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Truly Brutal
July 7, 2008 4:17 AM   Subscribe

The Birmingham Central Library, one of the largest and most important public libraries in Europe, has often been vilified as one of the ugliest buildings in Britain. A prime example of Brutalism, English Heritage has (controversially) recommended that the structure should be listed. Others want it to go the way of Portsmouth's hated Tricorn Centre.

I was glad to find out that this Oxonian monstrosity is due to be demolished. Trust me, it smells far worse than it looks.
posted by chuckdarwin (89 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Ugly though some of these building are, they were at least progressive. I still prefer them to the 50 varieties of fake that consititute the current state of town-planning here. Our towns are all starting to look like a British version of The Truman Show.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 4:27 AM on July 7, 2008


It's a library, how bad could it HOLY CHRIST BURN IT WITH CONCRETE-DESTROYING FIRE
posted by DU at 4:30 AM on July 7, 2008 [2 favorites]


(Why did the "ugliest buildings" link work once and only once for me? Did they move it during those 10 seconds?)
posted by DU at 4:30 AM on July 7, 2008


It never worked for me. wtf?
posted by dabitch at 4:33 AM on July 7, 2008


Oxonian?

I agree it's hardly pretty (though I think it's OK seen from Chamberlain Sq, as in the Birmingham City Council link above), but it's a damn good library, and it seems it's important as a piece of architectural history. Depends what they want to replace it with, I suppose.
posted by altolinguistic at 4:43 AM on July 7, 2008


I like them both. But then, I like anything that isn't a brick box, especially as long as it doesn't look like everything else.
posted by ewkpates at 4:52 AM on July 7, 2008


The term is derived from Oxonia, the Latin form of Oxenford or Oxford... but I may have used it improperly, here: an Oxonian is a alumnus of Oxford University.
posted by chuckdarwin at 4:56 AM on July 7, 2008


I love Brutilism, this place is bloody great:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queen_Elizabeth_Hall

I've allways thought I'd look fantastic painted bright white, and lit up with some over the top halogen spot lights
posted by fatfrank at 4:56 AM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


As is this one next door:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Purcell_Room
posted by fatfrank at 4:56 AM on July 7, 2008


I didn't know ugly was a style. Ryerson University is a brutalist supermodel. You can almost taste it by looking at it. mmm, urinal cake.
posted by stavrogin at 4:57 AM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


erm, re my first comment, the "I'd" should be "it'd". I'm not that narcissistic
posted by fatfrank at 4:59 AM on July 7, 2008


To be fair the true ugliness of that area is the copthorn hotel which is rather incongrously jammed up against the paradise center (notice they have no exterior images on their website). It is the red glass building on either side of the walkway that can be seen here and here. Also nothing quite says community as well as filling the open space of the paradise center/library with a Nandos, a mcdonalds, a faux pub and a few sandwich/coffee shops.

Birmingham's new vision appears to be to turn the city into soulless half-empty giant condos and shopping malls with 40+ cell phone retailers. The city is at a bit of turning point with huge opportunities for regeneration with a large amount of the downtown core being somewhat empty, abandoned or rundown. Unfortunately, the city council failing to learn anything from the city's rather tortured architectural past is once again plunging headlong into big project big money development with wild abandon. After all, it worked so well in the past.

I feel sorry for the real estate speculators who bought downtown properties thinking the area would be in any way livable.
posted by srboisvert at 5:01 AM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


Channel4.com:

Demolitions are very popular. People will flock to see an ugly, hated building being destroyed, and not simply because that building is ugly and a blight on the landscape. Some people just enjoy demolitions. There is something thrilling about watching a huge building being reduced to rubble in front of your very eyes, something exciting about watching a seemingly permanent structure disappear forever in just a few moments. We use the German word schadenfreude to mean enjoyment of other's misfortune, but literally it refers to the 'joy of destruction'.
posted by chuckdarwin at 5:01 AM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


See also, the worst building in Britain. "A rabbit warren on stilts." "The lego fantasy of a very unhappy child."
posted by fire&wings at 5:04 AM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


