Picture This: What’s So Brutal about Brutalism?

What's So Brutal about Brutalism?
By Barbara Orbach Natanson

The following is a guest post by Vyta Baselice, Architecture, Design & Engineering Programs Assistant, Prints & Photographs Division.

Brutalism is an architectural style that emerged first in Great Britain in the 1950s and soon gained popularity in the United States. It is easily identifiable by the buildings' large scale, rectangular shapes, and extensive use of exposed concrete. Due to the low cost of the material, the style was often employed to build large government and institutional buildings, for example laboratories, libraries, and housing. Prints & Photographs Division collections contain many examples of the style, particularly as documented in the Historic American Buildings Survey, the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, and the Paul M. Rudolph Archive.

[Art and Architecture Building, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. Preliminary scheme. Perspective view. Presentation rendering]. [Art and Architecture Building, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. Preliminary scheme. Perspective view. Presentation rendering]. Drawing by Paul M. Rudolph, 1959. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.03542

Paul Marvin Rudolph's preliminary scheme for the Art and Architecture Building at Yale University is a good example of how Brutalist architecture often dominated the streetscape. Despite the building's large scale, Rudolph carefully considered how his design would relate to the nearby buildings and the street pattern. Nevertheless, the finished structure received mixed reviews: while critics loved it, students were disgruntled with some of the studio spaces. Rumor has it that in protest students set it on fire.
[Art and Architecture Building, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. Preliminary scheme. Perspective view. Presentation rendering]. Drawing by Paul M. Rudolph, 1959. https://ift.tt/2S7bhPy

Despite its practicality and popularity, Brutalism came under significant criticism in the 1970s. Some people simply did not like the look of exposed concrete. Others treated such buildings as symbols of authoritarian rule, an attitude fed by the common use of the style by socialist and communist countries such as the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia for the construction of their built environments. For some segments of the general American public, Brutalism therefore came to represent the brutality of state policies and actions.

Although the association stuck, the origins of Brutalism had nothing to do with brutalities of the government or politics at large. Indeed, famed architect Le Corbusier coined the term in 1952 when constructing his Unité d'Habitation housing project in France. The term referred specifically to his use of untreated and exposed concrete — béton brut in French. Since then, English-speaking architects transformed the term into the style Brutalism, which signified their embrace of natural and untreated materials as both the ethic and aesthetic of design. These architects claimed that exposed concrete, iron, and wood communicated values of honesty and transparency — ironic, considering the later interpretations of the style.

Salk Institute for Bological Studies, La Jolla, California. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2000.

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies illustrates Louis I. Kahn's use of untreated and exposed concrete – with framework marks clearly visible – to express the transparency of the research taking place inside the building.
Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, California. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2000. https://ift.tt/2LeqPRa

The low cost of concrete also meant that the material could be used to construct housing for everyone in large, communally shared structures. British and American architects who embraced Brutalism therefore thought that the style could help build a more equal modernity.

Resort community, Stafford Harbor, Virginia (project). Hills, bird's-eye perspective. Drawing by Paul M. Rudolph, 1970, from drawing made by 1966.

Paul Rudolph's unbuilt 1966 design for a resort community in Stafford Harbor, Virginia illustrates Brutalist architects' thinking of large concrete structures as abstracted natural elements like rock formations or ridges that emerge from the landscape.
[Resort community, Stafford Harbor, Virginia (project). Hills, bird's-eye perspective]. Drawing by Paul M. Rudolph, 1970, from drawing made by 1966. https://ift.tt/2S6jDXO

As a result of the conflicting interpretations and impressions of Brutalism's aesthetics, buildings constructed in the style have been in continuous danger of demolition. In most recent years, those that have fallen victim include Shoreline Apartments in Buffalo, New York, Bertrand Goldberg's Prentice Women's Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, as well as Paul Rudolph's Orange County Government Center in Goshen, New York.

[Final scheme. Perspective looking north. Presentation rendering]. Drawing by P. Rudolph, 1963.

Paul Marvin Rudolph's Orange County Government Center in Goshen, New York (completed in 1967, demolished in 2015) represents Brutalist architects' push to break up the conservative and flat architectural surface with a more complicated and exciting treatment.
[Orange County Government Center, Goshen, New York. Final scheme. Perspective looking north. Presentation rendering]. Drawing by P. Rudolph, 1963. https://ift.tt/2Lfi3Cx

While the reasons cited for their demolition are significantlimited opportunities for expansion, exceeding costs of maintenance and upkeep, and poor construction qualitythe issue of cultural heritage rarely takes center stage. It is therefore important to query, what types of histories and cultural lives do we lose when we demolish buildings we don't like? By expunging the built environment of such structures, do we rob future generations of developing their own opinions about them?

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Published July 10, 2019 at 12:59PM
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