The Ugly-Beauty Of Brutalism

The Ugly-Beauty Of Brutalism

by Anthony Paletta

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.