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Well Brutal
May 26, 2012 6:19 AM   Subscribe

London's top brutalist buildings
posted by Artw (111 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
"Designed by the wonderfully-named Erno Goldfinger..."

Says it all, I think.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:22 AM on May 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


Fleming hated him so much he made him a Bond villain.
posted by Artw at 6:23 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Top is a bit of a misnomer here, I feel.

(And there's nothing worse than working in a building like these knowing it's been listed and no one is going to knock it down.)
posted by lesbiassparrow at 6:24 AM on May 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


I am of two minds on brutalism: the geometry is often amazing but the texture is usually ugly as fuck.
posted by Dr Dracator at 6:25 AM on May 26, 2012 [8 favorites]


God I love the Barbican, but part of why I love it is that it is so often deserted, and maybe if it was prettier it wouldn't be.
posted by oliverburkeman at 6:26 AM on May 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


Goldfingaaaaah!
beckons you to enter his web of sin concrete slab
but don't go in!

posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:31 AM on May 26, 2012 [5 favorites]


I was under the general impression that most brutalist buildings are absolutely awful on the inside too. The interior spaces are barely functional, almost impossible to evenly heat and cool, seldom enough light, and so on.
posted by ifandonlyif at 6:35 AM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


God I love the Barbican, but part of why I love it is that it is so often deserted, and maybe if it was prettier it wouldn't be.

I always associated concrete Hightower with burnt out ford cortinas, abandoned shopping trolleys, crime and suicide. Seeing one that's, well, nice is a bit of a shocker. It seems that the secret is filling them full of middle-class people.
posted by Artw at 6:36 AM on May 26, 2012


while the FPP isn't a double, the conversation/thread sure feels like it... didn't we do something like this on British brutalism a while back?
posted by infini at 6:38 AM on May 26, 2012


There we go, some lovely and informative comments there.
posted by infini at 6:44 AM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


We are cursed with a few buildings like this too. I sometimes wonder if the owners shouldn't pony up the dough to coat the things in white epoxy. That way at least the buildings will match the gleaming models the architects thought they were building, instead of the monstrous, looks-like-they-will-eat-you soiled walls we ended up with.
posted by Popular Ethics at 6:48 AM on May 26, 2012


What a perfect design for a Ministry of Justice.

All such buildings should be Brutalist - as an honest expression of what to expect.
posted by Trurl at 7:00 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm most entranced by the Barbican and the Ministry of Justice, both of which seem to have been built at a 45-degree angle...
posted by Jimbob at 7:03 AM on May 26, 2012


I used to work in the math building at the University of Arizona.  It was an awful building from every perspective: ugly, not functional, terrible use of space, etc.  The department fought for years to get it torn down and replaced.  Finally the department head brought in some architects to explain to the dean what an awful building it was and why it wasn't functional.  Instead, they explained it was classic example of Brutalism, one of few in that part of the country.  Now they're stuck with that monstrosity FOREVER.
posted by TheShadowKnows at 7:07 AM on May 26, 2012 [7 favorites]


I attended Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario Canada. I never bothered to verify but apparently the person that designed the majority of the buildings also helped build prisons. The students really enjoy this particular rumour.
posted by Fizz at 7:10 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ehph! I actually like about half of these buildings. I love the Barbican Centre for its fantastic combination of Brutalism and whimsy. The rectangular lake with the upside-down gnome houses at one end is hilarious and glorious.

There are good and bad buildings in any architectural movement. Better a thousand Trellick Towers than a single Poundland, or whatever it is Prince Charles calls his god awful theme-park.
posted by howfar at 7:12 AM on May 26, 2012 [6 favorites]


The interior spaces are barely functional, almost impossible to evenly heat and cool, seldom enough light, and so on.

That's not brutalism. That is the entire UK.
posted by srboisvert at 7:18 AM on May 26, 2012 [20 favorites]


And here in the States: Boston's Ugliest Buildings Are -- Surprise! -- All Brutalist.
posted by ericb at 7:20 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


That's not brutalism. That is the entire UK.

But they'll soon be pulling down the little palaces.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:25 AM on May 26, 2012


The only thing I like about Brutalism is how delightfully accurate and descriptive the word is. Yes, I know where it comes from, and I know Brutalist is an actual movement and not a word to describe things I don't like, but the buildings it describes are actually brutal in assaults on the eye and the user. The college I went to had several actual Brutalist buildings designed by renowned architects and while they may have been masterworks of form and technique, the dead ends, maze-like halls and windowless, airless classrooms were literally brutal to function in.
posted by bleep at 7:29 AM on May 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


It wonders me if those who like Brutalism are only doing it for the devilment...
posted by Jehan at 7:35 AM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


The look like Sim City arcologies.
posted by cjorgensen at 7:35 AM on May 26, 2012


The comments on the original link were fascinating--lots of approval from people who don't work or live in any of those places.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:44 AM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh crap, I never knew Brutalism was a thing. It's all over my town. The wikipedia description says it was popular on university campuses. Hell, everything on my local campus built in the 60s and 70s is in that style. I remember back around 1980, Robert Hughes denounced this style of architecture in his series "Shock of the New." He said it was derived from Fascist and Nazi architectural designs that were intended to exert power and social control, so no wonder it was popular in modern government and university buildings.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:52 AM on May 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


I am of two minds on brutalism: the geometry is often amazing but the texture is usually ugly as fuck.

I think bare concrete is a terrible building material in a cool, damp country. It stains in a very unflattering way almost immediately, and when it's overcast (i.e. over half the time), the grey drabness is emphasised even further.
posted by kersplunk at 8:05 AM on May 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


Dr Dracator: "but the texture is usually ugly as fuck."

Not to mention that raw concrete is especially nasty in a climate where it's raining about 90% of the time.

Seriously, Britain. What on earth were you thinking? Most British architecture from the past 50 years is uniquely horrible.
posted by schmod at 8:06 AM on May 26, 2012


Wile we're at it, I've been collecting links for a similar FPP for a while. Eventually I'll flesh them out into a proper FPP, but on the chance that I never get around to it:

An epic 117-page forum thread of photos of British tower blocks

The Rubble Club

The Tricorn Page
posted by schmod at 8:10 AM on May 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


I like a good bit of Brutalism... at least it's got some balls to it unlike a lot of the wishy washy crap that's been built recently.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 8:16 AM on May 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


As an alumnus and former employee at MIT, I discovered an interesting observation:

If you list all the buildings on the MIT campus where people love to come and work, teach, study, hang out, play, discuss, you'll discover that those same people have no idea who the architect was or what architectural movement (if any) inspired the design.

If, on the other hand, the building tenants do know the name of the architect, it's because they need to know it when they launch a tirade about the problems he's inflicted upon them.

Naturally, the brutalist buildings are the worst of the worst. I.M. Pei's design for building 66 has inflicted tremendous frustrations and safety issues for the chemical engineering department that lives there.

And Gehry? His Stata Center will probably host a very raucous party when he passes away. He is hated with a passion.
posted by ocschwar at 8:19 AM on May 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


Common on campuses? Yep. University of Guelph's student centre is built like this. Ugly as sin, but at least they've painted most of the inside.

McMaster has several buildings in this style, most notably the hospital which has these spaceship like windows that would look really cool if it wasn't for the black stains under each one.

Then there is Simon Fraser. Take the singularly best landscaped and designed campus I've ever seen; It has a pathway across a reflecing pond, a stack of hidden courtyards, little waterfalls, and other lovely things. Also every building is a poured concrete eyesore. The university does make money renting one building to movies as a stand in for the Hoover building, as it looks quite similar, right down to the depressing atmosphere.
posted by Canageek at 8:21 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


I went to Simon Fraser and I will always remember it fondly when i smell wet concrete.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 8:43 AM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]



I think bare concrete is a terrible building material in a cool, damp country. It stains in a very unflattering way almost immediately, and when it's overcast (i.e. over half the time), the grey drabness is emphasised even further.


It's also a structural problem. All of Britain gets a tiny bit of sea spray in the air (and London naturally gets a lot.) The salt makes its way into the pores of the bare concrete, where it goes into a cycle of dissolving in the rain and heat and crystallizing when the water evaporates in the heat, and so eats away at the bare concrete until it becomes unable to hold together.

These buildings will either get covered in protective sacrificial stucco to halt this process, or they will come apart and be demolished. Either way, the hidebound ideologues who demand that bare concrete be there because it's "honest," well, they;'ll get a well deserved ulcer seeing these buildings covered up with "wishy washy" stucco, or from seeing these buildings fall apart, and that thought puts a slight bounce in my step.

