The contentious architectural style known as Brutalism might be on its way out. But what might we miss when we appreciate architecture for just its appearance?
It seems there hasn’t been a more reviled architectural style in the past century than Brutalism.
Thirty years back, when Prince Charles of Wales – Brutalist enemy number one – paid a visit to the Birmingham Library, he purportedly likened it to a place where books are burned rather than put on loan. In 1987, in his Mansion House speech, Charles said that he valued post-war architecture less than the rubble left in the aftermath of Luftwaffe air raids during the Blitz.
Following the Boston Marathon bombings, architecture critic James Russell looked to the physical form of University of Massachusetts campus structures when attempting to make sense of the Tsarnaev brothers’ actions. If actually taken seriously, such a crackpot theory would land much of the world’s architecture next to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on Obama’s kill list.
The style has also been associated with totalitarian regimes. Walking through midtown Manhattan with my Ukrainian friend Faizov, he couldn’t help but be struck by the “Sovietness” of I.M. Pei’s Kips Bay Towers (although he said the same thing about the UN Headquarters). Writer Anthony Daniels even compared Brutalism’s leading advocate and architect Le Corbusier to Pol Pot. In short, Brutalism has been built up to concrete oppression.
Such popular disgust with Brutalism has helped hasten the process of its destruction. Several Brutalist archetypal buildings face the fate of the wrecking ball – or in the case of Chicago’s Prentice Women’s Hospital, an anticlimactic disassembly wholeheartedly approved by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. But what might critics be missing when they assess – and dismiss – Brutalist structures simply by their visual appeal or lack thereof?
A Brief History of Brutalism
The moniker Brutalism has several etymologies. One has it that the term originated from Le Corbusier’s oft-repeated phrase “beton brut,” French for raw concrete. Another stipulates that Swedish architect Hans Asplund coined New Brutalism.
The style gained traction in 1950s Great Britain, starting with the work of the Smithsons. The materials used would remain as they were found – unfinished and raw – and this aesthetic would come to define the style.
It’s important to note, though, that Brutalism today resists a singular stylistic definition as the term has come to be used in common parlance for anything concrete. Mark Pasnik, however, sees these buildings as emerging “in a time of optimism where positive investment was occurring in the civic realm,” and Chris Grimley characterizes them as bearing “civic-minded intentions.” To these architects, Brutalist structures were marked with a strong ethos of public engagement.
In an interview with Atlas Obscura, photographer and Brutalist enthusiast Ty Cole described the style’s history this way:
“First and foremost it was a cost-efficient building method. Thanks to the evolution of modernism, and a growing need for municipal buildings, universities and low-income housing, there was an explosion of brutalist buildings. I think it tells us that the artists, including architects, wanted to express themselves in a more humanistic way, hence Le Corbusier’s desire for architecture that felt like it was created by man.”
Given their historical importance and their impending destruction, some architecture critics are wondering whether we will come to our senses in a Penn Station/Euston Arch moment, realizing what riches we possessed only after the structures have gone “poof.” Others still hope to preserve them by changing the way we think, speak and look at Brutalist pieces.
One way people have preserved Brutalist structures is through architectural compromise. In the 90s, Ivor Smith’s Brutalist Park Hill apartment block avoided destruction when it received a Grade II listing by English Heritage, and then had its interiors renovated.
The renovation seemed to be a good one, as the structure’s original architect said that design was able to “balance authenticity and change.” The concrete trapezoid situated at New York’s 450 West 33rd street is having a similar makeover, and the Stanley A. Milner Library in Edmonton, Canada is also looking to be renovated.
In New York, preservationists have battled to save Paul Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center from demolition—and have achieved some success. The city decided to only partially remove the eye-popping jumbled pile of blocks, whose ‘aesthetically lacking’ exterior was countered by a politically consequential interior. The environment of Rudolph’s legislative chamber fostered debate, and his atrium design forced government officials to interact with citizens, which the former often found to be an impediment.
Meanwhile in Boston, a group of architects is attempting to reposition Brutalism through a discursive shift. In Boston, where many administrative and academic buildings are characterized as Brutalist, Mark Pasnik, Chris Grimley, and Michael Kubo want to reclaim these structures as “Heroic” architecture – reestablishing the ethos behind “New Brutalism” that was washed away with today’s dismissive, over-generalized understandings of the architectural form.
To these critics, a more refined assessment of Brutalist architects’ motives and design ethics can have a positive impact on the buildings’ preservation. For example, were Le Corbusier’s designs simply an extension of his Fascist links, or – as others are now considering – perhaps a reflection of his humanism?
What’s Next For Brutalism?
Beyond discursive and physical preservation efforts, others are attempting to cement the style into pop culture. Hopefully, these efforts will help rebuild an appreciation for the architectural style and garner support for public investment in these unique monuments to modernism.
Instead of destroying what may be easy to dislike on a superficial level, perhaps we should construct a deeper understanding of what the style has attempted to do within its walls.