I was glad to find out that this Oxonian monstrosity is due to be demolished

That's a photo of a carpark in Oxford, right?
posted by Mister Bijou at 5:04 AM on July 7, 2008


I hate Brutalism with a burning passion. Boston city hall, another infamous example, looks like it was designed by people who hate buildings and want everyone to live outside but built it anyway so that later they could point to it and say, "See?!! We *told* you buildings are terrible ideas, but you made us go ahead and build that monstrosity anyway." Basically, it's buildings designed in the same way that Republicans run governments; they tell you it doesn't work and then try to do it as badly as possible to prove their point.
posted by kyrademon at 5:06 AM on July 7, 2008 [8 favorites]


That's a photo of a carpark in Oxford, right?

The Westgate Multi-story Car Park, yes. It smells like the place where urine goes to die.
posted by chuckdarwin at 5:10 AM on July 7, 2008 [2 favorites]


fire&wings, that is one ugly mo-fo.
posted by chuckdarwin at 5:14 AM on July 7, 2008


Actually, these buildings would make great re-education centers. Just because you're strapping wire cages full of starving rats to people's faces doesn't mean you can't do it with a blunt, dreary, soulless flair.
posted by stavrogin at 5:15 AM on July 7, 2008 [3 favorites]


I used to walk through the library on a regular basis (getting from the train station to Broad Street), and I actually really rather like it.

When you walk in, you start getting nervous, and you keep looking at your palm, trying to see if there's a crystal in there. Is it red? Is it blinking? That guy, over there, in black with silver trim -- is he just another wannabe hipster or is he coming to get you? Why do you keep hearing "renew renew renew" in your head?

And then you exit, and you're in bland everyday public square style architecture, and you can breathe again.

Until you have to walk back...
posted by Katemonkey at 5:15 AM on July 7, 2008 [3 favorites]


Wow, I had no idea there was an actual style called brutalism that described all these evil buildings (kyrademon perfectly described Boston City Hall) that I've loathed for so long. And it was an early style "largely inspired by the work of the Swiss architect Le Corbusier. " Horrible.
posted by Auden at 5:25 AM on July 7, 2008


Every style has its supporters.
posted by pracowity at 5:27 AM on July 7, 2008


The wikipedia entry on Brutalism is pretty fascinating.
posted by Auden at 5:34 AM on July 7, 2008


Auden, I linked to it in the post. Also, cheers for dropping Le Corbusier in. It all makes sense now.
posted by chuckdarwin at 5:36 AM on July 7, 2008


(chuckdarwin, your wiki link went to a list of brutalist structures, mine goes to the article on brutalism itself. Very interesting post, btw)
posted by Auden at 5:41 AM on July 7, 2008


There used to be a laser tag arena inside the Tricorn Center in Portsmouth. Ugly building indeed. But made for a great place to shoot each other with silly laser guns.
posted by schwa at 5:45 AM on July 7, 2008


Hmmm. I like a lot of brutalist architecture. I think it is exciting, looks different and is aesthetically pleasing. I don't know why people are so fundamentally opposed to it. Yet, we hardly hear a peep when we have identikit industrial parks, retail parks, office spaces and housing spreading across the landscape like a horrible weed.

Glasgow has more than it's fair share of brutalist architecture- though it's getting knocked down at an alarming rate and will soon be gone. More's the pity. This type of architecture may be viewed with disdain just now but at least many of them were one-off, unique buildings. I expect future generations to view this as the kind of civic vandalism in the name of creating new public spaces that will probably be no better- and often worse- than what they replace.
posted by ClanvidHorse at 5:46 AM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


D'oh! *slaps forehead*

You are correct, sir. Cheers. Also, big ups to vacapinta for being all proactive.
posted by chuckdarwin at 5:48 AM on July 7, 2008


You know who else was one-off and unique?

Seriously, in order for something to be underappreciated, it isn't enough to be unique and destroyed. It also has be have some redeeming value.