I am so looking forward to seeing the brutalist buildings here in Boston condemned.. (Even more sea spray than London! Plus lots of freeze-thaw and heat expansion! Bwahahahahaha!)
posted by ocschwar at 8:47 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


I recognize most of these from living in London for a year. The Centre Point one always confused me- I always thought 'how can this 1960's monstrosity have such a central (and therefore expensive) real estate location and still be standing??'

There are dark and hideous. Also the second one down looks like the hospital from Michael Crichton's "Coma" movie. Or another futuristic-y horror-ish film.

Surely it can't be a coincidence that these buildings are used to denote locked facilities where nefarious activities take place. Also seconding the 'UK, cold and damp' thoughts. Why have architecture highlighting the worst aspects of the place??

Norweigan prisons for the win- AGAIN.
posted by bquarters at 8:54 AM on May 26, 2012


The Brunswick Centre doesn't really have a brutalist feel to me. The zigguratoid shape, with all the balconies, sort of softens it. I think it's a great design and I would be very happy to live in it (and not just because it's in Bloomsbury).
posted by Segundus at 8:56 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Brutalists would be a great band name. Just saying.
posted by jonmc at 9:14 AM on May 26, 2012


I get so weary of the predictable linguistic leap between "brutalism" and "brutal," because for all the occasional failures of concrete architecture, we're losing a whole generation of amazing buildings in the same way we tore down amazing Victorian buildings and amazing Deco buildings and Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in the past because the fashion fads shifted and suddenly everyone agreed that those terrible white elephants just had to go.

What? You like brutalist architecture? What's wrong with you?

I'm particularly sad because Baltimore's revving up the cranes to destroy the Mechanic Theater, an extraordinary work of geometry and volume that sits unloved under the gaze of my own building, the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower, an architectural pastiche hated by H.L. Mencken, who haughtily sniffed that there were two types of people in Baltimore—those that like the (then) Emerson Tower and those that knew better. Oh dear, pass me the decanter of Port, will you?

You hear a lot of 2 minute hate about the Mechanic, and it regularly makes the worldwide "ugliest buildings" listings based on a single shot of its least flattering angle, and hell, I'm told I like it because I'm a contrarian, except—

Well, I'm not a contrarian. I love the Mechanic because I regularly walk through the plaza where it stands, vandalized by an unscrupulous developer and shameful neglect, and still, it lifts my spirits almost every time. There's a glorious, dynamic intersection of angles at play that reference the jagged paintwork of the dazzle ships, and a close and honest presentation of the materials from which it's made and the processes by which it came into being that feels very much like what Ernest Callenbach was reaching for in Ecotopia. Every board in the formwork lives on, and you can feel the knots and whorls in the grain of the wood played out in the masonry.

It pretends a certain imposing dignity, but the shapes are all play, a fanfare of mass having a really good time breaking the same old tedious rules that have returned us to boxes plastered with ornamentation referencing revivals of revivals of replicas of Greek and Roman architecture. I find it a delight, and the practical limitations it had as a theater were limitations of the fashions of theater in 1967—with a little care, it could have had a new life, but the developers shut down the band of thriving businesses that ringed its carefully conceived ground level, took bulldozers to the interior, let it rot for a decade, then claimed "well, it's sooo run down!"

People complain about the ugliness of brutalism, but seem unfazed by the most brutal of all architecture, the derivative boxes using van der Rohe as an excuse to extrude volumes of nothingness containing profitability with all the grace of cities shitting out the impacted big business that lay trapped below a sheen of humanity. It's easy to look at photographs of bad brutalist structures and complain, judging it all from a microscopic snapshot—

But there are no windows!

When you're in a theater, do you want to sit and look out the window? When you're in a library, are you really desperate for a window, or are the books the window?

If a window is a triple-paned green-tinted panel that can't be opened, is it really a window?

In name, I suppose.

There's a great library I used to use at school, and it had the most wonderful sort of light. The windows were high, angled clerestories over the bookshelves, and the sun would slip in with the rays and tangents of the hour, casting intangible and entirely personal works of art across the plain surfaces. I'd pore through the enormous Whole Earth Catalogue there, in seventies futurist cubicles in a space that was open and complex and pleasantly still and peaceful, and I didn't miss being able to peer through a suburban-style picture window onto a parking lot full of Accords.

We just love our outrage, alas. I don't particularly care for the repetitive archaic revival of Washington DC's great "traditional" edifices, but I'm not inclined to shill for their demolition. I can just walk up to the great sculpture apex of the National Gallery's East Wing and delicately touch that point with a fingertip where the white stone is discolored from all my compatriots who share the notion of architecture as something grand and yet small and personal and right there. The coexistence of the traditional and the experimental does not offend.

On my only trip abroad, twenty-seven years ago, I was overjoyed by the chaos of London, where the ancient and the modern just jostled and played for space. Buildings squatted in half-timbered tradition blocks from visiting spaceships, and with a card for the Tube, I could roam at will, leaving my parents and siblings to the familiar haunts.

"Joe, are you sure you don't want to come to Saint Paul's?"

I didn't, and had mapped out the way to get to Trellick Tower, a place I imagined I knew from Ballard's imagining of the world. Big domes—got it. Architectural experiments that had breadth and scope and balls—well, that was rarer where I live. It was a sort of moment of completion for me, because on the very first day of my life, a cake decorator named Ivy Hodge went to light the cooker for tea and changed architecture in Britain.

Back home, well, I grew up a few miles from an American New Town that was steeped in concrete/wood brutalism, with pedestrian greenways connecting every place and little clever modernist community centers that still work perfectly well. My hometown library's a nice semi-brutalist building, and I went to school in a futuristic agglomeration of pods that would have worked had the noise issue been settled.

Stepping into the DC Metro for the very first time in 1976, overcome with a reverent awe of the amazing coffered arches that made every station into a cathedral of being in-between in a way NYC's dank little holes never could, I would never have believed people could ever come to so easily spout any of the usual cliches about brutalism, and trying to do so even now about those spaces just invokes the tang of desperation for controversy and for that prized position of being the smartest kid in the room. Brutalism is only as "brutal" as the attitudes behind a specific structure. When it's done right, it's sublime.

How sad it is that we're going to lose so much of the good stuff before the fashion changes, leaving the pillars of architectural criticism to harp on the next school of design that of course simply everyone worth their salt hates.
posted by sonascope at 9:19 AM on May 26, 2012 [39 favorites]


Tearing this down would be a damn shame. It's a beautiful building, if just a tad out of place. (It's totally not brutalist, though.)

Brutalism gets a lot of bad press, and I\m sure a lot of that has to do with a misunderstanding re: its unfortunate name. The term "brutalism" doesn't mean, god, that's some brutal architecture, but rather just refers to rough concrete surfaces (béton brut) bearing the imprint of wooden forms.

Anyway, architecture's just gone through a big International Style revival; the brutalist revival can't be too far off.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:19 AM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's also a structural problem. All of Britain gets a tiny bit of sea spray in the air (and London naturally gets a lot.)

There have been problems with some concrete buildings - I've not got the time a the moment to give a full explanation (basically down to bad design and construction) but it certainly ain't 'sea spray' in the air.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:27 AM on May 26, 2012


You just wait until King Charles III ascends to the throne. Then all new buildings in Britain will look like a Quality Street chocolate box painting executed by Albert Speer.
posted by acb at 9:29 AM on May 26, 2012 [4 favorites]



There have been problems with some concrete buildings - I've not got the time a the moment to give a full explanation (basically down to bad design and construction) but it certainly ain't 'sea spray' in the air.


No. There are other problems with concrete buildings, which are quicker to emerge. The degradation of naked concrete from exposure to the elements is a lot slower, and more insidious, but it applies to all naked concrete.
posted by ocschwar at 9:31 AM on May 26, 2012


I like brutalist buildings.
posted by R. Mutt at 9:36 AM on May 26, 2012 [7 favorites]


The most hilarious brutalist fail I've ever seen was the Dalhousie University library.

The lobby is a huge concrete cavern with a floor that slopes down toward the library proper, which consists of several floors overlooking the lobby, and open to it. Thing is, this lobby, with all its hard, flat surfaces, is an echo chamber. It is loud. That sloping floor effectively bounced all that noise directly into the library.

