World Bank Headquarters:
The Town Square for an International Community

The World Bank Main Complex building in Washington D.C. has become one of the city’s most well-respected landmarks. A timeless building that has set a precedent for how we should develop our cities, it embodies many questions that are at the forefront of architectural design today.

The Main Complex Building demonstrates an emphasis on employee well-being; a reduction in embodied carbon through the reuse of existing buildings; efficiency of design that prioritizes craft in construction over ornate materials shipped in from afar; and the promotion of an equitable society.

The original site included two buildings that were less than thirty years old. A key design decision was to retain and improve these buildings, a move that would ultimately save years of construction time and around $100 million including the cost of relocating staff while the buildings were replaced.

The original buildings before rennovation.

Washington D.C.’s zoning caps the height of buildings at 425 feet, which usually translates to 12 stories. Through efficient structure, in the form of a post-tensioned slab, and a reduced plenum, the design team was able to provide 13 stories. The additional floor created extra perimeter area for naturally lit private offices and enabled more open space within the complex.

At the heart of the building is a large atrium topped by a glass skylight, with the office buildings arranged in a pinwheel around it. This atrium has become the town square for an international community, providing space to host events.

Every aspect of the building’s design was crafted by the design team. The biology of its structural and mechanical systems enabled its form. Its form enabled the material and volumetric interplay of its exterior and interior surfaces. This interplay inspired the character and design of its furnishings.

A supportive client committed to building a good architectural citizen in the nation’s capital allowed the design to be approached as a large work of art that expressed the character of this uniquely important institution. It is as relevant today as it was upon completion in 1996.

The competition assumed that all buildings on the site would be replaced and anticipated a phased construction process lasting more than ten years. Two of the buildings, one designed by Gordon Bunshaft of SOM and the other by Vincent Kling, had been built less than thirty years before. KPF’s winning design was the only competition entry to propose retaining and resuscitating these two buildings.

Introducing an interior atrium, covered by a curved glass skylight, allowed offices facing the inner courtyard to receive natural light. An additional advantage is that they face vibrant activity hosted within the space. Post-occupancy evaluation has shown atrium-facing offices to be as popular as their street-facing counterparts. A vertical stack of enclosed conference areas formed a tower-like structure on the north side of the space. It was not possible to impose additional loads on the existing buildings; the atrium roof is supported on the walls of the new phases of building and on a line of slender columns set away from existing foundations.


The façade combines a new horizontally articulated curtain wall with portions of the existing vertically articulated travertine and limestone cladding. Credit: Michael Dersin.
Details from the central atrium. Left image credit: Michael Dersin.

The main level steps up, forming a series of terraces that encourage informal gathering and provide seating for large events. Since the the building’s completion, world leaders have come to the World Bank Headquarters, addressing the public on topical matters.

In addition to the dedicated lounge seating, the steps serve as tiered audience seating for when world leaders speak at the venue. Credit: Michael Dersin.

October 11, 2013 – Washington D.C.

At the 2013 World Bank / IMF Annual Meetings, Malala Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old from Pakistan and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, spoke with World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim, about her passionate fight for girls’ education.

Credit: Simone D. McCourtie / WorldBank

April 13, 2016 – Washington D.C.

First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama and World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim took to the stage to advocate for girls and women across the world.

Credit: Simone D. McCourtie / WorldBank

Along the eastern side of the atrium, a series of free-standing vertical elements provides surfaces for changing art exhibitions. The atrium is arranged so that an individual feels comfortable being totally alone in the space.

Credit: Simone D. McCourtie / WorldBank

It can also host hundreds of people for dinners, lectures, and spontaneous gatherings.

On April 9, 2019 David R. Malpass, the 13th President of World Bank Group, was greeted upon his arrival for his first day of work.

Credit: World Bank / Grant Ellis

Continuing the layered details of the World Bank interiors is a waterfall that originates at the main level and descends to transform the lowest level  into a reflecting pool that faces the cafeteria and private dining areas. The pool is animated by surface effects in the water created by natural light striking it from the skylight above.

Additionally, a ground plane of several different levels was formed around the columns to create more intimate zones.

The waterfall cascades past office and dining windows (credit: Michael Dersin) (left), arriving at a reflecting pool (credit: Tim Hursley) (right).

The main board room and the ceremonial conference room break the 425-foot height limit since the zoning authorities viewed them as ornamental spaces that were honorific. Together they animate the building’s upper profile addressing Pennsylvania Avenue. Natural light enters each of these sculptural forms in a dramatic but different manner.

These rooms are dressed in fittingly elegant materials and furnished with the original custom-designed pieces.

Credit: Michael Dersin.

The World Bank Headquarters is the recipient of many awards, including the 1997 Award of Merit from the American Institute of Architects New York City, the 1998 Honor Award for Architecture from the American Institute of Architects, and the 1998 Concrete Building of the Year Award from the  American Concrete.

The World Bank shortly after its renovation in 1996 (right, credit: Michael Dersin) and the building in 2016 ( left, credit: World Bank Group).