I'm not seeing it.

You complained about identikit industrial parks, but I don't see how that building is any different. It's a sidewalk wrapped around a milk carton. "Oh, in order to get the building permit we have to have windows? OK, stick a couple square inches of glass on here and there."
posted by DU at 5:54 AM on July 7, 2008


Huh, I don't really see the eyesear. I mean, its not a particularly attractive bit of architecture, but I don't see it as being particularly worse than the glass cubes of the 90's. Not pretty by any stretch of the imagination, but honestly I think the only part of the building that could really be described as ugly is the white sculpture/faux church bit/remnant of the old building/whatever out front.

I clicked the link expecting to be horrified at a monstrosity of evil architecture and I saw a fairly bland and meh building. Dunno if that means there's something wrong with me, or something wrong with kyrademon.
posted by sotonohito at 5:56 AM on July 7, 2008


Brutalism must live on. You can't have the post nuclear science fiction future without it. I'd never known there was a term for it, but it's so perfect of a term. Once the buildings are all appealing and look completely harmless, the complete control of society by the elite will be finished, and there won't even be any large, brooding monsters scanning the horizon for humans to tip you off that maybe that eerie feeling in your gut you get by just looking at the buildings is trying to tell you something is inherently wrong.
posted by cashman at 6:02 AM on July 7, 2008 [5 favorites]


Saying Farewell to Get Carter's Car Park
posted by chuckdarwin at 6:08 AM on July 7, 2008


schwa: I still have the scar. Took a full-tilt run in the dark straight into one of their black-painted walls.

I miss the Tricorn. It had problems - the whole layout was just perfect for mugging someone and disappearing into the rabbit warren, and the sea of unadorned poured concrete was depressing - but the shops were interesting, and it had a unique ambience. Looked great from the air, too. It's going to be replaced with yet another soulless shopping centre (like the one next door to it), which is a great pity.
posted by Leon at 6:13 AM on July 7, 2008 [2 favorites]


I used to check my e-mail there and then go to Steak Night at the Wetherspoon's in the mall next door.
posted by parmanparman at 6:22 AM on July 7, 2008


I agree that a brutalist building is a very depressing thing on a drizzly day in Birmingham.

But in the sun-bleached south of France, overlooking the city of Marseilles with the hills and Mediterranean beyond, it looks ok.
posted by Kiwi at 6:26 AM on July 7, 2008


Here is a nice set of photos of brutalist architecture (linked via the wiki entry above).

To be honest, I kind of like looking at brutalist architecture, although my experience (mostly in university buildings) has been that those buildings are usually pretty awful inside. I'm glad not to live next door to a huge towerblock in any kind of architectural style, though, and avoid those multistory car parks whenever I can.
posted by Forktine at 6:28 AM on July 7, 2008


They should really just list the whole of Coventry and let the rest of the country progress and live free.
posted by influx at 6:29 AM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's a great library housed in a truly horrible building. I'd be more than happy to see it go, but I'd echo altolinguistic's point that it very much, 'Depends what they want to replace it with.'
posted by MrMustard at 6:31 AM on July 7, 2008


I'm torn. On one hand I find brutalist architecture usually horrible in real life. I live in a little concrete gray box with tiny windows made by a famous architect and I wish it had some curves and colours that would make it more lively (the building itself is rather conveniently designed though).
On the other hand, brutalist architecture makes a great background for science fiction and post-apocalyptic fantasies. Aging, decayed concrete oozing rust has some bizarre romantic appeal. Actually, even when new, concrete can be visually pleasing and a wonderful photographer's playground, with all the hard shadows and straight lines.
posted by elgilito at 6:32 AM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


Another thought about the Tricorn: long ago, I worked for a company that leased a couple of essentially-abandoned floors for storage (and I smacked my head on a concrete lintel while jumping down some stairs - I've just realised, that place was out to get me).

