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That concrete slab-sided monstrosity may someday be called a masterpiece
February 25, 2010 12:25 AM   Subscribe

In praise of ugly buildings.

What's your favorite ugly building?
posted by Afroblanco (191 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
Afroblanco: “What's your favorite ugly building?”

LA.
posted by koeselitz at 12:27 AM on February 25, 2010 [5 favorites]


As a complex of Westworld-meets-Soviet-style buildings, Albany's infamous Empire State Plaza (esp. the Egg) has a certain inhuman coldness that's never quite been matched, imo.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 12:40 AM on February 25, 2010 [11 favorites]


[Before I've even clicked]
If this is a photo-critique of Brutalist architecture, I'm going to be upset.
posted by metaxa at 1:11 AM on February 25, 2010 [5 favorites]


Sears headquarters in Toronto.
posted by Ouisch at 1:26 AM on February 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


they are feats of imagination and craftsmanship and tragically misunderstood -- the architectural equivalent of an abstract Jackson Pollock painting or a forbidding 12-tone Arnold Schoenberg orchestral work.

The comparison may be apt, but the assumption that we've all warmed to Pollock and Schoenberg is somewhat misplaced.
posted by Phanx at 1:45 AM on February 25, 2010 [6 favorites]


The photo critique is only part of the story.
posted by Afroblanco at 1:49 AM on February 25, 2010


Seattle Public Library
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:54 AM on February 25, 2010


My favorite ugly building(s) are the big buildings with no windows. One in, I think, Hell's Kitchen is full of AT&T switches or something. It looks like an evil villain lair. Awesome.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 1:59 AM on February 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Ah, here it is.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 2:01 AM on February 25, 2010 [9 favorites]


My favorite "ugly" building is the Chet Holifield Federal Building (more details).
posted by RichardP at 2:12 AM on February 25, 2010


metaxa, yeah, because we already agree that Brutalism, especially for civic buildings, is a blight upon the earth that must be wiped out with the all-delivering jackhammer. We don't need any more critiques.

Right?

Anyway, Boston has a sclerotic approach to development, and the architecture isn't really the problem. It's the zoning. The zoning bylaws basically make any large new developments illegal, even in places where they make perfect sense like the Financial District. The point of this is in part to kill development, but it's also to force developers to let the city's government play an outside part in the plans for the sake of needed variances. And we all know that bureaucrats make good architecture great.

But the city is also dotted with hundreds of lots that are more than big enough to build on, except the zoning laws were changed to require a minimum lot size of 6000 square feet - basically, suburban zoning rules in the middle of the 21st largest city in the USA. The result is lots of vacant lots, and also lots of frustrated young families who can't build anything new. So nothing new gets built, and people fight like hell to preserve 19th century tenements that by rights should be leveled.
posted by 1adam12 at 2:12 AM on February 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


The German word for something like this is Bausünde -- building-sin.
posted by chillmost at 2:13 AM on February 25, 2010 [8 favorites]


The National Press Building of Turkmenistan is pretty ugly. The giant lamp tower that was supposed to be built in Guzhen, China, would've been fantastic, but I haven't heard anything about that project since 2006. I think it's safe to assume it wasn't completed in 2008 as promised. That would definitely have been my favourite; two thirds ugly, one third crazy.
posted by The Mouthchew at 2:15 AM on February 25, 2010


My favorite ugly building? That would have to be the golden poop. Oh, sorry, the flame of inspiration, as Asahi calls it. Notice the building next to it is supposed to resemble a glass of beer, complete with excess foam at the top.
posted by Ghidorah at 2:16 AM on February 25, 2010 [7 favorites]


That Seattle Public Library could pass for a Lovecraftian abomination. My eyes refuse to process the shape and all, gah.
posted by Iosephus at 2:23 AM on February 25, 2010


My guess is the ugliest building in Australia would have to be this one. (Federation Square, Melbourne)
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:42 AM on February 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Buffalo City Courts Building.
posted by Eyebeams at 3:57 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


The (now demolished thank goodness) Queens Plaza parking garage was amazingly hideous.
posted by Skorgu at 4:02 AM on February 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'd say the real problem with Government Center in Boston is not the building itself, but the terribly stale, good-for-nothing plaza surrounding it. It could easily be a green-space, or at least have some nice tables and benches for people to enjoy lunch on a nice day, but no. They don't want you to actually use the space. The only thing it could possibly be good for at this point is skateboarding, and they run kids off quickly as well.
posted by explosion at 4:04 AM on February 25, 2010 [5 favorites]


Niagara Falls Public Library: the Earl W. Brydges Building.