To rectify this issue, they separated the library from the lobby with a big glass wall. It works great--unless you're in the lobby, and then it's yet another hard flat surface for sound to bounce off.

LOUD!

And that's just failure of design. For failure of structure, one need look no further than Montreal, much of which was built in the late sixties for Expo '67, or the early seventies for the Olympics. Seemingly all of it made from concrete that is especially shitty and crumbly, in a city that is in a constant freeze/thaw cycle. It's a mess.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:38 AM on May 26, 2012



I get so weary of the predictable linguistic leap between "brutalism" and "brutal," because for all the occasional failures of concrete architecture, we're losing a whole generation of amazing buildings in the same way we tore down amazing Victorian buildings and amazing Deco buildings and Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in the past because the fashion fads shifted and suddenly everyone agreed that those terrible white elephants just had to go.



Who's this "we", paleface?

The demolition of Victorian and Deco buildings in the 1950's was done by an architectural elite that decided they had to go, and that is what provoked the populist revolts that culminated in the historical preservation laws.

That was because those Victorian and Deco buildings were well loved. Which is to say people unversed in architectural history and theory loved to live, work, and socialize in and around those buildings.

The same does not apply to brutalist architecture. People do not love those buildings, and for good reason.

Brutalist architecture is terrible for keeping the rain from penetrating the roof, the groundwater from penetrating the basement, to keep the heat and the cold out, or the humidity at desired levels. The accoustics are uniformly horrible. And, they cost more to keep structurally sound if you're not willing to cover up the beton brut. Seriously, the naked concrete inside the State Center's main hall does look nice because of the texture it got from the wood casting molds (although it makes the place unpleasantly noisy, and makes the lecture halls there decidedly unpleasant to lecture in). But these buildings are almost never fit for purpose.

They are not loved. They do not deserve to be loved. That is the difference.
posted by ocschwar at 9:38 AM on May 26, 2012 [15 favorites]


The major problem with Brutalist buildings is that they're nearly all horrible to work in. They crush your spirit on a regular basis, because they were designed by people who didn't care about what was needed by that particular group. Or any group of living, breathing humans. And that's without starting the discussion about their longevity issues, which are many and everywhere. And then there's the subject of what got pulled down to make way for these structures...
posted by lesbiassparrow at 9:43 AM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]



We just love our outrage, alas. I don't particularly care for the repetitive archaic revival of Washington DC's great "traditional" edifices, but I'm not inclined to shill for their demolition. I can just walk up to the great sculpture apex of the National Gallery's East Wing and delicately touch that point with a fingertip where the white stone is discolored from all my compatriots who share the notion of architecture as something grand and yet small and personal and right there. The coexistence of the traditional and the experimental does not offend.


Ah, yes, the East Wing. Where the supports for those lovely stone surfaces are falling apart because the architect didn't give a rat's ass about what it would take to implement his vision in the DC environment. The same East Wing whose water leaks have damaged the art it displays.

I'm not as hateful as my comments above might indicate, but as far as I am concerned, any architect who builds a museum, without the highest regard for maintaining the art inside, should be stripped of his license, stripped of his degrees, stripped of his building credits, stripped of his income, and then stripped and flogged.
posted by ocschwar at 9:46 AM on May 26, 2012 [8 favorites]


Where I live (Telford) there are still remnants of brutalist design left; I never knew it had a name until now.

Growing up here, I hated these buildings - and I guess I still do – but these days I use my memories of seeing the graffiti strewn walls and the various punks and neon clad persons coming in and out of them during the early 80s to fuel my imagination when I'm writing dystopic fiction.

In a strange kind of way, I wish the council had carried on with this style instead of modernising the town in the 90s.
posted by DuchessProzac at 9:47 AM on May 26, 2012


I love how Brutalist apologists invoke the texture of wood as a design feature. I can't imagine how orgasmic they would be if one replaced that texture with, say, real wood.
posted by Rumple at 9:53 AM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


I have no architectural knowledge, or really much in the way of opinons except my preference for the Chrysler building over the Empire State.

But, buildings faced in rough concrete (and worse, even have interior walls made of it) that catches at hands and clothes (making it uncomfortable to touch or lean against, and warn you that running into a wall accidentally is might actually leave you with abrasions), that echo strangely, that emit chill and always smell dank or mildewy, might be masterpieces in terms of visual architecture but are utter failures as usable buildings. Touch and temperature and sound and smell count as much as lines or sight. It's not all about light, even; some buildings can be dim or have few windows and still feel welcoming.

I don't mind unusual shapes or unadorned surfaces, but I do mind feeling like I'm living or working inside a place that seems actively designed for bodily discomfort.
posted by emjaybee at 9:59 AM on May 26, 2012 [5 favorites]


I used to hate the Southbank buildings, but familiarity breeds indifference, if not actual admiration. Most importantly, some education on the choices the architect made, for example the wood texture, some of the lighting and the lines and intersections, really helps you appreciate that a great deal of effort went in to designing these buildings. So while I'm still not a fan, at least you know it's intentionally ugly as opposed to just lazy architects going wild with concrete.

Still, us British do tend to do a collective slap of the forehead at the hideousness of most of the 60s and 70s concrete buildings.
posted by milkb0at at 9:59 AM on May 26, 2012


Wow, never realised the MF crowd were such traditionalists.
Love almost all these buildings but wish they had picked a better picture of the Alexandra Road estate.
posted by ntrifle at 9:59 AM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


The "'we,' paleface" is the selfsame "we" that now follows the common wisdom that brutalism is completely unloved, unlivable, and unsustainable, despite a fair amount of evidence to the contrary. Victorian architecture was knocked down because it was difficult to keep painted, difficult to maintain, leaked, cramped, hot/cold/clammy, and rather than address the actual issues with it, people just rallied up the bandwagon to have a set of cheerleaders for tearing it down. Deco architecture was knocked down because of water infiltration behind the ubiquitous stucco surfaces, leaking casement windows, and fashion. The Wright buildings that went? Well, who's this Wright guy think he is, anyway? I can't even find the damn door into Fallingwater!

Do you honestly think the West Wing at the National Gallery requires no maintenance? Brick buildings leak, they spall, they shift and crack. Steel-framed buildings rust and windows leak. Should we build wooden houses? Wooden buildings burn down. See—they're completely invalid as a form!

The issues with old school brutalism are issues of conservation and materials engineering, but rather than addressing them, we've just wallowed back into Philip Johnson's birthday cake post-modernism, bland corporate emptiness, and Gehry's school of "well, I have this computer, so I probably should incorporate thirty thousand distinct sizes and shapes of windows into my building." Some of these efforts succeed, some don't. Just like brutalism, some of them are worth keeping and some aren't, despite the claim that brutalism is universally unworthy.

I just can't fathom why people are so unhinged by the existence of buildings they don't like. Takes all kinds to make a world and takes all kinds of architecture to make an urban environment. Is it really possible to make a serious claim that an entire school of architecture is unworthy?

Sadly, though, the palefaces with the torches are pretty much winning the battle, knocking down interesting buildings as fast as you can, but rather than just being pleasantly smug about it, but the critics are not going to be happy until they convince every holdout that they're 100% inarguably perfectly right and we're 100% mistaken.

Sorry, but I know of lots of beautiful brutalist works, my aforementioned DC Metro system being one of the foremost examples. How that's not a brilliant, functional piece of architecture that's stood the test of time so far?
posted by sonascope at 10:07 AM on May 26, 2012 [8 favorites]


I don't know if this counts as brutalist, but I used to live next to the now-demolished Heygate Estate. It was one of the most anti-human buildings I've ever encountered.
posted by Summer at 10:09 AM on May 26, 2012



The "'we,' paleface" is the selfsame "we" that now follows the common wisdom that brutalism is completely unloved, unlivable, and unsustainable, despite a fair amount of evidence to the contrary.


What evidence?

If you so much as murmur about demolishing a Victorian, you'll provoke outrage from the local citizenry.
Talk about demolishing beton brut, and almost all of the outrage will be from architecture geeks.

Two reasons: one is that brutalism requires a higher degree of active maintenance, especially now that after 50 years of keeping the concrete bare, these issues begin to catch up. The other reason is that brutalist buildings are worse at eliciting that active maintenance. For some reason, deco buildings and Victorians at eliciting active maintenance from their tenants. That "some" reason is this: love.

Victorian architecture was knocked down because it was difficult to keep painted, difficult to maintain, leaked, cramped, hot/cold/clammy, and rather than address the actual issues with it, people just rallied up the bandwagon to have a set of cheerleaders for tearing it down.

