Tag Archives: brutalism

Towards a Death of Architecture

Buildings are physical representations of the social, economic, political, technological, and cultural climates of their eras of origin. Ultimately buildings represent our cultural heritage and our architectural history. However, mid-century modern era buildings are increasingly interpreted as antiquated architecture that is functionally obsolete and lacking use in today’s society. Our recent-past modern buildings are being labeled as “failed” or “useless” architecture. As a result, mid-century modern architecture is rapidly being demolished and replaced with newer sustainable structures believed to better represent our most current social and cultural ideals. Current architecture is believed to be far more aesthetically pleasing than their modern predecessors.

Berkeley Art Museum interior

Berkeley Art Museum interior

But in the context of society, including heritage, what constitutes “useful” architecture verses useless building? There must be a relationship of parts to complete the building, but structure and function alone do not equate to architecture. Perhaps “useful” should be a term connected to architecture exhibiting enduring design excellence? Paradoxically, design excellence is tangled with style, and history demonstrates that style preference is ephemeral, subjective, and fluxuates at a high velocity. Yet the loss of style preference, or the falling out of design aesthetics favor, is one of the biggest rationale for the demolition of modern era buildings. Presently, Brutalism is at the crux of the demolition/ preservation debate.

Prentice Hospital

Prentice Hospital

Framed in the context of history, it can only follow that Brutalist buildings were going to be executed as formal monumental concrete structures that directly juxtapose (even challenge) their environments. But more often than not, the perspective of historic context is outnumbered by present aesthetic preference. For example, Prentice Women’s Hospital (Bertrand Goldberg) in Chicago, the Berkeley Art Museum (Mario Ciampi) in California, and several of Paul Rudolph’s brute beauties were technological and architectural triumphs of their time. However, the Brutalist buildings like other modern era buildings that rate low on the aesthetic-scale have been equally disregarded in their maintenance. The argument for demolition based on deficiencies caused by a lack of maintenance becomes all too convenient. The wide-spread demise of brutalist civic and urban buildings is a demise of the ideologies
behind the intent of the architecture and those housed within.

Aesthetics cannot be the pretext for significance or the preservation of architecture. Letting aesthetics judge value will strip our architectural history of some of the most influential and innovated examples of modern era architecture. In effect, we are killing, and ultimately denying claim to, a portion of our architectural history. There is value in the perspective of context and value in re-using and re-imagining modern era architecture. If aesthetic preference continues to get in the way, what use is there for the architect or an architectural legacy?
Paul Rudolph drawing, Yale Art & Architecture Building

Paul Rudolph drawing, Yale Art & Architecture Building

Written by Kate Kearney, Marketing Coordinator

Brutalism: The Ugly Face of Preservation.

Brutalist architectureIn recent months there has been much discussion and conflict over the preservation of architecture from the Modern Movement. Structures that once represented the technological and artistic triumphs from the mid-twentieth century are viewed as unruly intrusions to the environment around them, especially Brutalism. Brutalism represents an aesthetic of architectural design and planning that is rational, geometric, stripped of ornamentation, and predominantly composed of corrugated concrete. This style was initiated by Le Corbusier whose architecture was perhaps the “brutal reaction to the machine mass-produced Miesian building types” born in the post-World War II era. (Curcic, Slobodan. “Review of The New Brutalism. Ethic or Aesthetic by Reyner Banham.” Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 3, No. 2 (1969) 171-173.)

While we have come to slowly accept, as significant to our architectural history, the glass curtain wall machine-like jewels from one camp of the Modern Movement, we are quick to deny claim and significance to those rugged, concrete, man-made structures of the Brutalist style. Why? They are aesthetically unattractive. Brutalist structures are testaments to urban ideals for civic and educational facilities of the Modern Movement. They also project attitudes of raw unforgiving dominance, and were built by some of the world’s most forward thinking architects. Yet, Brutalism has been and continues to be met with severe criticism and cold reception. Not only is the criticism directed towards the design and rough aesthetic qualities of the facades, but also for the lack of resilience of corrugated concrete with damp climates. No wonder vocal distain was heard loud and clears at the University of Oregon campus during the late 1970s, implementing the initiation of The Oregon Experiment. (University of Oregon. [Accessed May 2, 2012].)
Paul Rudolph designed Orange County Government Center
Still, today there are cries for the demolition of Brutalist structures, many of which are called architectural eye-sores or more simply, ugly. Two of Paul Rudolph’s designs, The Orange County Government Center of 1958 and Sarasota High School of 1960 have been in the spotlight of the demolition or renovation debate. Acceptance of Brutalism has been rough from the beginning, and history has proved it is not getting easier. However, we must preserve structures from the Modern Movement, even the declared eye-sores, because they are significant markers of our architectural history. The Brutalist style of architecture offered an alternative and direct challenge to the glass curtain wall that was a dominant characteristic of urban renewal and planning during the Modern Movement. Brutalism was the bold statement to the passivity of glass curtain wall design, and perhaps the closest bridging of conceptual architectural drawings and building. (Rohan, Timothy R. “Rendering the Surface: Paul Rudolph’s Art and Architecture Building at Yale.” Grey Room, No. 1 (Autumn 2000) 84-107.)

Perhaps a more pressing issue is why is there a lack of value associated with preserving architecture from the Modern Movement. Even the more favored glass curtain wall structures are still met with uncertainty in regards to preservation. Let’s not forget that Veterans Memorial Coliseum once faced cries for demolition, despite its intellectual display of form and material. Structures from the Modern Movement are historical documents that attest to the cultural, social, economic, technological, and artistic climates of the eras in which they were conceived. Yet, preservationists are met with ferocious declarations of demolition once these structures begin to show any signs of weathering and aging, reminding preservationists that for some individuals modern structures are aesthetically disappointing and offensive.
Brutalism is Beautiful
Preservationists have to ask the more difficult questions of which structures should be saved, and why. Preservation becomes problematic because a set of criteria has been created that ultimately judges the significance of a structure not only for the manners in which it was conceived, but as part of our “perceived architectural heritage.” Declaring a structure(s) as part of our cultures architectural heritage further complicates the preservationists roll because it is then implied that the structure(s) has been significant to the contribution of our current cultural identity. Have structures executed in the Brutalist style been significant towards the contribution to our cultural heritage? Perhaps not, but they are important markers in our architectural history. (Whiteley, Nigel. “Modern Architecture, Heritage, and Englishness.” Architectural History. (1995) 220-237.)

Should structures executed in the Brutalist style be wiped clean from our architectural history? No, but this style should not be fostered, recreated, and executed again. And one of the best manners in which to ensure this is to keep a physical and visual historical record. Preservation cannot be for the aesthetically pleasing only, because our architectural history would be stripped bare and left with dispassionate and boring structures.


Written by Kate Kearney, Marketing Coordinator