Also: Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw
posted by pracowity at 4:23 AM on February 25, 2010


I didn't think I had one, but then I remembered the Robert C. Weaver Federal Building.
posted by hue at 4:27 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


It really saddens me that people don't think harder about this. Have a look at the new buildings or reclads going up in your nearest city (if that ever starts happening again...)

All shiny, some interesting, some "interesting", some with vision or impression, some not. Most are just things to keep the rain out, despite what the architects might say. But they're all going to date, and they're all going to age, and your grandkids are going to want to tear them down because the buildings remind them of the time before last that we tried to make the world better and it didn't work.

I wish people would see brutalism for what it is. And I wish concrete was easier to keep fresh and clean, because it would help.
posted by cromagnon at 4:33 AM on February 25, 2010 [6 favorites]


Brutalism is, unfortunately, an intellectual design philosophy in a currently anti-intellectual society. You have to be taught the tenets of Brutalism before you can really appreciate Brutalist architecture. It's sad that more people aren't willing to take the time to find out why "that ugly building" was made that way, but it's just the way it is. Kind of like how Thomas Kinkade is a better artist than Jackson Pollock in too many people's eyes.
posted by explosion at 4:55 AM on February 25, 2010 [5 favorites]


There's a long SkyscraperPage thread about brutalist buildings that's worth reading through. It starts with my favorite example, CMU's hulking Wean Hall; a building that I spent three years of my life in the damp basement of.
posted by octothorpe at 5:02 AM on February 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


While of the favorites here seem to at least interesting visually, now that I've moved to Edinburgh I find that I miss the generic retail architecture of the western US where I grew up. Every time I come across a building like this amidst the Victoriana that is the south side of Edinburgh, I smile and feel a bit of home.
posted by nangua at 5:06 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't believe that my finding this tremendously ugly makes me anti-intellectual. Just for the record.
posted by Eyebeams at 5:09 AM on February 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


Hexagon Tower, Blackley, Manchester.
posted by gallagho at 5:13 AM on February 25, 2010


But brutalism is an acquired taste. Just look at this lovely office building right across my living room. Hated it at first but now i really dig the menacing black windows and no nonsense aesthetics. Would just look totally fake if they had copied the 1920's style of the rest of the buildings in the block.
posted by uandt at 5:16 AM on February 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Explosion, the thing about Brutalist buildings is that they're not just ugly to look at. They tend to be functionally ugly too. They're hard to maintain, hard to heat, they often leak rain, the concrete stains, they're impossible to run wires through, the interiors are impossibly noisy and echoy, forget trying to get a WIFI or 3G signal inside on of those because of all of the concrete and because they were designed to be sculptures, the interior layout is often wasteful and confusing.
posted by octothorpe at 5:17 AM on February 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


the architectural equivalent of an abstract Jackson Pollock painting or a forbidding 12-tone Arnold Schoenberg orchestral work.

In most art forms, aesthetics can come first and people can choose not to participate. In a building such as Boston's Government Center, where people need to work in and around it and do business in it every day, people have no such choice, so being functional and generally inoffensive needs to come before being aesthetically interesting to a few people. Wiki:
City Hall is unpopular with Bostonians, as it is with employees of the building, who see it as a dark and unfriendly eyesore. It is occasionally the butt of jokes in local magazines. The structure's complex interior spaces result in cavernous voids, a confusing floorplan, and make the building very expensive to heat.
In a building like that, you should start with a work flow and finish with an attempt to make that work flow look good (or at least be inoffensive) without sacrificing the utility designed into the plan from the beginning. No one should be forced to work in the architectural equivalent of a Pollock or Schoenberg or whatever just because a few outsiders would like to see them try.
posted by pracowity at 5:18 AM on February 25, 2010 [22 favorites]


UTS in Sydney.
posted by tellurian at 5:18 AM on February 25, 2010


My guess is the ugliest building in Australia would have to be this one. (Federation Square, Melbourne)

Looks like Qbert took a giant dump in the middle of town.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 5:18 AM on February 25, 2010