Sorry, but that's a crock. There was no bandwagon for knocking them down. There was, however, a sheer backlog of maintenance on them caused by neglect during the Depression and World War Two, and immense demand for building new structures as quickly as possible, and at that, the brutalist method, I admit, excelled.



The issues with old school brutalism are issues of conservation and materials engineering, but rather than addressing them, we've just wallowed back into Philip Johnson's birthday cake post-modernism, bland corporate emptiness, and Gehry's school of "well, I have this computer, so I probably should incorporate thirty thousand distinct sizes and shapes of windows into my building." Some of these efforts succeed, some don't.


How about "none of the above"? As you see above, I have no love for Gehry. None of his buildings are fit for purpose. And Philip Johnson's New Canaan, where he put a Poussin painting in a sunlit room that caused it to bleach beyond recognition, is a crime against humanity.
posted by ocschwar at 10:22 AM on May 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


I went to Simon Fraser and I will always remember it fondly when i smell wet concrete.

I went to SFU back in the late 70s, early 80s. I remember in my first year, first semester, an older guy that was in one of my classes telling me that SFU had the highest suicide rate of anywhere in Canada. It was a nice day when he told me, the hard angles and acres of concrete put in their place by the greater sweep of nature, blue sky, warm sun, a few puffy clouds.

"I don't know," I said, "I think it looks pretty cool."

"Wait until it rains for three months solid," he said.
posted by philip-random at 10:24 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


... and what do you call this? -- Sears Store, heart of downtown Vancouver (though credit where it's due, Eatons built it).

Looks like the back of a toilet -- a building that doesn't just ignore the surrounding area, it despises it. I remember (again back in the early 80s) a friend who was in Art School at the time saying her dream was to someday be successful enough that she would be commissioned to destroy it. But it wouldn't just be reduced to rubble and then replaced with another building. No, it would be dynamited in such a way that a sizable chunk of it would be left standing, and then like a war ruin, it would just be left (with the sharp edges removed, of course) as a warning for future generations.

Lest we forget.
posted by philip-random at 10:34 AM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


For another example, here's the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health's building:

http://www.tamaginidesign.com/blog/2012/02/27/going-mental/

As you might expect, mental health functionaries are usually psychiatrists and psychologists as well, and so apart from serving the Commonwealth's government, they needed to be able to see patients in their offices, but this building was so terrible they had to forbid clinical visits because of what this facade was provoking from our mentally ill citizenry.
posted by ocschwar at 10:35 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wow, never realised the MF crowd were such traditionalists.

The word is "classicist," and you don't have to be a classicist to find brutalism ugly, to understand it as one of the worst examples of a whole school of abstract, sculptural, theory-driven architecture that has spent most of the last 50 years littering the earth with structures openly contemptuous of human need and human scale.

No, to wish the world had less brutalism in it, you just need to be a humanist. Interested in the needs, uses and desires of human beings. Fond of human scale. Which just about everyone is, by nature and instinct. It's why we crowd down some streets and not others. Why no one wanted to linger anywhere near the South Bank Centre and the Barbican till they retrofitted the hell out of 'em to build some human scale back into it all.

It's why multilevel parking garages, freeway underpasses and the concrete skyways and concrete perimeters of high modern housing projects the world over are magnets for garbage, crime and vandalism. (The South Bank Centre, after 30 years of overzealous policing, finally and to its eternal credit, came to understand that skater graffiti was a marked improvement on the original condition of its notorious undercroft.)

Unfortunately, brutalism's worst excesses - particularly the utter indifference to function and human scale - were taken by the deconstuctivists to be its greatest triumphs, and now every other city clamours for Libeskind and Gehry and Eisenman and Koolhaas to come and give them something even less durable and adaptive than the brutalist stuff, which is making it look almost charming by contrast.
posted by gompa at 10:58 AM on May 26, 2012 [8 favorites]


So - uh, I absolutely *love* brutalist style.

... on reflection - mainly because I was in and out of hospitals, university medical research centers, government buildings as a kid - where they were all trying to ensure I stayed alive...

... so, I associate them with a system that "works"... (or at least did...)

But - also, because it has the retro-futuristic vibe to it. Heck, if I was building my Bond-villain estate, you can bet that excessive amounts of concrete would be core to the design...

Plus... aren't these things zombie-proof?
posted by jkaczor at 11:01 AM on May 26, 2012 [5 favorites]


The poster upstream who claims brutalism as being somehow associated with nazism ... I don't get it. Speer's plans for Berlin were straight up classic Greek architecture on a megalomanic scale. I think anyone suggesting to build houses in concrete with a wooden imprint would have been regarded as entartete by Hitler and his cronies.

But don't let that detail stand in the way of your collective brutalism bashing.
posted by brokkr at 11:10 AM on May 26, 2012 [5 favorites]


Brutalism always reminds me of The Alan Parsons Project for some reason.
posted by sourwookie at 11:31 AM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Pretty sure the ultimate Bond villain estate has already been built and is currently serving as a casino in Montreal.
posted by peppermind at 11:39 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Brutalistic Dallas city hall is brutal.
posted by punkfloyd at 11:42 AM on May 26, 2012


But don't let that detail stand in the way of your collective brutalism bashing.


Brutalist architecture as literally driven patients in Boston to harm themselves right in front of the Dept. of Mental Health building.

Brutalist architecture is literally a safety hazard for the MIT chemical engineering department.

But ignore the rubes. Brutalism is genius. Clearly.
posted by ocschwar at 11:42 AM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


The poster upstream who claims brutalism as being somehow associated with nazism ... I don't get it. Speer's plans for Berlin were straight up classic Greek architecture on a megalomanic scale.

If you're referring to my comment, you're misparsing it. The Speer comparison was to Prince Charles' fetish for Georgian/Regency (i.e., early 18th century) architectural features, and the similarly grotesque incongruity of attempting to scale those up to 21st-century use cases.
posted by acb at 11:50 AM on May 26, 2012


What evidence?

I would point out the waiting list to get into Trellick Tower or Habitat 67. Or that the DC Metro system is still regarded as beautiful and architecturally functional, despite years of starved budgets.

On a more personal level, I was the facility manager for a proper example of well-designed adaptive reuse and brutalist architecture, and I can tell you that I loved working in the building, my coworkers loved working in the building, and the public loves the building.

What leaked? Windows, here and there, because the then-board of the museum circumvented recommendations for How's the concrete? Not a speck of concrete spalled or damaged in eighteen years. Materials engineering in the nineties is far, far more advanced than it was in the fifties and sixties. Even architects now understand that water falls out of the sky and needs to go somewhere. Not a drop of water comes into the basement of the museum, except in 2003, when Hurricane Isabel crashed into the city and flooded the street till the water flowed in through the vents for the climate control systems. There's a skylight that leaks because the seal between brick and the unit failed, but with a periodic resealing, it's fine.

Because it's a museum, the HVAC was buried in the core of the place, which makes it difficult to service, but we replaced the system with a better one in 2009 and it's fine. Like all buildings, there are little solar hotspots and clammy corners. The "traditional" materials were the nightmare, though. Maintaining fucking travertine? Horrendous. I'll take a stained and sealed brut concrete floor any day, which is why the floors in the education building of the museum are gorgeous and much-admired, and the stairs in the main museum have a separate budget item all to themselves. Keeping the brick clean and repointed? Budget item. The roof's EPDM and designed by a proper engineer. It's fine.

There's a waiting list to get married on the grand helical steps of the museum, which sweep up inside a raw concrete cylinder to the huge skylight above. People don't find it ugly—they keep the security guards on their toes enforcing the ban on cameras. It's a building that mixes traditional spaces (half the place is a former paint warehouse) and grand, simple gestures, and you'll have to work hard to find people who don't like it.

The outside conceals most of the concrete now, alas, because of the founder's original intention to cover it in mosaic (a project that I engineered for its second phase), but inside, you'll find the architect's joyous visual play throughout.

That's the part I still don't get. I'm hearing here that brutalism is universally hated, a universal failure, and universally nonfunctional, but I love a good brutalist building, I've just pointed out three successful examples, and at least for the latter, I know at least one of these buildings on a level of detail that that few people in the general public will ever know, and I can tell you that you're flat-out dead wrong when you assert that brutalism can't be done successfully. One can quote me every cliche in the litanies of raking-waving anti-modernism in the world, but I know of at least one instance in which I know for a fact that they're just not true.