Anyway, the abandoned floors included spaces intended for apartments, so IMO the architect should score points for integrating functions (housing, shopping, etc). I see from Wikipedia that the apartments were boarded up in '79... I would have been poking around in about '89. Lots of detritus kicking around the floors... I remember the high ceilings with small windows most of all - somewhere between a vault and a prison. I was amazed, at the time, just how much space was sitting there un-used, right in the city centre. Wish I'd taken pictures, now.

The Tricorn would have been the tail-end of the post-war re-development of Portsmouth that included the also-Brutal Portsmouth Central Library. The post-war plans are worth glancing at if you're local - they got scaled back over time, and it's interesting to see "what might have been".
posted by Leon at 6:47 AM on July 7, 2008


Depends what you're used to, I suppose. Around here, Brutalist could be a step up.
posted by pracowity at 7:08 AM on July 7, 2008


The building Kiwi links to is Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation in Marseille. As the name suggests it was intended to be a self-contained living environment, containing shops, medical & sporting facilities etc.

Many of what we now consider to be concrete monstrosities used this as a model (including the Tricorn centre based on what Leon says), which is why you often find (now run-down and sad) shopping centres and underpasses (to protect the inhabitants from the elements when moving around) in these housing tower blocks. The intention was that these facilities would create a village-like sense of community for the inhabitants. With hindsight it's easy to forget this and remember them only for the massive breakdown in the community they now symbolise.
posted by jontyjago at 7:14 AM on July 7, 2008


Oh, and I'd never noticed before that here in Switzerland we carry the old boy round with us in our pockets..
posted by jontyjago at 7:16 AM on July 7, 2008


Brutalism is now my favorite architectural term.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:20 AM on July 7, 2008


Surely someone who hasn't even heard of brutalism is the last person from whom we should seek opinions about architecture.

Small-minded, ill-educated, small-town hicks annoy me far more than modern architecture. Just as well I can't get you lot demolished isn't it...
posted by mr. strange at 7:53 AM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


mr. strange: If I'm reading your comment correctly, that top-down "expert-knows-best" attitude is how (to take my own industry as an example) we end up with confusing, user-hostile software that makes people miserable. The opinions of the people who have to live with this stuff every day are valid, and do matter.
posted by Leon at 7:57 AM on July 7, 2008 [3 favorites]


Personally I'm less bothered by the aesthetics & more bothered by the tendency to make every interior wall a massively reinforced shear wall. Grr. Needing jackhammers, cutting torches and structural engineers to do any renovation or repair = suck. Not every room needs to be a blast chamber.

...but that's not exactly unique to Brutalism; it just seems to be especially common in Brutalism.
posted by aramaic at 7:58 AM on July 7, 2008


Anybody else picture mr. strange sitting in his concrete and glass throne stroking a cat as he orders the construction of a brutalist library which he will then drop from orbit onto North Carolina? I just got that feeling
posted by dosterm at 8:07 AM on July 7, 2008 [3 favorites]


Why is it that libraries seem to have frequently been saddled with Brutalist treatment? Just <>look at what I had to deal with in university.
posted by thecjm at 8:08 AM on July 7, 2008


Ach! Failure to link. Robarts Library, the blight of Toronto.
posted by thecjm at 8:09 AM on July 7, 2008


At least Brutalist buildings don't look like a pretty building with an ugly parking garage stuck on the side.
posted by smackfu at 8:17 AM on July 7, 2008


I think the ubiquitousness of Brutalist structures on campuses is probably due to the time period (a lot of colleges built things in the 60s)... also, universities are more inclined to go for 'cutting edge' designs.
posted by chuckdarwin at 8:29 AM on July 7, 2008


If you want Brum Brutalism you really want the signal box just round the corner from the library... When I lived in Birmingham I always thought it was like something the Daleks would build after a successful invasion (probably related to the fact I often passed it on the way to the nearby science fiction book shop).

Trouble is most of the architecture of the central Birmingham is just so damn poor and bland these actually stand out as not that bad. At least they have a bit of style to them. And I think the IRA tried to blow up the signal box once but it's just so solid it survived with only a few scratches
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 8:45 AM on July 7, 2008


Do many Brutalist buildings include shoddy trompe l'oeil work in an attempt to make them appear less brutal? Portland State's University Services Building actually was a parking garage, which they painted fake bricks onto [that's what those smatterings of color on the 'facade' are].

