The Architecture of Big Philanthropy
Looking at some of the edifices, atriums, and façades.
We shape our buildings,” Winston Churchill said in 1943, “and afterwards they shape us.” He was calling for rebuilding the House of Commons exactly as it had been before its destruction two years earlier by Nazi bombers. But the point he was making has become an axiom of public architecture. Government buildings are more than edifices. They express the character of a regime and in turn, affect the exercise of public responsibility by those who work within them. Anyone who doubts that should compare the tightly guarded, faceless, boxy façades in authoritarian capitals with the accessible, elegant, practical structures in democratic ones.
Foundations are not government agencies, of course, but they are meant to serve the public. Although most operate in ordinary offices (or even little more than the file cabinets of bank trust officers), the largest may have their own, custom-made buildings. What do they say about the grantmaking organizations that dwell in them?
In 1955, a well-known critic, Dwight Macdonald, wrote “an unauthorized biography” of the Ford Foundation, which had recently received an infusion of stock that made it by far the largest grantmaker in the United States. He memorably described the organization “as a large body of money surrounded by people who want some.” Little escaped his cynical eye, not even the offices this “wholesaler” of wealth leased in midtown Manhattan, which were, he said, “in the most discreetly expensive modern style.” He went on to describe the carpeting, “at once sumptuous and democratic,” that covered the floors (and gave shocks to the unwary when they touched the door handles). “Some members of the staff,” Macdonald reported,
feel that this elegance is not appropriate to a foundation that deals with scientists, scholars, and other persons of modest income, and would prefer a more rundown setting in a less glittering quarter of the city, or even in some outlying college town.
But, he concluded, “the Ford Foundation is a $2,500,000,000 proposition, and it is hard for so much money not to dress the part.”
Ford eventually moved into its own building, on 42nd Street near the United Nations headquarters, which it still occupies. The 12-story, Kevin Roche-designed structure, which cost $16 million to erect in the 1960s, may have ditched a lot of the carpeting, but not the sumptuousness. The dominant—and much-praised—feature is a ground-to-roof, plant-filled atrium. (As part of a recent renovation, Ford is trying to make the building more energy-efficient). Staff offices are arrayed along the sides, with glass walls for looking out onto the atrium. Whatever that may suggest about openness, the Ford Foundation still appears to “dress the part,” now of a $16,000,000,000 organization, even if it calls its space the ”Center for Social Justice.”
The headquarters of the largest philanthropy in the United States, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is a futuristic building, located in the shadow of Seattle’s famous “Space Needle.” With a glass and metal façade, it embodies the technocratic approach to grantmaking for which the foundation is known. Its $500 million campus, opened in 2011, also includes a “state of the art” visitor center and a parking garage with a 1.5 acre “living roof” that provides a “natural habitat” for birds and perhaps even grant-seekers.
If the Gates Foundation’s building looks to the future, the Lilly Endowment’s is a picture of Midwestern gentility and stability. Since 1972, the Indianapolis-based grant-maker has operated out of an unpretentious 1950s building constructed for a life-insurance company. As businesses and residences have suburbanized, its neighborhood, once a fashionable one close to the center of the city, has lost appeal, but the Lilly Endowment remains steadfast, a reminder of its city’s better days.
Other foundations embrace the past to create an impression of importance. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation occupies the Marquette Building, a Chicago landmark that was one of the first steel-frame skyscrapers when it was completed in 1895. And for his foundation, Michael R. Bloomberg purchased a building of similar stature, an 1897 Beaux-Arts townhouse designed by Stanford White for a member of New York’s “high society.” The building housing the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation used to belong to the Bollingen Foundation, a prestigious, but now-inactive Mellon family philanthropy that published the works of Carl Jung and other distinguished, mostly European writers.
Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, New York City. Credit: Google Maps.The W. K. Kellogg Foundation seems unsure of the direction it wants to face. Its headquarters, a post-modernist building, exudes progressivism, but it remains in its small hometown of Battle Creek, Michigan, and has relocated the early 20th Century frame house of its donor to a corner of its property.
Not surprisingly, some of the large California foundations seem especially conscious of their environmental footprints, while the public health-oriented Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is built around a large patio, suitable for salubrious outdoor living and grantmaking. Alas, the Rockefeller Foundation is not to be found in Rockefeller Center, but the skyscraping edifice that houses its offices looks appropriate for a philanthropy whose mission is to “promote the well-being of humanity throughout the world.”
If the eyes are windows to the soul, buildings may reveal, in ways that annual reports and grant guidelines do not, the character of the organizations that dwell in them. But as with government architecture, big and imposing is not necessarily better and more effective. As monumental and distinctive as the offices of the largest foundations are, philanthropies that dwell in more modest surroundings may leave valuable and lasting legacies, too.
This article originally appeared in the Giving Review on January 3, 2022.