Why is it so hard for people to just say "I hate concrete brutalist architecture" instead of "everyone hates concrete brutalist architecture and you're either a contrarian or an architecture geek is you disagree?"

Hell, even a basic qualification of "bad concrete brutalist architecture" would do, but it's all my-way-or-the-highway, apparently. There's lots of bad concrete brutalist architecture out there, and I'd be happy to discuss it 'till the cows come home, but that's not what's happening.

These days, I run a hundred year old copy of the Palazzo Vecchio built to advertise a tranquilizer-laden hangover cure and a 122 year-old Victorian elementary school converted in the seventies to art studios, galleries, and classrooms. Both leak, both are too hot and too cold, and both have been alternately loved and hated in their respective communities. Maintenance issues are different than they were in the museum (terracotta ornamentation is not a particularly durable medium for exuberance and brownstone spalls like a motherfucker), and both suffer shortcomings in their design—the Tower doesn't contain a single wispy thread of insulation in 22 stories and the school lost its drainage parabola when some brilliant intellect removed all the plaza pavement around it to surround it with "vibrant green space." Each requires far more money, time, and effort than the museum, though, particularly if you compare them by actual enclosed area. There's an interesting discussion to be had here, but all I'm hearing is a lot of validation through repetition. I'm wrong because I'm wrong because I'm wrong.

Hardly seems like it's worth the effort, but whatever floats your boat.
posted by sonascope at 11:53 AM on May 26, 2012 [7 favorites]


"because the then-board of the museum circumvented recommendations for" should read "because the then-board of the museum circumvented recommendations for the proper installation."
posted by sonascope at 11:55 AM on May 26, 2012


brutalism as being somehow associated with nazism ... I don't get it. Speer's plans for Berlin were straight up classic Greek architecture on a megalomanic scale.

Yeah, Hitler most definitely had a romantic streak. Stalin on the other hand -- my grasp of architectural history is thin at best, but I can't help but feel a little Joe every time I look at something like this.
posted by philip-random at 11:56 AM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


I would point out the waiting list to get into Trellick Tower or Habitat 67. Or that the DC Metro system is still regarded as beautiful and architecturally functional, despite years of starved budgets.

Strangely, this discussion is starting to remind me of a recent one I had with a few friends who had survived the Disco era. Basically, we concluded that if a certain so-called disco song is actually any good, then it no longer defines as disco -- good and disco being two words that should never be allowed to stand next to each other.
posted by philip-random at 12:01 PM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


ocschwar: "Brutalist architecture as literally driven patients in Boston to harm themselves right in front of the Dept. of Mental Health building.

Brutalist architecture is literally a safety hazard for the MIT chemical engineering department.

But ignore the rubes. Brutalism is genius. Clearly.
"
So your strawman rebuttal to brutalism is that some people in Boston built failed buildings in the style? I'm sorry you had bad experiences with this architectural style. I myself am not too fond of the currently fashionable glass cages being built everywhere I look, but that doesn't mean it cannot be executed in a thoughtful, functional way.

I find it rather amazing that a Mefi post with a blog post of good-looking buildings conjures up such senseless, knee-jerk vitriol in a good number of posters, one of whom go so far as to decry anyone who might think otherwise as contemptuous of humans.
posted by brokkr at 12:19 PM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am willing to concede that brutalism may be done well. But I also contend that when it's done badly, it is uniquely horrifying and harmful to the people who have to interface with those buildings. Like, much worse than when other architectural styles are done poorly.
posted by KathrynT at 12:21 PM on May 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


The poster upstream who claims brutalism as being somehow associated with nazism ... I don't get it. Speer's plans for Berlin were straight up classic Greek architecture on a megalomanic scale.

Were you talking about me? The Nazi connection comes from Speer through Le Corbusier, who had similar grand social engineering plans like leveling Paris so he could straighten out all the crooked streets and building thousands of "housing units." in nice orderly rows. Corbu seems to be the godfather of Brutalism. As for Fascism, I recall Hughes delivering his lecture connecting Fascism and Brutalism, while standing in front of the most famous Fascist architectural example. In the middle of his exposition, they cut to Hughes on another location, in front of an almost identical building on an American college campus, and he continued.
posted by charlie don't surf at 12:25 PM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


I.M. Pei's design for building 66 has inflicted tremendous frustrations and safety issues for the chemical engineering department that lives there.

Having had an office in another I.M. Pei monstrosity (building 54), I can vouch for his utter and complete failure to give a single thought to what the inside of a building should be like. Truly, truly awful - in every single possible aspect.

I say this as a fan of Brutalism. People give these buildings a hard time, and that's mostly due to the 'finish' (grey concrete) rather than the design itself. If they were all chromed or something, people would be in awe.

I stayed with some friends in the Barbican - it's an incredibly intriguing place to live. You get a real sense of what they were trying to do, and why it doesn't quite work as well as it should. The interior is fantastic, in a slightly post-apocalyptic abandonment sort of way - especially around the water gardens. However, the entire feeling is a little sullied by the fact that you feel like the whole place just needs a good powerwashing.
posted by grajohnt at 12:25 PM on May 26, 2012



That's the part I still don't get. I'm hearing here that brutalism is universally hated, a universal failure, and universally nonfunctional, but I love a good brutalist building,


Well, sorry, but the world abounds with counterexamples. And the problems I listed are everywhere.

My experience includes MIT building 66. It's shaped like a 30-60-90 triangle, which means the rooms inside are full of hard-to-reach crannies. Spaces like that tend to fill with random stuff that falls and rolls. Normally not a big deal, but when the space belongs to a chemical engineering lab, it's a very big deal. The building also has bad temperature and humidity issues, which again, in a chem-e context is intolerable. As is the water seeping into the basement.

It includes building W20, which again has many problems related to it being beton brut. And McCormick Hall. Same deal.

Nearby is the Boston City Hall, which is again unfit for purpose for the same reasons. And the Dept. of Mental Health building, which now manages a random assortment of agencies because the DMH could not work there. And it is not a joke. Mentally ill people were driven to self harm entering the building.

Now, I grew up in Tel Aviv. Take a brutalist apartment block, apply whitewash and stucco, and you have Tel Aviv. And Tel Aviv is very nice. But good God, man, get over your love of beton brut and apply the damn stucco. Makes the temperature easier to manage. Makes the smells go away. Makes life just plainly more pleasant for people living there.

And hey, if your museum is well attended and well liked, nobody will speak of demolishing it.
posted by ocschwar at 12:26 PM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Now, I grew up in Tel Aviv. Take a brutalist apartment block, apply whitewash and stucco, and you have Tel Aviv.

Doesn't Tel Aviv have the world's largest concentration of Bauhaus buildings?
posted by acb at 12:41 PM on May 26, 2012


And hey, if your museum is well attended and well liked, nobody will speak of demolishing it.

Apparently, it won't stop people from claiming that all brutalist building are inherently bad, either.
posted by sonascope at 12:49 PM on May 26, 2012


Trellick Tower rears up majestically from west London and has featured extensively in television.

Yep, just made an appearance in Luther, at either the end of season one or beginning of season two. Not surprisingly, it was the scene of a gruesome homicide.

Luther is brilliant at aiming a lens at the grey, brown or steel buildings that comprise London's post-war architecture, creating a severe, impersonal tableaux of urban architecture. Warm, convivial pubs and quaint 18th buildings and churches are nowhere to be seen. There's no Strand or Coventry Garden in Luther.
posted by Gordion Knott at 12:58 PM on May 26, 2012 [3 favorites]


Sorry, but that's a crock. There was no bandwagon for knocking them down.

There certainly was- I live in a neighborhood that used to be entirely Victorian buildings, and during urban expansion in the early 20th century many were knocked down and replaced by deco and beaux-arts buildings. This occurred again in the 50's and 60s with widespread urban renewal, in which attempts to save Victorian architecture were derided as attempts to make downtowns "museums", and un-progressive sentimentality. This happened in many cities in the US. People don't seem to realize that surviving examples of Victorian architecture in the US often still exist because: 1) they were exceptionally good or 2), people rallied to keep them against much opposition that deemed them unfashionable and ugly (sound familiar?) or 3) it was not financially expedient to knock them down. This is true of all architectural styles because tastes change. The dysfunctional, ugly, or maintenance-intensive buildings of the past were knocked down more often than the beautiful and easily preserved.