Can someone with some reasonable architectural knowledge and free time please beef up that Wikipedia entry?
posted by rokabiri at 8:47 AM on July 7, 2008


In my opinion, the only Brutalist building that embodies "form follows function" is the J. Edgar Hoover Building in DC. Even if you didn't know it houses the FBI, the building just hangs over you as you walk by, just like a good police state should.
posted by longdaysjourney at 9:01 AM on July 7, 2008 [4 favorites]


Maybe it's just because I went to York University, but this doesn't jump out at me as all that unusual. I mean, this was my library. Not exactly inspiring.
posted by heatherann at 9:14 AM on July 7, 2008


Well, are there any more images of the alleged monstrosity? It's hard to get an idea of how terrible it is from just the one partial photo, but it doesn't seem all that cringe inducing to me.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:45 AM on July 7, 2008


Anybody else picture mr. strange sitting in his concrete and glass throne stroking a cat as he orders the construction of a brutalist library which he will then drop from orbit onto North Carolina?

Actually, considering that one of the leading Brutalists was no-one else than Mr. Goldfinger, that seems pretty obvious...

The thing with Brutalism is that its buildings looked superb in architects' renderings, mostly-OK when recently built, and simply horrible after five-ten years. Apparent concrete doesn't age well, in particular in humid and sooty climates (Brutalist buildings have done better in sunnier climes).

Also, for too many people that style carries nasty associations of housing projects, economic crisis, urban decay, and post-apocalyptic '70s and '80s movies (rather ironic, considering that the Brutalists were a rather Utopian bunch).
posted by Skeptic at 9:47 AM on July 7, 2008 [3 favorites]


"...Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering [Brutalism]; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee..."
posted by blue_beetle at 9:50 AM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


(I mean, when one looks at the most egregious Brutalist buildings, who does not think "Soylent Green is people!"?)
posted by Skeptic at 9:52 AM on July 7, 2008


http://flickr.com/search/?q=+Birmingham+Central+Library+
posted by chuckdarwin at 10:02 AM on July 7, 2008


> Surely someone who hasn't even heard of brutalism is the last person from whom we should seek opinions about architecture.

If a building is so universally reviled that nobody except those with advanced training in architecture can look at it without thinking "jesus christ kill it with fire," then it's a crappy building. It doesn't matter what a bunch of architects think of it; public buildings are meant to be used by the public, not just looked at by architects. If the actual users of the building and the people who inhabit the area around a building hate it, it's a bad design. Period.

Architects who repeatedly construct buildings that are hated by those who have to use them, or look at them, or live in the same city as them, are bad architects. They may be great conceptual artists or sculptors or something else, but they're bad at designing public buildings if the buildings they design are despised.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:17 AM on July 7, 2008 [7 favorites]


I see what you mean now, cd- didn't recognise the Westgate car park from your photo, so thought you were using 'oxonian' to refer to the library, which made no sense.
I am an Oxonian in that sense and TTBOMK the term is generally used of people, not inanimate objects. But what you said did make sense.
(As I live in Coventry, and quite like it, I shall refrain from commenting further about architecture)
posted by altolinguistic at 10:27 AM on July 7, 2008


Dammit, those para breaks worked on live preview.
posted by altolinguistic at 10:29 AM on July 7, 2008


My favorite Neo-Brutalist building is the Alley Theatre in downtown Houston. Come the Zombie Apocalypse, that's where I'm holing up; it looks totally defensible like a modern day castle should!
posted by Standeck at 10:36 AM on July 7, 2008


Jeez, a lot of hostility to an important architectural style. While it might not be to your personal taste it doesn't mean it is bad buildings.

As someone pointed out up-thread, there's a lot to do with the context and situation; brutalist architecture never looks as good in rainy Britain as it does in the sun-drenched south of France. And unfortunately we suffer from a lot of poor imitations of striking architectural designs.

