A Brutal End For Brutalism?

The contentious architectural style might be on its way out. But what might we miss when we appreciate architecture for just its appearance?
Brutalism Building

Hubert H. Humphrey Building, headquarters of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D. C. Image Source: Wikipedia

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.

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.

Brutalism I.m. Pei Kips Bay

Image Source: Tim Holborn

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.

Brutalism Morris Mechanic Theatre Destruction

John M. Johansen’s Morris A. Mechanic Theatre (deceased). Image Source: The Daily Record/Maxmilian Franz

Brutalism Shoreline Demolition

Paul Rudolph’s Shoreline apartments in Buffalo (partially amputated). Image Source: City Lab

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?

Tim Holborn
Tim Holborn
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