It's sad that more people aren't willing to take the time to find out why "that ugly building" was made that way

Agreed. I had the privilege of taking a tour of Boston City Hall while it was still under construction, conducted by one of its architects, Gerhard Kallmann, sometime in 1967. In addition to the fairly obvious way in which the building echoes the city (its brick base symbolizes Beacon Hill, its concrete forms reflect the city that rose from it, it surrounds an open courtyard just as the city surrounds the Boston Common), Kallmann also pointed out the ways in which the building's functions reflect the workings of the city. In the brick base were housed most of the public functions where people come to do business; the next section up has spaces for mayor and council; the top stories, most inaccessible to the public, house the bureaucrats. While the mayor's office and council chamber are on the same level, you can't go from one to the other directly — a reflection of the separation of powers, but also of the lack of communication. As in most Brutalist archictecture, a lot of features were built in without specific purposes — we'd ask Kallman what a particular space or niche was for, and he'd say "I don't know — something will happen there." Kallmann had the same view of the plaza between the Government Center buildings: he thought "something would happen" there, but he had no idea what. The building reflects architectural features from a variety of styles of the past, as well. And Kallmann took glee in showing how overbuilt the whole thing is — next to the service windows where you might come to transact some business are enormous concrete blocks cantilevered from the wall "for the ladies to put their pocketbooks on;" and up in the bureaucratic floors, there are precast concrete crossbeams fitted into the coffered ceiling, weighing several tons apiece, installed for the sole purpose of holding up the light fixture in the middle of each one.

Understanding these kinds of details gives you some appreciation of the building (and make City Hall my favorite Ugly Building). Still, this and other Brutalist buildings have their failures — particularly in the wide open spaces and other details where the architects expected some natural evolution of function and use, but where in truth nothing actually happened.
posted by beagle at 5:25 AM on February 25, 2010 [22 favorites]


Bad Brutalism and Bad Modernism, especially when poorly maintained, gave both a bad name and gave rise to the awful Vegas-esque Postmodern pastiche vomit that has often passed for architecture since. In the UK a lot of Brutalist buildings are at risk, or have been run down until they need to be destroyed (like the poor Tricorn Centre). And they are controversial - I love the Barbican and Hayward - to me they are achingly honest and beautiful - but many don't. These buildings are a messages from a sad, special moment - the dying embers of postwar liberal utopianism. They should be protected as such - for good or ill we will not see their kind again.
posted by The Salaryman at 5:32 AM on February 25, 2010 [8 favorites]


grad center, Brown University. The rooms looked like prison cells. Cool skywalks joined the buildings to a central hub.
posted by condour75 at 5:34 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, the good news is that the Ottawa Public Library plans to move its main branch into a new building by 2014. The bad news is that the new place probably won't be as well-designed to withstand post-apocalyptic zombie attacks.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:37 AM on February 25, 2010


Of course, if you'd asked me ten years ago when I lived in Toronto, the Imperial Death Station that calls itself Robarts Library at University of Toronto would have been the clear choice. What was it with mid-century libraries and hideously out-of-scale Brutalist slabs?
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:42 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


I would like to throw in the FBI Headquarters in DC, which I was fascinated with as a kid because the whole thing appeared to be (actually was? I can't remember now) lifted up on pylons for no discernible reason.
posted by deliquescent at 5:42 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


I used to sort of like brutalism. I loved the Barbican area of London, which made me feel like I was living in a Twilight Zone english communist country + A Clockwork Orange. It's an eerie place where you can easily get lost because of how samey concrety everything looks. You can also sense how utopian the idea probably was at the time: an entire instant community, made from one continuous slab.

The problem with ugly buildings vs. say the works of Pollock or Schoenberg is that people physically interact w/a building, and works of art are mindscapes. You can change a mindscape, but if you live or work in a building you can't really move away from it.

Brutalism is, unfortunately, an intellectual design philosophy in a currently anti-intellectual society.

Huh? So buildings now need to have user manuals? I dunno, this is akin to saying that we don't get the intellectual underpinings of a cup designed to leak a little every time one takes a sip.
posted by Omon Ra at 5:46 AM on February 25, 2010 [7 favorites]


I love Brutalist architecture. Haters can suck it.
posted by delmoi at 6:07 AM on February 25, 2010 [9 favorites]


You have to be taught the tenets of Brutalism before you can really appreciate Brutalist architecture.

