BY FAEZEH ENSAFI
‘You’re telling me that’s beautiful?’ a voice asks, echoing around a gallery built into a triumphal arch.
‘You’re having a laugh.’ He’s not talking about Wellington Arch itself –an exhibition at its gallery in London called Brutal and Beautiful: Saving the 20th Century. Brutalism in architecture was flourished from 1950s through mid-1970s in the context of post-World War II as a state-led style for the reconstructions of WWII ruins. It was shaped (formally and conceptually) by the political-economic state of the society. Pursued initially in Great Britain and then in various national architectural contexts in North America as well as in Japan, Brutalism was a key element of the shift toward urbanism and away from the functional utopian idealisms of Corbusian architecture. It is also considered to be the era of concrete revival. Following its originally Modernist character, Brutalism carried a code of ethics based on everyday culture as opposed to high culture and held on to the modernist ideals alongside the fragile cohesion of the society. In the given context, “Brutalism tries to face up to a mass-production society, and drag a rough poetry out of the confused and powerful forces which are at work” (Brutalism, Architecture of Everyday Culture, Poetry and Theory, 2012)
Which such high hopes, Brutalism did not face much good luck. It started failing the public once it grew pervasive. Poured-in-place concrete structure cost less than many other structural methods, thus
federal, state, and local governments vastly employed Brutalism to build up their cities. Many structures from the period progressively ended up misshapen (if the aesthetic criteria are based on the present state of architecture) and many were structurally flawed as a result of lack of supervision on such large scales of construction. The all-too-familiar water stain on the surface of the concrete with its messy rough appearance in addition to its structural problems specially in cold, damp climates added up to the public’s hatred towards Brutalism. Abusing the attributed term brutality, mass media started to victimize and mock the style. As a result of such prejudice many of Paul Roudolph buildings were accused of being “Fascist”. “Brutalism became an all-too-easy pejorative; a term that suggests these buildings were designed with bad intentions” (Abrahamson, 2013, p166).
In the face of today’s architecture, we witness mass publications, individuals and political figures voting to demolish the existing examples of Brutalist architecture. Half a decade ago, Paul Rudolph’s striking 1971 exemplary of Brutalism, the Orange County Government Center was in danger of being demolished and after being put to vote, it was saved. After demolition of Pimlico School and the planned demolition of the large housing estate, Robin Hood Gardens, both in London, preservation of architectural heritage was no longer of importance. Controversies over demolishing or remodeling such buildings are currently present all over the news. Many more buildings were added to the list of impractical, senseless architecture including our very own Robart’s Library in University of Toronto.
At the core of this controversy, was Brutalism’s heartfelt promise versus its impracticality; its social
consideration versus its inhumanity; its unlikely lovable status versus its downright ugliness.
Against preservation and in favor to demolition of Brutalist architecture conversations were taken
place. The New York Times opened the topic up to debate in the question of “Are Some Buildings Too Ugly to Survive? ” As a response Anthony M.Daniels believed Brutalist style make art galleries look like fallout shelters while being negatively aesthetic and could ruin an entire townscape, therefore should be eliminated. Raksha Vasudevan in National League of Cities claims “If not beauty, what criterion should we use to determine the ultimate fate of a building in a society dominated by over-consumption and wastefulness? ” Aaron M. Renn in Urbanophile responded to the debate “Many public housing projects in the Brutalist style have proven nearly impossible to save as they were conceptually flawed from the beginning.” Postmodernist architect Terry Farrel comments on the subject: “There was a lot of rubbish built in the 1950s. I worked for the LCC and there were far more mistakes made then because people were reinventing without testing. There were an awful lot of flaws –technical as well as social. […] Stylistically, much post-war architecture was “irrelevant” […] Brutalism is being listed because it was a freak of historical interest. There weren’t many then or now who think it’s aesthetically satisfying.” Standing at the fore side of preservation, were those to realize the value in Brutalist architecture and believe much of the attack against Brutalism is shallow misjudgement. In fact, misinterpretations are at the play: the first is its lack of concern for its context. As mentioned before, Brutalism is predominantly attached to its contextual roots. In “The Morality of Concrete” Jack self describes Brutalism’s post-WWII context as directly responsible for its form: “Brutalism’s modular spaces manifested a social desire for a standardized society –cultural cohesion, shared values, and a fair quality of life for all. The Brutalist citizen, therefore, has to be understood as an abstract egalitarian ideal, not as an individual lost in a microscopic concrete cave of some gargantuan building”(29). The second misinterpretation of Brutalism is in fact, its name.
As Benjamin Stark concisely puts in his article, “Though the term refers strictly to the French béton brut concrete of early buildings, the –ism stuck because it neatly captured the bloody-minded way the architecture imposed itself on its immediate surroundings” (Abrahamson, 2013, p97). Hence, there’s no brutality, it is a misleading technical term, which helped to reduce the movement’s philosophical expression to a “stylistic label”.
Brutalism aesthetically occupies an undesirable status. But was that statement accurate in the context
of 1950-1970? In fact, Brutalism was fashionable, authentic, noble, dignified at its period of occurrence. Architectural critic Michael Abrahamson argues, “This was the last period in architecture where pure creative expression was very much in vogue”. “It (Brutalism) was just cool, at the time –even countercultural. I remember the damp concrete smell of new university buildings as a boy in the 60s and it is a pleasant and conforming memory” (Smith, 2013, par5).
Brutalism was nicknamed “Heroic” time after time since its arrival. Heroic refers to the formal
attributes –powerful, singular, iconic –and to the attributes of the architects. “It acknowledges the
complexities of these buildings –both the intentions from which they grew and their controversial status today” (Abrahamson, 2013, p167). Heroic reflects Brutalism’s intention to reveal the messy realities of construction and building systems, and to forge a new honesty about architecture and its role within the postwar era’s broader social and urban transformations. It is for their ambitions that we label these buildings Heroic. Another face of the argument is the act of demolition. To demolish means to incorporate technologies to remove such enormous weight of concrete off these buildings which would gradually create a huge amount of unrecyclable waste. By taking into account the criterion of the cost of demolition and comparing it to the cost of repair according to the standards of the day, many of these buildings, including Robarts Library, were rescued from demolition.
In addition to the cost, act of demolition also includes erasing a part of architectural history one once
cared about. In the Kennedy-era of US optimism aesthetics were different; what once was monumental is now seen as bureaucratic, overbearing. Heroic buildings remind us of our changing attitudes, ups and downs, for better and for worse. In the era of wastefulness, why not make use out of something with an inner value instead of throwing it away? Exemplars of Brutalist architecture, are truly "emblems of a period when architecture was interested in good things," as Rem Koolhaas once explained in a BBC interview. Brutalism might not hold a bold aesthetic appearance, but has value outside of its ability to turn a profit –the same value that reflects its heroic honesty, hence should be preserved.