Monday, August 20th, 2012

The Ugly-Beauty Of Brutalism

Prentice Women's Hospital in Chicago

Updating a cultural canon, in any form, is an endless battlefield due to our persistent tendencies, 1. to create ever more art and 2. to fail, just as rapidly, to agree on its value. Witness debates about revised editions of any literary anthology, or, say, the National Film Registry. At times worthy works receive just recognition; other times, age seems all that’s required to give mediocre works the gloss of historical grandeur. But let’s not get off track discussing Sex, Lies and Videotape vs. Forrest Gump. Rarely is the navigation of this question of aesthetic value more difficult and commercially charged than in architecture. After all, one needn’t tear down The Thin Man in order to add Silence of the Lambs, nor did the Wizard of Oz’s landmarking entail that Taxi Driver couldn’t be built. Architecture sometimes involves exactly these either/or choices, though, and the increasing debates over the aesthetic merits of Brutalism have found multiple flashpoints in recent months, from Chicago to Baltimore to Minneapolis to Oklahoma City to Goshen, New York.

Brutalism. It doesn’t exactly skip off of the tongue, does it? I know plenty of educated people for whom “Brutalism” is simply shorthand for any recent architecture that they happen to dislike. Here "Brutalism" fulfills the same role as "jam bands" as a shorthand category for sweeping disdain. It's be tempting to attribute the misfortunes of Brutalist architecture to semantics; after all, no other 20th-century form of architecture—the International style, Constructivism, Postmodernism—directly conjours images of violence and force, unless you have a particularly paranoiac attitude towards any sort of contemporary theory. And yet this doesn’t quite explain away the recent difficulties of Brutalist architecture. There are, of course, accurate aesthetic objections—bare concrete, however improperly labeled, doesn’t inspire much popular enthusiasm. Look to any list of “ugliest buildings” or “buildings to demolish now” and you’re sure to find multiple Brutalist structures represented. The Trellick Tower in London was said to be the inspiration for J.G. Ballard’s novel High Rise, in which society breaks into conflict, chaos, and dog-eating amidst in a self-contained concrete tower mass. Ian Fleming titled a villain after that building’s architect, Erno Goldfinger. That doesn’t happen to Frank Gehry.

Trellick Tower in London

Despite a pronounced lack of public enthusiasm for Brutalism, it's financial and planning concerns, not aesthetic ones, that have temporarily saved or at least postponed the destruction of several recently threatened structures. In April, Paul Rudolph’s water-damaged Orange County Government Center, which is located on Main Street in Goshen, New York, was preserved in an 11-10 vote of the Orange County Legislature. And the votes for saving the building seemed significantly inspired by doubts as to whether demolishing the building and constructing a replacement would actually prove cheaper than repairing the facility. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been cagey about preserving the Bertrand Goldberg-designed Prentice Women’s Hospital, but seems unwilling to approve Northwestern University’s plans to demolish the facility until there’s a concrete indication of what might replace it. In Minneapolis, the city is currently conducting fundraising for a thorough redesign of the Peavey Plaza in downtown, which the American Society of Landscape Architects recognized, in 1999, as one of the most significant examples of landscape architecture in the U.S. The John Johansen-designed Morris Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore, for which there is an extant replacement proposal, has drawn criticism from the city’s Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel for its proposal to locate a three-story retail building, and not a tower, along a principal street. In each case, renovation seems to have been dismissed peremptorily as impossible. Not helping, in the case of the Orange County Government Center, was the seeming inflated costs of the renovation: The cost estimates for refurnishing the building, some observers pointed out, were some $24 million higher than the actual costs of renovating the structurally quite similar (the architect was the same) University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth library.

