The FBI building is an example of Brutalist architecture — derived from the French "beton brut" meaning "raw concrete," a popular style in the 1960s and 1970s.
"That was the fashion of the time, even though it's hard to imagine now," said Martin Moeller, senior curator of the National Building Museum. "I do think it was always an unfortunate work of architecture."
He said that while he likes "some other very monumental buildings of that era, the FBI building is ill-proportioned and ominous. It does not create a pleasant streetscape at its base. I can't imagine I would have ever liked it under any circumstances."
Mary Fitch, executive director of the Washington chapter of the American Institute of Architects, said, "Many people have put the FBI building on their lists of least-liked Washington buildings because of what they view as its harsh and overbearing design and how it deadens street life on all four sides."
"These feelings have intensified in recent years as the redevelopment and renaissance of Pennsylvania Avenue and the Penn Quarter neighborhood have made the FBI building's forbidding, defensive design less and less compatible with its surroundings," Fitch added.
The building wasn't originally intended to be quite so cold and forbidding.
City planners envisioned shops and buildings with open arcades and courtyards along a redeveloped Pennsylvania Avenue. Initially, the FBI agreed, but the bureau's final design modified that for security reasons. FBI officials explained that the first floor along Pennsylvania Avenue was closed with marble facing rather than leased to shops for fear that foreign agents might find a way to use the shops as a base to eavesdrop on the bureau. The public was blocked off from the building's center courtyard, also for security.
Across the street from FBI headquarters is the Federal Triangle, an array of government buildings erected in the 1930s. These stately buildings may not achieve greatness, but architects regard them as worthy additions to the nation's capital. They feature limestone facades, red-tile hipped roofs and classically inspired colonnades. The Justice Department directly across from the FBI is a classical revival-style building distinguished by art deco architectural elements.
The GSA calls the Hoover building outdated and overcrowded.
The current FBI building was designed to be a giant filing cabinet for investigative records, a purpose now made largely superfluous with the advent of the digital age, the GSA's Tangherlini said.
As the FBI has shifted priorities to fight terrorism, the headquarters workforce has increased steadily for more than a decade, from 10,000 to over 17,000. But many of the headquarters employees aren't working at headquarters. Overcrowding has pushed them into annexes scattered around Washington. In 2001, there were seven annexes. Today, there are more than 40. There are serious security issues at those locations where the FBI must share space with multiple tenants.
Consolidation "is urgently needed" and "we view this as one of our highest priorities for the foreseeable future," the FBI told the GAO in a letter a year and a half ago.
How far away would the FBI go to find a new home?
Officials in Virginia's Prince William and Stafford counties say the bureau would ease its employees' commutes by moving the headquarters south of the Capital Beltway, the highway surrounding the District of Columbia. Officials say FBI facilities in the counties now employ 3,000 people.
Prince George's County, Maryland, just outside Washington, is pitching its proximity to the Beltway, easy access to public transportation stations and the opportunity to rectify what officials there say is an imbalance in federal office space. About one-quarter of the region's federal workers live in the county, yet it is home to a miniscule percentage of federal office space.
A new home in the city is not out of the question. After all, FBI directors have gotten used to making a quick trip across the street to defend the bureau's interests in face-to-face meetings with the attorney general.
Associated Press writer Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.