1968 Architectural Style of Federal Modernism

Throughout the tumultuous year of 1968, social thought and culture was expressed in many ways.  One of those ways was though art and the designing of American federal buildings.

Photo from (https://granitehistory.org/modernism-architecture/) of federal building in California which began construction in 1968.

Over the course of the 60s and 70s there was extensive federal government growth and in response to that growth the GSA (US General Services Administration) was created to organize and reply to the needs of the growing federal government.These needs included new buildings such as office buildings, courthouses, post offices, museums, and other government-controlled buildings throughout the country.(GSA, Federal Modernism)  These buildings were constructed using the artistic style later deemed Federal Modernism. This style of Federal Modernism was a direct practical response to the activism and culture in 1960s, 1970s, and specifically 1968.  In late 50s and early 60s the new civil rights movement began with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and with this movement came a period of civil unrest, the likes of which America had never faced.  This period of civil unrest was unleashed upon the nation through a period or riots and protests that cause massive damage to governmental buildings and property.  These riots came to a boiling point in 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr where riots broke out in over 125 cities nationwide and the damages were estimated to be 65 million over the course of a few weeks which would be calculated to be 385 million today. (Clay, The Legacy of the 1968 Riots) As a response to this damage and destruction of property on the taxpayers dime,  the government changed their architectural style to favor that of Federal modernism.  This style was uniquely American and not adopted by any other country during this time period.(GSA, Federal Modernism)  This was most likely because it was developed due to the unique social problems happening in during this period.  The style of Federal modernism is extremely easy to distinguish form other architectural types.  It is characterized by mainly concrete structure with overemphasized uniformity as well as slim narrower windows.

Picture from (https://granitehistory.org/modernism-architecture/) of federal building in Washington DC opened in 1968.

All of these design choices were most likely made to combat the damage done to property by the riots during the time of 1968 and the years surrounding it.  The slim windows protected those inside from rocks, Molotov cocktails, and any other objects the protesters would throw at government buildings. The slim widows, while mostly being ugly and depressing, allowed for adequate protection from any attackers or projectiles.  The excessive use of concrete during this time period was also a great defense against an angry mob of protesters.  Because of the heavy use of concrete, it was harder for these buildings to be set on fire or for the protesters to do actual damage to the building itself.  Finally, the uniformity of the buildings made it so that every square inch of the building was equally protected from any unnecessary damage.  When looking back on these building today they stand as a sight of constant memory.  Unless destroyed, these buildings will always be part of a spatial memory that awakens social memory of a difficult time in America.   Even on some college campuses, some schools such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill constructed buildings with this style during 1968.  The best example would be Greenlaw Hall at UNC.

Picture form (https://unchistory.web.unc.edu/building-narratives/greenlaw-hall/) of Greelaw Hall at UNC.


This building was constructed from the years of 1966-1970 and embodies the style of 1968 federal modernism. (UNC, Names in Brick and Stone: Histories from UNC’s Built Landscape) As seen form its narrow windows, uniformity, and slim trim, this building stands out form the rest due to its architectural style harkening back to 1968.  Not only do these buildings server as a sight of past memory but also as a sight of usable and continuing memory.  As these buildings are used new memories are associated with the buildings even thought the underlying reasons for these buildings design will always stay. These buildings adequately reflect the time in which they were built and hopefully remind people of a troubling time in American memory and how Americans have overcome that deep division to some extent.  This is specifically effective because these buildings do not have much visual appeal when compared to most other buildings and serve as a constant memory of a time where violence and riots were commonplace.  This style of building, however, also stands as a sight of forgetting.  Many today only see federal modernist buildings as unpleasant old buildings without thinking about the memory behind why it was built the way it was.  This form of forgetting shows how the public chooses to forget the historical significance behind somethings and embraces others.  This forgetting is most likely due to the violence which sparked the design style of the buildings and the government choosing not to emphasize their reasons for their unique design during 1968. These buildings, however, have stood the test of time and through their style represent a response by the American government to its violent culture during the year of 1968.



“Names in Brick and Stone: Histories from UNC’s Built Landscape.” Names in Brick and Stone Histories from UNCs Built Landscape, unchistory.web.unc.edu/building-narratives/greenlaw-hall/.

Finkel, Moshe. “Race Riots of the 1960s.” HighBeam Research – Newspaper Archives and Journal Articles, www.highbeam.com/topics/race-riots-of-the-1960s-t10642.

Risen, Clay. “The Legacy of the 1968 Riots.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 4 Apr. 2008, www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2008/apr/04/thelegacyofthe1968riots.

“10 Striking Examples Of Modernism Architecture Designed By Master Architects.” Granite History, 3 Oct. 2016, granitehistory.org/modernism-architecture/.

“Federal Modernism.” Home, 13 Aug. 2017, www.gsa.gov/real-estate/historic-preservation/historic-building-stewardship/architecture-and-government/federal-modernism.

“Growth, Efficiency, and Mondernism.” GSA, https://www.gsa.gov/cdnstatic/GEMbook.pdf.

2 thoughts on “1968 Architectural Style of Federal Modernism”

  1. I think your analysis of the material memory of architecture is very intriguing. One question I was wondering about reading this post was whether certain regions of America possessed Federal Modernistic buildings more predominantly. Since the Civil Rights Movement played a big role in the emergence of this spatial memory, I was curious whether we would have more sightings of such architectural patterns in the North or the South.

  2. This post is really interesting! It is important to note that another reason for the barred design was to prevent rioters from climbing the building. Another building on UNC campus that has this design is Davie Hall, the psychology building. Although it was constructed in 1967, the building’s design reflects Federal Modernism.

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