The Morris Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore

Financial questions aside, the question of what would replace these structures is vital. Though it's difficult to deny that Brutalism has its flaws. The term, derived from the French word for raw concrete "Béton brut," came, via some gradual tweakings of meaning, to encompass a range of 50s to 70s architecture granting a central role, obviously, to unfinished concrete, but also to abstract geometries, and the frank exposure of functional architectural elements. After sleek International-style modernism, Brutalism represented a turn towards a very different sort of functionalism, often dripping with overhangs, podiums, and articulations designed to enhance its physical immensity (for more on this, check out this recent article). These plans often achieved a sure monumentalism, but also often left humans in the literal dust, in lifeless plazas from Boston City Hall to Dallas City Hall to L’Enfant Plaza that made no attempt to accommodate the pedestrian. And, as with any genre of building, some Brutalist buildings have been well consigned to the wrecking ball—few would argue that cities haven't benefited from some necessary pruning of the Brutalist past.

The Orange County Government Center in Goshen, New York

Its proposed replacement

In these current disputes, however, the briefest look at replacement plans confirms that demolition proposals would scrap truly intriguing buildings in favor of thoroughly anodyne replacements. The projected replacement for the Orange County Government Center resembled nothing so much as a collegiate neo-Georgian physical sciences building. The proposed residential tower replacement for Baltimore's Morris Mechanic Theater looks like any dozen recent American mid-sized glass towers, its mild articulation of façade about as distinctive as the idea of, well… living in a condo in a glass tower downtown. Not to mention countless cases of demolition in which no replacement has yet materialized. The former New Haven Coliseum site sits still vacant. The Leeds International Pool site is now occupied by a parking lot. As Paul Goldberger recently pointed out in Vanity Fair, Northwestern University owns a vacant plot of land across the street from the Prentice Women’s Hospital, and yet, without an extant plan for either site, it insists on demolition.

The principal frustration in all of these recent cases is that the architecture of each of these buildings is unquestionably more inventive and even fanciful than most architecture that directly preceded them, let alone other Brutalist peers. Brutalism enabled plenty of bare walls; but it also birthed some structures that, if you can get beyond the ready wince at the idea of scraping a knee on them, are unquestionably playful. Naturally, there are blank concrete walls; there are also countless intriguing geometries; the Mummers Theater in Oklahoma is a riot of catwalk-linked cubes at varying orientations and elevation; the Orange County Government Center is a lively spilling-forth of windows and canopies, and the Prentice Women’s Hospital is a space-age cloverleaf whose lower portion accordingly looks more like a launch pad than a podium. In all of these cases the argument for preservation is clearly strong, having more to do with the worth of the buildings than any rote hostility to progress or an eggheaded taste for retaining every drop of Brutalist ugliness.

Boston's South End

1973 photo of Boston City Hall Plaza

There’s little doubt that the preservationist community, as valiant and lonely as its efforts to save Brutalism have been, has made its case in ways that often seem rather hard to swallow. Frequent comparisons to Victorian architecture, and the fact that it too was once regarded with broad distaste, seem justly out-of-touch. No one, in fifty years, or ever, is going to stand in Boston City Hall Plaza and gain the feeling of cozy preservationist joy that they find in Boston’s Victorian South End—any more than, to go back to our beginning, audiences are ever going to find a historical moment at which the now 70-year-old Moses und Aron sounds about as fun as Aida does—nor should they. Brutalism should be addressed, and preserved on its own terms, which are unquestionably more difficult than earlier examples of preservation, although arguably just as worthy.

These terms, for forthrightly evaluating the legacy of Brutalism, are almost invariably civic; nearly all of the structures at present risk are public in purpose and function. The residential legacy of Brutalism has weathered time most poorly for obvious reasons. In the realm of public architecture, however, whether one cares for Brutalism or not, it’s difficult to assert that since its demise we’ve devised much better molds for civic architecture. Occasional commissions might result in a distinctive product, but for the most part we’ve arrived at an age, as Nathan Glazer has convincingly argued, when the scale of necessary public construction, and its attendant cost, has foreclosed on any older, more universally admired models for building. Given the clear mediocrity of likely replacements, to discard wholesale the legacy of a distinctive moment in architectural history out of a feeling of spite seems capricious.

