style called Brutalism. This severe aesthetic, an outgrowth of 1950s welfare architecture, offered abstract distortions of animal and human figures with blunt expression of building materials, usually concrete. (Breuer also designed what is now the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a few blocks away on Independence Avenue.)

The organically H-shaped massif makes for a gorgeous object, but an isolated one. It sits up on stilts that look like rhinoceros feet, aloof from everything around it. Schwartz, in her design, wanted to bring the building and the “dysfunctional” space around it into harmony—especially the voids on four sides of the building, which are cut off from each other. But whatever she was going to do, it had to be lightweight because of the garage below. And to cure the place of its anomie, she felt certain it should be splashed wildly with color.

“Color is a very powerful tool that conveys a lot of emotion,” Schwartz remarked last week. But, she added, “people have a lot of intense reactions to color….There are all sorts of cultural attitudes about color when you propose it in public landscapes.”

Cisneros and Cuomo had two very different reactions to Schwartz’s palette. When the design was first unveiled, Cisneros, an urban planner by training, loved it. Cisneros was unavailable for comment, but Marc Weiss, a former HUD official who is a Cisneros confidant, was with the secretary when he first saw the original plan. “We were looking for something that would brighten up the public space…something pedestrian-oriented, friendly, lively, and fun….People said it looked like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride,” the Fantasyland favorite at Walt Disney World. With HUD’s supreme blessing, everything seemed on track.

But when Cisneros left the department and Cuomo took over in January 1997, architecture and politics began their sour collision. Cuomo, according to Schwartz, “had different ideas” about the design. The architect, however, would not go into detail about the conflict. “It doesn’t serve me to air my dirty laundry,” she said. But people familiar with the events suggest that Cuomo, who had the support of GSA Public Buildings Commissioner Robert A. Peck, was afraid he would look like the principal of a boondoggle. Cuomo is among those mentioned as a potential vice presidential candidate in the 2000 election.

“I gather he felt the whole think might look like gilding the lily,” says Charles Atherton, secretary of the Commission of Fine Arts, which reviewed and approved Schwartz’s design, as it does all interventions on federal properties in Washington. “It made him uneasy.”

“[Cuomo] is terrified of any negative publicity,” says a former HUD official close to the project, “and he didn’t want any attention called to this plaza.”

HUD spokesperson Susan McCue says such assumptions are “flat-out wrong,” and that Cuomo never tried to thwart the design. “Besides, the project is there today, and it looks good, so I don’t see what the problem is.”

The problem is that Schwartz was forced to compromise her design under political pressure. According to correspondence exchanged between Schwartz and Commission of Fine Arts Chairman J. Carter Brown (who also admired her design), Cuomo, with Peck’s backing, wanted to level the canopies altogether. “People tried to tell him that this [design] was the result of a public process, and that you can’t change it by fiat,” says a former HUD official. There were also veiled threats to Schwartz by Peck: “He told her, ‘You’ve had a lot of work with [GSA],’” the official said. With the secretary and commissioner so poised, Schwartz hired a lawyer and asked Brown to broker a truce with the two to get the government to honor its contract with her team.

Last May, Brown wrote to Peck, saying that he understood the plaza might be rebuilt without the canopies over the seating areas: “Apparently there is some concern that [the canopies] might be a bit too playful for the serious business of government and may send the wrong message.

“The members of the Commission thought that they were one of the more attractive features of the project and would probably object to their deletion. This contrasting note of whimsy and color, so often lacking in Brutalist federal design of the 1960s, might provide a welcome touch.”

Apparently, Brown had the right touch, too. Last June, Schwartz wrote to Brown, thanking him for the “concise and powerful letter” he had sent to Peck, which should have provided “a strong incentive for him and Mr. Cuomo to reconsider their position.” In her letter, Schwartz said that on May 19, 1997, she met with Cuomo’s assistant secretary Dwight Robinson and “set forth my position that they either start over again with a new design, or go through with the present scheme. I was not prepared to eliminate the canopies.”

Robinson, Schwartz continued, “clearly stated that Mr. Cuomo’s objections were based on personal aesthetics and that he was afraid of political fallout if the project should have the appearance of being extravagant.” When Robinson asked Schwartz if there was a chance of compromise, “I indicated that we could talk about color…that I would consider an all-white scheme.” That was when the four fruit flavors of Schwartz’s rainbow turned to Pep-O-Mint—elegant, but cyronically chilly, not as much fun.

The GSA has spent $1.3 million on the project, but it is not planning any kind of ceremony to mark the plaza’s completion. The silence is stranger than the architecture, considering the fanfare that typically surrounds the opening of new federal buildings—like the party earlier this month that marked the opening of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. You might expect a ribbon-cutting if nothing else, a photo opportunity for Cuomo to mount the small new stage on the plaza and dilate upon the way the design symbolizes his agency’s commitment to shelter. No such climax is likely to occur.

“The remaining pieces of the puzzle are due in [this] week,” says GSA spokesman Jim Williams of the HUD plaza; the contractors will put in security bollards and a backdrop for the stage. “But at this point, there’s no dedication ceremony. It will just be there.”

When President Johnson dedicated Breuer’s building in 1968, he waxed eloquent about “a Nation that will always be like this building—bold and beautiful.” So much for quaint sentiments. A design that was conceived as an effort to humanize a bloodlessly monumental void in the capital has become an object lesson in how compromise, the mother’s milk of politics, can undermine artistic vision.

The change in color could be viewed as trifling. But what stands on HUD’s plaza today is not so much the homage to shelter Schwartz originally intended as a token of capitulation. Her design for the plaza is materially and geometrically correct, and represents a vast improvement over what stood in the space before. But a Martha Schwartz without color is like an opera without words: Color is her language. The architect managed to riff on Breuer’s aesthetic in a humanistic way, preserving the abstraction of his building while throwing her exuberant, humorous voice onto its mute façades. But Schwartz’s levity, in the end, was too much for Washington, which still could use a few good laughs.CP