For some amazing examples, check out the Le Corbusier town in Firminy, France.

I've never been to the Unite de l'Habitation in Marseilles but his version in Firminy is incredible; especially now that the interiors are being restored to their full glory. Amazing duplex modern living. Wonderful.

See also: Erno Goldfinger
posted by Lleyam at 10:49 AM on July 7, 2008


I'm with mr. strange

If you hate the aesthetics of raw concrete but don't give enough of a shit to do any reading about it, you're a fucking rube.
posted by blasdelf at 11:11 AM on July 7, 2008


No doubt there are hideous examples of brutalist architecture, every "style," including your favorite - which sucks by the way - is overrepresented by bad examples. Architecture is rare.
posted by xod at 11:12 AM on July 7, 2008


Thanks, chuckdarwin. It really doesn't seem that bad, but I'm curious about it's layout and usability as a library.

If a building is so universally reviled that nobody except those with advanced training in architecture can look at it without thinking "jesus christ kill it with fire," then it's a crappy building.

You're setting up a false dichotomy with the assumption that the only people who enjoy or appreciate brutalist architecture are architects. I agree somewhat with your post in that architecture needs to serve humans, and be considered in terms of human needs and scales, because otherwise it's large scale sculpture (and that's not necessarily a bad thing, it's just that it's primary function is different). However, differences in style and fashion are more subjective, and anything that's interesting or unusual in some way is bound to offend someone. Striving to make every public project universally inoffensive and texturally homogeneous seems like a sure path to insipidly bland city centers, and we've already got plenty of those.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:14 AM on July 7, 2008


Striving to make every public project universally inoffensive and texturally homogeneous seems like a sure path to insipidly bland city centers, and we've already got plenty of those.

That's not a very nice thing to say about Milton Keynes.
posted by chuckdarwin at 11:31 AM on July 7, 2008


Interesting; I hadn't heard of Milton Keynes. Top-down large scale urban planning is rarely successful where I live, but they have done some smart things, like flood plain management. Though the Central Square in front of the train station looks like a pretty uncomfortable place. So, what's it like?
posted by oneirodynia at 11:57 AM on July 7, 2008


If a building is so universally reviled that nobody except those with advanced training in architecture can look at it without thinking "jesus christ kill it with fire," then it's a crappy building.

Indeed. Wellington is full of hideous, crapy buildings in this mould. Parts of the city look like Stalinist slums.
posted by rodgerd at 12:04 PM on July 7, 2008


I've never liked the Brutalist style, but then again, I know plenty of people, architects and amateurs alike, that dislike the designs (and schools or design) that I like. Tomayto/tomahto.

As several people have mentioned upthread, the Brutalist style may be particularly reviled because so many examples have aged poorly (sometimes in cities, or sections of cities) that have likewise aged poorly. Brutalism is out of style right now, but it will probably evolve and come back in some form. And a generation or two from now our children or grandchildren will enthusiatically pay exorbitant amounts of money to live in a newly renovated brutalist housing block we all associate with squalor and oppressive, sci-fi aesthetics. Today's hot commodity is tomorrow's slum. Today's slum is tomorrow's piece of architectural heritage.
posted by thivaia at 12:29 PM on July 7, 2008


It's easy to blame architects for bad architecture. Hey, they designed it. But architecture flows from the zeitgeist. Brutalism reflects the age, not the architect. Buildings have a phenomenal level of economic, regulatory and cultural review. This stuff doesn't happen in a vacuum. Prior to WWI, architecture was an implement of cultural power and hierarchy. For a while, the western world tried out ideas of democratic, egalitarian, efficient non-hierarchic design. There was no precedent for any of it. A lot of thinking was done and a lot of things were tried. For those of us who've studied architecture, it's hard not to find the good in many less than stellar efforts. Good buildings are exceedingly difficult to accomplish. Great buildings are nearly impossible.
One amazing thing about Brutalism is this: It actually depends on it's fundamental construction for it's appearance. As you watch a modern building go up, there is a point where the skin is applied, and you see what's in fashion this year. A Brutalist building is, emphatically, what it is. Some of us actually value this kind of honesty.
posted by Carmody'sPrize at 1:02 PM on July 7, 2008 [3 favorites]


"Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?"