There are plenty of lovely, non-functional buildings as well: Fallingwater is an excellent example of a leaky, under engineered, wet, moldy nightmare. When you're trying to do technologically advanced things with buildings, you run the risk of failure. At any rate, many brutalist buildings were applauded when they were built, which is something that is often overlooked by those who are emotionally invested in forcing their point of view against brutalism. There are bad, good, and great examples of brutalist architecture. And as philip-ramdom pointed out, the really impressive ones are rarely called "brutalist". Project Renaudie (1969-75) is brutalism, yet people often try to recategorize it into some other thing because it doesn't fit their preconceived notions of brutalism=bad. Tokyo Olympic Stadium (1964) is another example.

Stalin on the other hand -- my grasp of architectural history is thin at best, but I can't help but feel a little Joe every time I look at something like this.

There is actually such a thing as stalinist architecture, and it's nothing like your example, which would have been considered decadent in it's avant-gardism and attempt to stand out and be noticed.
posted by oneirodynia at 1:01 PM on May 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


Brutalist Geisel Library is beautiful.
posted by mrhappy at 1:07 PM on May 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


The demolition of Victorian and Deco buildings in the 1950's was done by an architectural elite that decided they had to go, and that is what provoked the populist revolts that culminated in the historical preservation laws.

That was because those Victorian and Deco buildings were well loved. Which is to say people unversed in architectural history and theory loved to live, work, and socialize in and around those buildings....

If you so much as murmur about demolishing a Victorian, you'll provoke outrage from the local citizenry.
Talk about demolishing beton brut, and almost all of the outrage will be from architecture geeks. ...

Sorry, but that's a crock. There was no bandwagon for knocking them down. There was, however, a sheer backlog of maintenance on them caused by neglect during the Depression and World War Two, and immense demand for building new structures as quickly as possible, and at that, the brutalist method, I admit, excelled.


ochswar, it's easy to think that now, but it really wasn't that way. My dad, to cite an example, was an historic preservationist in an era when the very idea was something of a joke: Arthur Dent standing in the way of progress. He personally knew Richard Nickel -- who actually died in his zeal to preserve architectural elements of a building he loved, the Chicago Stock Exchange. I can assure you that the public at large -- certainly in the US -- thought these were nothing more than old, over-decorated junk buildings that needed to go so we could have modern, Miesian skyscrapers. The people crying out for the preservation of the old were the tiny elite.

I suppose it makes us feel better, now that we all deride skylines full of glass boxes, to believe that modern architecture was "foisted" on us by imperious architects, but it's slightly ridiculous if you know the actual history.

Otherwise, this thread seems to be full of something akin to folk etymology: People dislike Brutalism, so connect it to disparate things like Stalinist architecture without any factual basis. Scale is not something limited to authoritarian regimes. I generally submit that the hatred for Brutalism, even when rooted in fact, is a laundry list of things that could be substituted for any building of a certain age. Certainly Victorian-era commercial buildings that had spectacular cornices tended to lose them once those cornices reached the end of their lifetime, but that doesn't seem to invalidate the entirety of 19th century commercial architecture. Faulty reasoning, people.

In other words, the current hatred for Brutalism is a bandwagon effect. I get that. I get reasons people don't like specific examples. But there's no such thing as a perfect architectural style, and style, as we know, changes. In many ways what we don't like about those Brutalist structures is exactly what earlier generations did like. Well, we've come full circle, we now have widespread appreciation of the stuff that was being knocked down in that era, and yet we fail to recognize the positive and interestng qualities of these buildings -- the same way people in the 1960s were failing to appreciate Victorian and pre-war architectures.

I do fear that this current wave of dislike is going to be responsible for us losing a wave of Brutalist masterpieces -- it already has, to some extent.
posted by dhartung at 1:17 PM on May 26, 2012 [9 favorites]


The Nazi connection comes from Speer through Le Corbusier, who had similar grand social engineering plans like leveling Paris so he could straighten out all the crooked streets and building thousands of "housing units." in nice orderly rows. Corbu seems to be the godfather of Brutalism. As for Fascism, I recall Hughes delivering his lecture connecting Fascism and Brutalism, while standing in front of the most famous Fascist architectural example.

RE: social engineering: progressive Victorian era progressives did the same thing; look at Haussmann in Paris, as one example. That doesn't make him a fascist, and it doesn't make Le Corbusier a fascist either, or any of the architects of Red Vienna who were explicitly Socialists, yet built entire new blocks of housing after tearing down slums. Speer was not a modernist, who was a neo-classicist, wanting his buildings to be grand statements with flags and emblems, and have high "ruin value". That's not Le Corbusier's philosophy at all, and though Brutalism was meant to be monumental, it was not meant to be nationalistic, decorated propaganda. The plain concrete was designed to be rough and honest expression of a non-hierarchical civic philosophy that was for all classes of people. Totally the opposite of Speer's architecture which was meant to showcase the strength and purity of the State.
posted by oneirodynia at 1:17 PM on May 26, 2012 [4 favorites]


Ugh, what a crappy paragraph I've written. Sorry for the redundancies and cut-and-paste flubbing.

Also sorry to philip-random for mis-typing your handle. Sigh.
posted by oneirodynia at 1:21 PM on May 26, 2012


Le Corbusier, who had similar grand social engineering plans like leveling Paris so he could straighten out all the crooked streets and building thousands of "housing units."

Le Corbusier also led to Oscar Niemeyer--a Communist--who got to design the completely brutalist city of Brasília from the ground up.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:27 PM on May 26, 2012


Oops, instead of "housing units," I meant to write "habitation units" (unite d'habitation) which sounds more like gerbil cages.

Robert Hughes' "Shock of the New" came up recently on MeFi. Episode 4, Trouble in Utopia deals specifically with Le Corbusier, and on a quick scan through, has lots of scenes filmed in Brasilia. It talks about Futurism leading to Facism. This is probably the episode I remember, but on a quick scan, I didn't see the scene I recalled. But then, it has been 1980 since I saw this show. I will have to watch it in its entirety again. It has an extensive interview with Phillip Johnson which I recall being very interesting
posted by charlie don't surf at 1:48 PM on May 26, 2012


Brum is replacing its inverted pyramid brutalist library with a glass box that closely resembles a stack of mattresses that have rotted down to just the naked springs. So in a sense they have captured the city.
posted by srboisvert at 1:49 PM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Just from a purely aesthetic point of view I think these are kind of cool precisely because they are so depressing and dystopian. Living/working in them would be a nightmare, though.
posted by timsneezed at 1:54 PM on May 26, 2012


I like brutalist buildings too.

And thanks sonascope for writing so well about them.

You made me realize I should take more pics.
posted by bru at 2:28 PM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]



In other words, the current hatred for Brutalism is a bandwagon effect. I get that. I get reasons people don't like specific examples. But there's no such thing as a perfect architectural style, and style, as we know, changes. In many ways what we don't like about those Brutalist structures is exactly what earlier generations did like. Well, we've come full circle, we now have widespread appreciation of the stuff that was being knocked down in that era, and yet we fail to recognize the positive and interestng qualities of these buildings -- the same way people in the 1960s were failing to appreciate Victorian and pre-war architectures.


You can keep claiming that the 1950's era public liked the brutalist buildings.

You're going to have a lot of trouble finding evidence to support it.
posted by ocschwar at 2:58 PM on May 26, 2012


Trouble in Utopia deals specifically with Le Corbusier, and on a quick scan through, has lots of scenes filmed in Brasilia. It talks about Futurism leading to Facism.

Well, I haven't seen it, and though I don't always agree with Robert Hughes, he makes some good arguments. However, I don't think he believes that futurism leads to fascism, so much as he thinks they are two sides of the same coin and should be investigated with that relationship in mind ( and yeah, Marinetti was an Italian Fascist). It's just not the case that Albert Speer was in any way a modernist or futurist (and they are not interchageable movements), or that Le Corbusier was a fascist. Nor was he a futurist- he liked Classical architecture to the extent that Villa Savoye was modeled after Roman villas. Modernism believed to some extent in the enduring qualities of platonic forms and classical typologies, and that they could contribute to an International style free from nationalistic ideologies and conflict. Futurism was expressly ahistorical and glorified violence. Just to confuse things, Fascist states seemed to like to tie themselves to Imperial Rome through architecture like Speer's, and many elements of futurist architecture show up in brutalism, but from a different ethos altogether.
It's certainly true that architecture from competing ideologies can look the same: the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana is inspired by rationalism, as is San Cataldo Cemetery. But it wouldn't be correct to call Rossi a fascist in his attempt to rehabilitate rationalism. Intent matters. I don't think anyone would argue that I.M Pei's Louvre pyramid is a statement about the afterlife or sacrifices to gods -it is, weirdly enough, also inspired by Roman villas, and train stations.
posted by oneirodynia at 3:12 PM on May 26, 2012


I have spent the last four years working b/w one and four hours a day in one of the two best brutalist buildings in Toronto. I think they work really well, and attempts to upgrade instead of dismantle them (esp Robards) was actually quite successful.
posted by PinkMoose at 4:02 PM on May 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


You're going to have a lot of trouble finding evidence to support it.

