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.
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.
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.
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