The Independent Group and Team 10 Online
posted by xod at 1:05 PM on July 7, 2008


[...] Eminent architects including Lord Rogers, Lord Foster of Thamesbank and Zaha Hadid had claimed that the dilapidated housing estate was a modern masterpiece which should be preserved.

Lord Rogers said in a statement tonight: “All the British winners of the Pritzker Prize, the highest international award for an architect, agree that Robin Hood Gardens is one of the greatest modern buildings in the UK.

“There is not one internationally recognised modern architect or academic included in making English Heritage’s recommendation on Robin Hood Gardens to the minister. We should, therefore, deeply question the authority and objectivity of English Heritage in discussing contemporary architecture of this quality.” [...]

Architect Lord Rogers criticises English Heritage over Robin Hood estate
posted by xod at 2:00 PM on July 7, 2008


There is way too much Brutalist architecture floating around Ontario. I've worked in several Brutalist libraries and attended brutalist schools. One University building was designed with a long and wide pathway beside the building (located beside a river) so that brutal winters there was a freezing wind tunnel that all the students had to trudge along rather than making an entrance as close as possible to the bridge. Adding insult to injury just around one corner of that march was a concrete step that stuck out about four feet and was less than a foot high. It served no purpose at all, there was no doorway there and it was too short to sit on so numerous students would trip over it everyday. It really seemed like the architects of that building hated us. For the last brutal library I worked at I used to look at the huge blank (30 foot high, 100+ foot long) south facing concrete wall that overlooked a park and wonder why they couldn't have spared even a little window for us poor drones that didn't see sunshine at all in the depths of winter. Hmm, I wonder why it never took off as single family housing (my lazy search for an example didn't turn up even one).
posted by saucysault at 3:25 PM on July 7, 2008


Birmingham Central Library is grim. I work for an organisation that is based in this monstrosity on the south coast. Meetings there are very depressing.

One of the things that will count against Brutalist buildings in the future is energy use: the Town Hall pictured in my link is massively energy-inefficient, much more so than Victorian or Georgian buildings of similar scale.
posted by athenian at 4:16 PM on July 7, 2008


I kind of like it.
posted by Artw at 4:35 PM on July 7, 2008


athenian, I often work here, so I feel your pain. Like a brutalist cancer.
posted by chuckdarwin at 4:38 PM on July 7, 2008


When I was a kid, the street I lived on dead ended 4 blocks down at the steps of this building. Ialways thought it was a pretty awesome building, an opinion bolstered by It also being used for the exterior shots of headquarters on the Wonder Woman TV show. I can not stress enough how awesome it is to be 9 years old, look out of your living room window and see genuine superhero headquarters.

Maybe I'm biased because of this, but I've always been a huge fan of brutalism for that very reason. Every building posted here as "ugly" (Especially that Robarts library in Toronto. ) looks to me like superhero/supervillain headquarters. It seems especially fitting that after 8 years in the pansy-ass White House, this is the building Bill Clinton chose for his post-presidential offices.

I understand why everyone hates them, but I always root for their continued existence.
posted by billyfleetwood at 4:48 PM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


So, what's it like?

Convenient.
posted by chuckdarwin at 4:55 PM on July 7, 2008


If you hate the aesthetics of raw concrete but don't give enough of a shit to do any reading about it, you're a fucking rube.

Well, stick Skoal in my mouth and call me Jethro. Every day I walk past and through this gigantic waste expanse of brick and concrete, hot in the summer and cold in the winter, built on top of a historic district completely obliterated for the purpose that was once full of theaters, shops, burlesque shows, Colonial-era buildings, and plain old mixed-use multi-ethnic life. What do you suggest I read to make that okay?