I’m personally very fond of much Brutalist architecture, and find in its mass and geometry an unmistakable majesty, but I recognize that this is hardly a popular proposition, save on some awesome Tumblr accounts. There’s no doubt that Brutalism remains associated with the very worst of top-down mass-planning tendencies in American cities, of the sort that bulldozed vibrant neighborhoods into arid plazas. We’ve happily discarded the notion that anyone wants to live in a Brutalist city, but to then efface any trace of Brutalism is no sort of urban progress. Proposals for intriguing adaptive reuse are in no short supply; let’s not throw away a physical era that seems mildly at odds with our own. Remember, the alternative isn’t likely to be something interesting: it’s likely to be something strenuously banal.

Anthony Paletta is a writer living in Brooklyn. He has written for The Wall Street Journal, Metropolis, The Daily Beast, Bookforum, and The Millions on urban policy, historic preservation, cinema, literature, board wargaming, and comparably brutal topics. Photo of Prentice Women's Hospital by Jim Kuhn; Trellick Tower by Jim Linwood; the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre by Andrew Bossi; the Orange County Government Center by Daniel Case; the Dallas City Hall Plaza by Kent Wang; Boston South End by Tim Sackton; 1973 photo of Boston City Hall Plaza by Ernst Halberstadt.

48 Comments / Post A Comment

The Trellick Tower looks a lot like the Sciences Library at Brown, though I expect the Trellick Tower's floors are not color-coded based on the pH scale.

Nelson Trautman (#9,077)

The failure of brutalism is that it allows the abstract artistic notions of architects to supersede the real conditions of the people who will be inhabiting the buildings they design. Brutalist buildings are very interesting for their place in art history, and I'm sure IM Pei and Corbusier got a lot of hardy pats on the back from their more bohemian colleagues for their contributions to the field. Nevertheless, the results have been unequivocally catastrophic. Modernism in architecture is a failure. It nearly destroyed America. Corbusier should have been tried in the Hague. It's all fine and dandy on paper or at a design awards ceremony, but it is a living hell for the people who have to live and work in these structures. Especially once winter comes on and the "nature band-aids" shrivel.

Art Yucko (#1,321)


NinetyNine (#98)

█▬█ █▄█ █▬█

riggssm (#760)

@Nelson Trautman Are there any scare words left? lol

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

Brutalism and gay marriage arm wrestling. Winner gets to destroy America.

Nelson Trautman (#9,077)

So I guess my conclusion here is that even though brutalism is architecturally significant, that's not a good enough reason to make us all suffer until the end of time. Take a picture and tear it down, please.

Max Clarke (#3,635)

" Nevertheless, the results have been unequivocally catastrophic. Modernism in architecture is a failure. It nearly destroyed America. Corbusier should have been tried in the Hague. It's all fine and dandy on paper or at a design awards ceremony, but it is a living hell for the people who have to live and work in these structures."

As a fan of much brutalist architecture, I thank you for discrediting its opponents with goofy hyperbole!

Max Clarke (#3,635)

BTW, have you actually ever spent any significant amount of time inside brutalist buildings, or are your reports of "living hell" and "suffering till the end of time" secondhand?

I went to school in a number of fantastic, amazing, well-functioning brutalist buildings. Somehow I not only survived the torment, but look back on the buildings with considerable nostalgia. (Stockholm Syndrome?)

I think brutalism's worst problem is bad PR, especially a terrible name (coined by a disapproving architecture critic). Some buildings have functionality issues, but then so do any number of older (and newer!) buildings. Those can often be fixed with minor interventions.

Raw, textured concrete can be a beautiful material. It's made of minerals, so it's kinda natural (like Quarry!). One of my favorite spaces in NYC is the stairwell of the Whitney Museum. It's like a man-made cave. Brutalist buildings at their best feel ancient and modern at the same time.