I cite the built environment.
posted by dhartung at 8:05 PM on May 26, 2012


Well you know how this goes, oneirodynia. Artists like Corbu often espouse one philosophy and then do exactly the opposite, maybe even without realizing it. His concrete apartment blocks were all intended to be almost an extension of human activity, built on a human scale under the Modulor system, so it would work on all levels, from interior, to exterior, to city block and beyond. But then I heard that people who actually live in them complain they are cold concrete, they can't move furniture around because it doesn't fit anywhere, and the interior proportions are all wrong so they're always bonking their head or knees on the concrete corners.

My favorite example is Corbu's LC-2 chair. It is supposedly a Modulor product, but it is actively hostile to human proportions. The back is too low and there's no back support. It's not wide enough for you to sit any way but straight forward. It's really deep so some people can't reach the back and still get their knees over the front. This is a chair that screams "I am a round hole and you are a square peg."

Anyway, that is sort of why I compare Speer and Corbu. They both believed that designs could exert control over people. They may have had different scales and approaches but I find them similar in effect. I think I came to a lot of this opinion through that Shock of the New episode, which I heard when I was just dropping out of art school. I will have to listen to it again.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:51 PM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Huh. I didn't know eyesores were a architectural style.

Something like the Museum Theatre does look lovely to me, and some of them do have that dystopian Blade Runner vibe which is kind of nice. But on the whole it just reminds me of understaffed hospitals and cheap development housing; not exactly the best connotations.
posted by solarion at 12:32 AM on May 27, 2012


on the whole it just reminds me of understaffed hospitals and cheap development housing; not exactly the best connotations.

This is pretty much exactly the point that people who defend Brutalism against knee-jerk destruction are making. Our experiences of architecture are profoundly shaped by context and connotation. The lovely old Victoria buildings we gaze at with fondness and nostalgia once had their own set of complex connotations that have been washed away with time.

It is inevitable and correct that most of the buildings of any style or era will be demolished, but allowing expectation and prejudice to do all our seeing for us makes it less likely that we will make sound choices about what should go and what should be preserved.
posted by howfar at 4:23 AM on May 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


Jerome K Jerome published this in 1889, it has always struck me as pertinent to such matters.

'Why, all our art treasures of to-day are only the dug-up commonplaces of three or four hundred years ago. I wonder if there is real intrinsic beauty in the old soup-plates, beer-mugs, and candle-snuffers that we prize so now, or if it is only the halo of age glowing around them that gives them their charms in our eyes. The “old blue” that we hang about our walls as ornaments were the common every-day household utensils of a few centuries ago; and the pink shepherds and the yellow shepherdesses that we hand round now for all our friends to gush over, and pretend they understand, were the unvalued mantel-ornaments that the mother of the eighteenth century would have given the baby to suck when he cried.

Will it be the same in the future? Will the prized treasures of to-day always be the cheap trifles of the day before? Will rows of our willow-pattern dinner-plates be ranged above the chimneypieces of the great in the years 2000 and odd? Will the white cups with the gold rim and the beautiful gold flower inside (species unknown), that our Sarah Janes now break in sheer light-heartedness of spirit, be carefully mended, and stood upon a bracket, and dusted only by the lady of the house?

That china dog that ornaments the bedroom of my furnished lodgings. It is a white dog. Its eyes blue. Its nose is a delicate red, with spots. Its head is painfully erect, its expression is amiability carried to verge of imbecility. I do not admire it myself. Considered as a work of art, I may say it irritates me. Thoughtless friends jeer at it, and even my landlady herself has no admiration for it, and excuses its presence by the circumstance that her aunt gave it to her.

But in 200 years’ time it is more than probable that that dog will be dug up from somewhere or other, minus its legs, and with its tail broken, and will be sold for old china, and put in a glass cabinet. And people will pass it round, and admire it. They will be struck by the wonderful depth of the colour on the nose, and speculate as to how beautiful the bit of the tail that is lost no doubt was.

We, in this age, do not see the beauty of that dog. We are too familiar with it. It is like the sunset and the stars: we are not awed by their loveliness because they are common to our eyes. So it is with that china dog. In 2288 people will gush over it. The making of such dogs will have become a lost art. Our descendants will wonder how we did it, and say how clever we were. We shall be referred to lovingly as “those grand old artists that flourished in the nineteenth century, and produced those china dogs.”'

(From Three Men in a Boat)
posted by howfar at 4:48 AM on May 27, 2012 [6 favorites]


Not in London, but this is my favourite one. Clothkits sell a Barbican skirt kit, but I'm waiting for them to come out with the good ol' Toast Rack. I'm also quite fascinated by St Peter's in Scotland.

When I first visited London in 1998, I wanted to see Trellick Tower because it was mentioned in a Blur song. When I moved there in 2005, I lived very close to the Alton Estate which was modelled after works by Le Corbusier - a tall grid of tiny houses decorated with England flag beach towels in the summer. Now I work by the Brunswick Centre, and rather wish I could afford to live in it - the whiteness and the shape reminds me of the seafronts at Brighton and Eastbourne, the little windows like Lego houses, and on a sunny day it looks lovely. I imagine it's expensive enough that it would only be possible in a situation where I was given a large sum of money and told to buy a house with it.
posted by mippy at 5:08 AM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Most of these buildings have Wikipedia articles: posted by ysangkok at 5:44 AM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am willing to concede that brutalism may be done well. But I also contend that when it's done badly, it is uniquely horrifying and harmful to the people who have to interface with those buildings. Like, much worse than when other architectural styles are done poorly.

I'd agree with KathrynT here. I actually like some brutalist buildings, but bad brutalist buildings seem to suck the soul out of you in a way that other bad architecture doesn't.
posted by klausness at 7:05 AM on May 27, 2012


The entire campus of the University of Massachusetts at North Dartmouth is the brutalist vision of Paul Rudolph.

Most people find it utterly depressing because of the poorly-maintained, leaky, moss-covered bare concrete walls and dehumanizing architecture, but I've come to realize that the most depressing thing about the place is that it stands as a reminder that the state of Massachusetts once had both the ambition and the resources to build an entire public university campus from scratch simply because the region needed one.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 7:06 AM on May 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


In Britain, the cultural associations of the Brutalist style are overwhelmingly negative: decaying tower blocks, massive urban redevelopment, crooked councillors, corrupt developers and self-promoting architects paying no attention to the needs and wishes of ordinary people. And opposition to Brutalist architecture is a highly political statement: it signals the collapse of the postwar consensus and the emergence of Thatcherism, the end of grand public projects and the triumph of the market, 'giving people what they want' (because who would want to live in a Brutalist tower block?). In the most ideologically driven versions of this argument, Brutalism can even be presented as an inherently anti-democratic, totalitarian style of architecture that was bound to fail just as Communism was bound to fail.

To find this view plausible, you have to ignore a lot of things. You have to ignore the fact that it was, very often, Conservative politicians who pushed through schemes for massive urban redevelopment against the wishes of ordinary people. You have to ignore the strong evidence that many of the problems of Brutalist buildings were caused by poor management and chronic underfunding, rather than bad design, and that some of the most notoriously run-down tower blocks have now become desirable places to live. You have to ignore the fact that it was Thatcherism, with its policy of rate-capping local councils (and its ideological objection to council housing), that caused a lot of the problems afflicting Brutalist buildings. Above all you have to ignore the fact that Brutalism produced some superb buildings (as well as some undoubted eyesores) which are loved by some no less than they are hated by others.