I'm not usually so emphatic in a dislike for a particular artistic school, particularly one that tries to innovate, but brutalism expresses contempt for everything around it, and I can't help feeling it in turn. I'll give it this -- the concept sketches are always very nice, clean, and inspiring. Temples to the Human Spirit, one might say.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:53 PM on July 7, 2008 [3 favorites]


Countess Elena wrote: hot in the summer and cold in the winter

Soo..you don't like the weather in Boston. Ripping up the brick and concrete wouldn't make the weather any different, although it might give you an outlet for your frustration over the shitty weather instead of taking it out on a quite interesting architectural style.

I like brutalism, but I also dislike the waste of space that many paved over plazas create..give me some grass and trees next to the concrete obelisk, thanks.

Of course, I like brutalist buildings because they are different from the profound bland repetitiveness that permeates modern architecture.
posted by wierdo at 5:01 PM on July 8, 2008


wierdo At its heyday, Brutalism was repetitive, and, in many cases, profoundly bland too. It's only now that it is becoming rarer that it starts being distinctive again. Moreover, since usually it's the better examples to survive, one may be led to forget what blots on the landscape Brutalism once produced.
posted by Skeptic at 3:04 AM on July 9, 2008


Skeptic, back then, not everything was being built in sprawling suburban stucco, brick, and vinyl siding. Fuck, what I wouldn't give for more than one real building to be built in this city a year, rather than tens of thousands of copies of the same crap that has been pouring forth onto the landscape for essentially the entirety of my life.

Granted, you can't see the dreck from as far away as many of these examples of brutalist architecture, but it's more of a blight than nearly anything that preceded it.
posted by wierdo at 4:07 AM on July 9, 2008


See also, the worst building in Britain. "A rabbit warren on stilts." "The lego fantasy of a very unhappy child."
posted by fire&wings at 8:04 AM on July 7


You know, that building reminds me of some distant memory from my childhood in rural southeastern America, but I just can't put my finger on it.
posted by Pollomacho at 4:37 AM on July 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


Oh, shit... Pollomacho; we grew up in the same neighbourhood.
posted by chuckdarwin at 2:42 AM on July 11, 2008


As has been said above, many people associate Brutalism with public housing, impersonal government institutions, the 1970s, eastern European police states, sci-fi dystopias, etc. This is part of what fuels the hatred for it.

It is also shockingly innovative and different from most other architecture, even today. Thus it's hard for people to process. It strikes them as having an "inhuman" feeling because it doesn't look like a lot of other stuff they're familiar with.

But the farther we get from the historical era of Brutalism, the more it will come to be appreciated. I've always had a soft spot for this type of building... probably from watching sci-fi movies and TV in the '70s and '80s that used it as a backdrop, and from spending time on college campuses and in other public buildings built in the style (which allowed me to imagine myself transported into some futuristic fantasy world). It has a perverse romance to me -- which I recognize is very personal and not shared by everyone -- and a paradoxical sense of embodying a forgotten vision of tomorrow.

But I also admire some of its aesthetics. Brutalism fearlessly and creatively uses large expanses of raw, textured concrete -- often with an almost organic feel due to the signs of the wooden molds into which it was poured, and/or the gravel, stones, or other aggregate materials mixed into it. (This is where the name actually comes from.)

It is also typified by bold geometric forms, and a powerful sense of a total vision created by the unity of a building's interior, exterior, and landscaped surroundings.

All of this adds up to something special. As my brother the architect says, many of these structures have real "integrity," a sense of honesty, imagination and completeness that most prefab, disposable, pastiche-design buildings built today lack.

Not every Brutalist building is a masterpiece for the ages, but neither are they all abominations, eyesores, etc., as some here label them. Mark my words: within 10 years, the use of raw concrete as a building material will be au courant again, and many of these buildings, now often seen as ugly ducklings, will be treasured for their uniqueness, not just by elites, but by the masses.

I just hope we haven't torn most of them down by then.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 12:25 PM on July 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


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