Nelson Trautman (#9,077)

@Max Clarke I've had the misfortune of spending a bit of time on the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago. There, the majority of the campus is brutalist architecture. There is nowhere to hide. The ugliness is overwhelming and oppressive. Sometimes during spring and summer you can catch the beauty the architect intended in the properly greened corners of the university. But in winter it feels like the post-apocalypse. You feel abandoned by society and civilization.

The conceit of modernism in general is that it is possible to design a building that is 100% functional and without an individual style. This is of course absurd, and the results of attempting to do so are a dramatic and striking style which casts off thousands of years of learning about how to make human beings comfortable in their environment in an attempt to reduce it to a purely mathematical problem, which it is not. Of course, brutalism then bleeds into post-modernism as it becomes self-conscious of this fact, and tries to express itself through raw grayness, and that's when the buildings become much uglier than the early stuff.

Don't get me wrong, I love concrete. I think that it is one of the greatest human inventions. But deification of and designing around exposed concrete is a fatal mistake that is in line with modernist American thinking around the time these buildings were built: Who gives a shit about the people, make way for the industrial infrastructure. This wall needs to withstand winds of x mph and house x number of people and leave room for the parking lot and that's all that matters. Brutalism reduces architecture and construction to it's atomic component. Yes, it's artistically interesting, but it's not pleasant.

The post-industrial cars-first attitude that nearly destroyed my country goes hand in hand with modernism and brutalism and I hate it. I'm not saying that everything needs to be Victorian or classical or beaux-arts or no one should try anything new. I'm saying that sometimes architecture hits dead-ends and makes mistakes, and it's not wrong to go back and remove them so we can try again.

Certainly many brutalist buildings "function" well. Many were well programmed and support the number of humans doing the tasks they are meant to do within them well. But they are oppressive, not built to a pedestrian scale, often ugly, usually bland, and they contravene thousands of years of traditional knowledge and practice for the sole purpose of being reactionary and making a statement.

@Nelson Trautman Jesus fucking christ Nelson

Max Clarke (#3,635)

@Nelson Trautman "The conceit of modernism in general is that it is possible to design a building that is 100% functional and without an individual style."

Wow, there are so many examples of VERY individualistic modern buildings… and brutalism in particular is replete with weird and unique structures. In fact most of them are not anything like purely functional "machines for living", even if that was le Corbusier's stated ambition.

Paul Rudolph's building for the Yale School of Architecture (which I've visited a number of times) has something like 34 different floor levels (in a building that's about 6 stories tall). That's not strict functionalism… in fact it's pretty damn eccentric, and even a source of complaints from some quarters. But that eccentricity is part of what I love about it.

I think it's easy to assume that buildings made out of concrete are meant to be merely characterless bomb-shelter type structures. But Louis Kahn, Paul Rudolph, Marcel Breuer, et al. used concrete as a wonderfully expressive medium to build very idiosyncratic buildings.

I agree that greenery helps! I have fond memories of the campuses of a few different colleges with a lot of brutalist buildings, and part of what made them enjoyable was lush landscaping that complemented all that concrete.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

Gay marriage wins and is all set to get destroyin' America when… is that… CARS???


Fearlessleeder (#2,618)

@DoctorDisaster Oh no that's… Cyclists sneaking up behind CARS with a chair shot to the back!!! We have a three way match going!

deepomega (#1,720)

Hard to separate the aesthetics of brutalism from the politics of it, though – it's so tightly entwined with massive government central planning. Kinda flies in the face of the town center/mixed use shit that's so in vogue now.

Max Clarke (#3,635)

@deepomega Yeah, I think it does conjure up a certain era, replete with failed housing projects and bulldozed slums, which understandably turns people off.

All I can say is I've seen it done very sensitively in some places, not so well in others. I don't think every brutalist building is worth saving. But I think we are just at the dawn of a wider appreciation of the beauty (and strangeness, frankly) of many examples of the style. And we are starting to see architects tiptoeing back toward using some of its vocabulary in new buildings.

hockeymom (#143)

What was the Minneapolis case?

