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Coming Out of the Dark: A former Federal Reserve bunker protects a different kind of currency

BAR Architects
March 2009

By David Sokol

Driving into Culpeper, Virginia, one can’t miss the the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation. This government repository of more than 6 million films, sound recordings, videotapes, and other audio-visual materials springs from the north side of rolling Mount Pony in a broad, sandblasted-concrete-and-glass crescent. The building seems to communicate to passersby that here, devoted scores are preserving our culture in television, radio broadcasts, and Internet streams. It represents an optimistic about-face from its original life as a Cold War emergency bunker.

Federal Reserve bunker
Photo courtesy BAR Architects / Rien van Rijthoven
Overview from south

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You read that correctly. Mount Pony once housed a subterranean mini-city to protect $3 billion in U.S. currency, as well as personnel from the Federal Reserve, in case of nuclear holocaust. The Packard Humanities Institute gutted and expanded the complex into the 415,000-square-foot library with the help of consulting design architect BAR Architects of San Francisco with SmithGroup as architect of record, and donated it the U.S. legislature in 2007. It was the largest-ever gift to the legislative branch.

The Packard Campus gives back in other ways. For example, members of the public can stroll from the lobby into a replica Art Deco–era theater immediately adjacent to it; there, free movies air three times a week. And for the audio-visual technicians and other experts occupying the building daily, BAR Architects rejected the usual trappings of conservation work environments—monastic spaces bereft of sunlight—by hemming work areas to the expansive windows of the hillside hemicycle. The crescent is ringed in loggias, too, which encourages outdoor snacking and socializing. And since only a small portion of the building is exposed, employees working in the film processing labs not near the hemicycle approximate the experience in their own Palm Court.

By their nature, archives like the Packard Campus can’t exemplify sustainability in absolute terms. Take the large branch of the building that stores nitrate films, which operates at a constant 39 degrees Fahrenheit and 30 percent relative humidity. “That requires energy to maintain,” says BAR principal Earl Wilson, AIA. On the other hand, the building’s mostly underground components, covered in 228,000 square feet of green roof, keeps the temperature from spiking in case of a power outage. Daylight is doled out only to those building occupants who would benefit from it, in other words. With the recent announcement that the detention center at Guantánamo Bay and various related “black areas” will close imminently, perhaps these mistaken monuments can find similarly hopeful uses as the Packard Campus’s former bunker—and be adapted with equal skill.

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