In the end I have to agree with Owen Hatherley, that Brutalism's fatal flaw is that it 'failed to be sufficiently boring'. Given the choice, the British tend to go for blandness: bland food, bland music, bland politicians, bland architecture. Boldness is only acceptable when it's been around for a while, long enough to be reclassified as heritage. And we are now getting the buildings we deserve -- dreary, banal monuments of consumerism, in their own way just as insidiously totalitarian as any of the Brutalist buildings they replace -- while the postwar tower blocks are privatised, demolished and quietly airbrushed from history to make us forget there was ever a time when British governments cared about improving the public housing stock.
posted by verstegan at 9:37 AM on May 27, 2012 [7 favorites]


I am willing to concede that brutalism may be done well. But I also contend that when it's done badly, it is uniquely horrifying and harmful to the people who have to interface with

So it's like romantic comedies.
posted by philip-random at 9:57 AM on May 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


My favorite example is Corbu's LC-2 chair. It is supposedly a Modulor product, but it is actively hostile to human proportions.

I completely agree with this specific example; my boyfriend's company has these chairs and the sofa, and they are just miserable things to sit on. I hate them. And yes to the larger point about LC, he expected people to fit in his houses, not the houses to fit the people. FLW was the same way though- his clients complained mightily about the tiny proportions of his furniture, doorways, halls, &c. I still think the link between Speer's architecture and Le Corbusier's is tenuous; one could make the point that any architect who indulges in city planning is trying to re-shape the social sphere. The modernists were responding to a real need for clean, light-filled, plumbed, hygienic housing and workspaces for the working class, and though not the single answer to society's ills, we can appreciate that they tried to use science and technology to make average people's lives better. Albert Speer and Hitler were expressly anti-modernist, and wanted an architecture that made people feel significant only in their relationship to the German state. I think that's an enormous difference of intent.

Anyway, that is sort of why I compare Speer and Corbu. They both believed that designs could exert control over people.

Well, I think it's true that people do respond, quite strongly, to the designs of buildings and public spaces. Le Corbusier wasn't about control, though, he thought new highrise cities would be more efficient and safe, and that new technologies like the automobile would change people's lives. Removing slums and taking advantage of higher density and greater mobility would help create a more egalitarian society that used resources more efficiently and made people's lives better. Clearly, there's more to life and design than that, and Le Corbusier had his issues and blind spots and rigid ideologies, but I really don't believe he wanted to control people's lives. He certainly didn't plan to build segregated housing blocks for poor people while wealthier people moved to the suburbs, even if that is/was the job modern architecture was put to in many cities.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:10 AM on May 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Boldness is only acceptable when it's been around for a while

No. Boldness is never acceptable in architecture when it interferes with the intended uses of a building or is detrimental to the comfort of its tenants.

Architecture isn't like painting (don't like it? Turn around and look at something else) or cuisine (eat something else next time), or music (change the channel.) If you don't like architecture you're still stuck with it.

And brutalist architecture has serious problems.

Every defender of brutalism here keeps arguing that its shortcomings can be made up for with a little effort. Well, I don't want to have to make that effort.

I don't want to pay for expensive repairs to the exposed concrete if a layer of stucco would have made them unnecessary in the first place.

I don't want to pay to steam clean the concrete so it stops smelling foul when a layer of stucco would have kept the smells from being absorbed into the concrete in the first place.

I don't want to pay to upgrade the HVAC to keep the heat and the cold out when a layer of whitewash on the southern wall would have made the summers cooler, and a curtain wall of a better material would have made the winters warmer.

I don't want to pay to repair leaks that happen because something fails to bear the weight of all that concrete when I didn't have to use a concrete curtain wall to begin with.

I don't want to have to pay to retrofit everything with new decor so people don't shun my building when a better design would have them coming in droves.

Why pay all this money to make up for the problems with beton brut when it's so much cheaper and more effective not to build with it in the first place?
posted by ocschwar at 12:41 PM on May 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


That skyscrapercity forum thread that schmod linked to is well worth checking out.
posted by klausness at 1:50 PM on May 27, 2012


I used to live near Trellick Tower and always wanted have a look inside. I imagined it had a 70's sci-fi base feel to it.

At the same time worked near CentrePoint and would have been happy to see it vaporised by the orbital laser cannon controlled by some boffin in Trellick Tower.
posted by Foaf at 8:17 PM on May 27, 2012


Since I'm still not done cursing brutalism, notice this article about Eugene Street in Bristol:

http://boingboing.net/2011/08/25/bristol-street-art-exhibition-transforms-ballardian-brutalist-street.html

Then go take a Streetsview tour of Eugene Street.

There's a simple empirical issue that every resident of Bristol admits: Eugene Street is a ghost town. Nobody goes there unless they have to, because they work there or because they have an appointment in an office there. People avoid that street as much as they can. It took this massive art exhibition to draw people there. Which shows the other old saw about brutalist areas, which is that graffiti improves them.

Now maybe brutalist areas drive people away because most people are rubes who cannot appreciate the merits of the form, and have no respect for the boldness of the brutalist spirit, but rubes are who pays the rent. Rubes are the people these buildings are supposed to serve.
posted by ocschwar at 8:26 PM on May 27, 2012


Also on skyscrapercity, there's a previous British tower blocks thread (caution: dancing bananas) and a tower blocks of the world thread.
posted by klausness at 3:36 AM on May 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


In the end I have to agree with Owen Hatherley, that Brutalism's fatal flaw is that it 'failed to be sufficiently boring'.

I like to call this the 'Wood Quay' defence, after the civic offices of Dublin City Council. This monstrosity was built despite huge protest marches about development on the site and is a miserable place to work where floors are either blistering hot or icy (sometimes they are both at once; my sister works in a floor that has the dubious benefit of having the entire scents of the cafeteria piped in just for the fun of it - and these are the very minor end of what is wrong with that building). But the architect Sam Stephenson always insisted the problem was that the building didn't go bigger and bolder: what Wood Quay apparently needed was two more bunkers just to make it perfect. He was also responsible for this monstrosity, our Central Bank* and for the ESB office that sits on top of where a row of Georgian houses once stood. The Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland gave Stephenson a gold medal for his work; personally, I think he individually is responsible for some of the ugliest buildings to blot Dublin's landscape.

TL;DR: Bolder is not always better when it pays no attention to landscape, needs, weather, setting, and integration with the fabric of a city. Not every vision needs to be implemented simply because it is new and bold.

*Not shown: the wind tunnel effect that makes this plaza one of the miserable places in Dublin to stand even on a warm day. The only reason Occupy got to occupy it for so long is that everyone generally avoids walking around the base. It just says fuck you as loudly as it is possible for a building to: it will also be no longer used by the government fairly soon no much more than 30 years after it was built (BTW, the idea was also to knock down the rest of the surrounding buildings and build a bus depot there. Probably a Brutalist one.)
posted by lesbiassparrow at 4:12 AM on May 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


mrhappy: "Brutalist Geisel Library is beautiful."

Yeah, but Geisel is a bit of an exception to most of the brutalist memes. It uses a bit less concrete, a bit more glass, and a lot less repetition than most Brutalist buildings. Also, the architect's use of negative space (the supports holding up the cantilevered sections), though wasteful, do actually contribute to the building's aesthetics, unlike the unused outdoor foyer at the building's base (similar to many other brutalist structures).

Also, it was well-maintained, which certainly counts for something.


Oh, and the word on the street is that the Hoover building's days are extremely numbered. The FBI apparently hates the space, and is shopping around for a site for a new HQ. Apparently, having the FBI headquartered downtown is also a bit of a nightmare for the agency from a security perspective.

As far as Boston City Hall goes, the building does indeed suck, but not because of its aesthetics. There are plenty of ugly buildings that have stood the test of time (but still, yeech). Government Center's failure is its complete insensitivity to human scales, and lack of interaction with the surrounding streetscape. However bad the building might be from an architectural perspective, it's ten times worse from an urban planner's perspective. At street level, the building presents a blank brick wall to passersby for almost its entire perimeter. That's ugly, no mater how you spin it.
posted by schmod at 9:11 PM on May 28, 2012


Also, there's a tumblr and a flickr group.
posted by klausness at 2:56 PM on May 29, 2012


Schmod, I think the picture you linked is beautiful. The only things I'm not crazy about are the chairs. Chacun a son gout, I guess.
posted by en forme de poire at 6:24 PM on May 31, 2012


Inspired by the Brutalist architecture of London, David McGillivray has designed a concrete modular alphabet that can be created using 7 shapes, which are cast into 14 blocks of concrete in total.
Junkculture: David McGillivray: Concrete Type
posted by bru at 9:30 AM on June 19, 2012


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