Carrie Frye (#9,863)

@hockeymom It's Peavey Plaza downtown (Anthony's added a sentence above telling more).

hockeymom (#143)

@Carrie Frye Thank you! Peavey used to be such a great place to hang out…in the summer you could run through the fountains, in the winter they set it up as a skating rink. Now, it's kind of gross…broken down and just ugly (with very little beauty left IMHO).

This article was great, btw!

petejayhawk (#1,249)

@hockeymom Riverside Plaza would also be a pretty good example, I'd assume.

Bridget Callahan (#5,234)

I love Brutalism. We go on brutalism road trips even. I love it's contrast with the natural environment, and how it looks even more permanent and mountain like because of it. I have an architect friend who even has a brutalism tumblr.
So the point is I'm sad people don't appreciate concrete :)

@Bridget Callahan One of the best Tumblrers out there!

MIT is a bastion of brutalist architecture. A little depressing in the long Mass. winter, though.

riggssm (#760)

@Andrew Moseman@facebook I look at Building 54 from my office directly across the river and like it a hell of a lot more than the more recent stuff I'm seeing going up in Cambridge.

@Andrew Moseman@facebook The Longwood Medical Area (particularly around the Harvard Medical/Public Health buildings) is a delightful Brutalist hellscape, as well. I give you the Countway Library:

It looks real good next to the Greek revival Medical School.

Bittersweet (#765)

@antarcticastartshere Still looks better than the former Cambridge courthouse, which the town has been trying to sell to developers all year, with (as yet) no luck.

riggssm (#760)

@Bittersweet It doesn't help that people like Tim Toomey (not that he's the only one!!) are shrieking for it to be torn down. If the investment is to tear down an "eyesore" and build a three story building (conveniently remediating the government's asbestos and other environmental issues in the process) with the ground level serving some "public" or social service (e.g. not retail) well, no. Obviously it hasn't sold!

It does seem to be a prime location for high end residential redevelopment. Maybe in another year or two as GLX gets closer to reality and there are ripples in the northern part of East Cambridge.

@Bittersweet I don't hate brutalism so much as I am endlessly amused by it.

"You SHOULD find this building horribly depressing and crushing! YOU WORK HERE."


"My gloomy concrete doom is only outweighed by your GRAY LEADEN SOUL."

TheRtHonPM (#10,481)

@antarcticastartshere I have sort of a related view, but I think the building is trying to be hopeful in a new-Soviet-man kind of way. "WORK GIVES YOU PURPOSE. YOU ARE A COG IN A GLORIOUS MACHINE OF THE PEOPLE."

riggssm (#760)

@antarcticastartshere "My gloomy concrete doom is only outweighed by your GRAY LEADEN SOUL."

OMG, retumblfacetweet ASAP.

Bittersweet (#765)

@antarcticastartshere This is the advertising the developer should use for the courthouse building, because nothing says "high-end residential space" like MERELY THE EMBODIMENT OF YOUR URBAN MALAISE. They should keep the prison on the top, too, so the new residents get instant hipster cred.

riggssm (#760)

The author highlighted that famous place to hate, Boston's Government Center (aka "the box that Faneuil Hall came in.") Why is it really a failure, though? First, it's poorly maintained. Second, the plaza, more than the upkeep, seems to be the problem to me. A bare plaza stretching for a superblock? No real greenery to speak of? What kind of engagement can one have with ocean of cheap brick?

I'm disappointed the author didn't highlight one of Brutalism's biggest successes though, especially with one just a mile away from Government Center. IM Pei's firm designed the hugely successful Christian Science campus (just west of the Prudential Tower in a wedge straddling the Back Bay and South End).

The campus works very well — even with the original Romanesque "Old Mother Church" and the later addition (a Classical/Byzantine mashup). Why? In part because it's maintained. It also has a human scale. Beside the giant (and popular!) reflecting pool, there are nooks to sit in and read a book surrounded by greenery. Trees over benches by the sprinkler at the east end. The lawn in front of the Mother Church extension. The experience along Colonnade building and Publishing building.

It's not all scare words and a shitty experience, is all I'm saying.

Max Clarke (#3,635)

@riggssm Another thing about Boston's Government Center: it's one of the only buildings to have its very own joyous punk anthem.

riggssm (#760)

@Max Clarke hahahaha, I'd forgotten about that.

Always loved that the Architecture Department is in Wurster Hall on the University of California campus.

When are they going to knock down that ugly Notre Dame du Haut and give the fields back to the cows?

Rob Schoon (#237,172)

The Herman B. Wells Library at Indiana University:

BoHan (#29)

The only time the plaza of Dallas' City Hall lived up to any potential it might have had. Now it just looks like death as conceived by Henry Moore.

Passionate, but pretty unconvincing, frankly. Ugly is ugly. And the reason you're in the minority is because history in the form of 50 years of public opinion has voted, and the vote is: ugly as sin, let's get rid of them.

riggssm (#760)

@Douglas Moran@twitter Victorian architecture was revolting to many in the post-war boom, those great "monstrosities" or "heaps" or "piles."

Penn is a great example: Frank Furness was despised for his late 19th century work on that campus. Today, he's considered a master.

Let's give history — and these buildings — a bit more time to breath before we rather wastefully demolish them and fill the landfills just so we can build something "new."

Fearlessleeder (#2,618)

@riggssm No there was healthy opposition from the general public, even in the 50's and 60's, when they were tearing down those Victorian structures. Best example; the demolition of the old Pen Station in Manhattan, the backlash was the start of the end of Robert Moses' vice grip on the modern development of NY, the patron saint of Brutalism himself!

You're using the same argument used by the developers and urban planners of the time, who along with bureaucratic institutions, simply tuned out public opposition back then.

It's the same argument used with the 60's-70's trend of demolishing the old jewel box stadiums, now considered lost classic works of architectural art and civic beauty. Only the owners, developers, and government civic planners wanted the concrete doughnuts that replaced them, but their tone deaf story of demand for modern structures to replace the supposedly run down(purposely allowed to become run down, to induce local governments to fund modern multi purpose stadiums) stuck because it was repeated enough. The actual people who went to those modern doughnuts, along with the players hated them, and said they had no idea which one they were ever in, because they all had the same anonymous character.

riggssm (#760)

@Fearlessleeder For the record I have no idea what you're saying. I'm mildly anti-demolition so that makes me … the same as developers who want to demolish things to build new. !?!?

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

The brutalist journalism/psychology complex at UGA has given rise to some great urban legends.

1. The building was paid for with money willed to the University. The donor, a strict woman, felt that windows distracted students and forbade them in all classroom spaces. (This one's probably true.)

2. Fear of race riots was running so high at the time of construction that the floor plan was designed to baffle anyone who didn't know it well. In the event that angry black people invaded, occupants could hide on the top floor, with five levels of different mazes and no less than three necessary staircases between them and the raging mob.

Love this. Had the pleasure of seeing this shell/gem of a building amidst an otherwise-unfruitful visit to the New Haven Ikea:

Max Clarke (#3,635)

@Liz McDonnell@twitter The remnant of Marcel Breuer's Pirelli tire factory! I was there a few years ago. So cool. A shame that Ikea didn't leave the whole thing and put their store inside it. Seems like it would have been a great fit, aesthetically. But with Ikea, the bottom line always trumps the aesthetics.

tjedison (#116,805)

Growing up in the 60s and 70s, as many of these monstrosities went up, it was always touted as "the future." Which is why so many dystopian sci-fi movies (and novels) used these buildings as backdrops. They always felt out of scale, inhuman, threatening. Very THX1138 or Soylent Green. Terrible stuff, and a lot of much more humanist architecture here in NYC was torn down for this hideous stuff. Although I believe in preservation of my city's history, this is one era I'd rather see erased.

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