This is, of course, total nonsense.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 6:08 AM on February 25, 2010 [17 favorites]


Georgian Ministry of Roads
posted by Dim Siawns at 6:08 AM on February 25, 2010 [12 favorites]


As soon as I saw the title of the post, before I'd clicked on the link or even knew that it was in the Globe, I freakin' KNEW this was going to be about Boston City Hall. It is definitely a gold standard in American architectural ugliness.
posted by rollbiz at 6:09 AM on February 25, 2010


Of course, any discussion of 'ugly' buildings must at some point touch on Communism's last hoorah; the (still incomplete, began in 1987) Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang.
posted by metaxa at 6:10 AM on February 25, 2010 [4 favorites]


I heart Brutalist architecture. My favorite brutalist building is the first one I met, which is the main branch library in Gastonia NC. It looked like nothing else I had ever seen around town, the inside was actually light and airy, and it had art and books in it, which was really notable in a small middle-NC nowhere town. The building has shrunk slightly as I've gotten older but I still love it. I couldn't find any pictures.

As in most Brutalist archictecture, a lot of features were built in without specific purposes — we'd ask Kallman what a particular space or niche was for, and he'd say "I don't know — something will happen there."

This is one of my favorite aspects.
posted by fuq at 6:10 AM on February 25, 2010 [4 favorites]


Georgian Ministry of Roads

That's ... awesome!!
posted by AwkwardPause at 6:16 AM on February 25, 2010


My favorite ugly building(s) are the big buildings with no windows.

Think Worcester's police station might've been designed with the riots of the 60's in mind?

One in, I think, Hell's Kitchen is full of AT&T switches or something. It looks like an evil villain lair.

We've got something like this in Worcester too. Adding to the effect is the fact that the building emits an audible hum/buzz/whir ALL THE TIME, and you never, ever see anyone going in or out.
posted by rollbiz at 6:17 AM on February 25, 2010


As an architecture loving Bostonian, all I can say is fuck brutalism.

Boston City Hall is a triumph of artistic obliviousness and a blight on the city.
posted by mpbx at 6:17 AM on February 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


Orange County Government Center, Goshen, NY.
posted by TrialByMedia at 6:26 AM on February 25, 2010 [5 favorites]


As in most Brutalist archictecture, a lot of features were built in without specific purposes — we'd ask Kallman what a particular space or niche was for, and he'd say "I don't know — something will happen there."

Man, I wish I had a job like that.

"Spats, where does this patch cable dangling from the ceiling terminate?" "Nowhere. Maybe you can hang a paper lantern from it. The possibilities are endless!"

"Spats, why is our domain controller located in the third floor ladies restroom?" "For the ladies to put their pocketbooks on!"
posted by a young man in spats at 6:26 AM on February 25, 2010 [25 favorites]


Seriously, beagle's description of BCH's development makes me hate it even more.
posted by mpbx at 6:30 AM on February 25, 2010 [8 favorites]


May I recommend Bad British Architecture. One of my favourite blogs.

It's basically an innocent wooden shed getting fucked by a giant robotic cock.

THE DEVELOPMENT ENGAGES WITH THE STREET BY BUILDING A GIANT FUCKING WALL BETWEEN ITSELF AND THE PAVEMENT.

It's just acres of grey surface, undifferentiated apart from what appears to be four downpipes marching across the facade. Interesting how shit architects are always very precise about downpipes in their visualisations.

FAT SHED WITH TINY WINDOWS. THAT'S WHAT WE SHOULD EDUCATE THE VERY YOUNG IN THESE DAYS. IF IT FAILS AS A SCHOOL, YOU CAN ALWAYS TURN IT INTO A FUCKING DISTRIBUTION SHED.
posted by bright cold day at 6:31 AM on February 25, 2010 [12 favorites]


This is one of my favorite aspects.

You may have to accept being in the minority on that. For many of us, the full-volume semiotic incoherence can be wearying. During a discussion of the relative merits of various airports a couple of years ago, a reader of the Ask The Pilot column at Salon summed it up winningly:

Heathrow is a random conglomeration of pitifully ugly buildings of the kind often called 'utilitarian' -- a term that hints they were actually designed for some utility, which is not the case.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:31 AM on February 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


It took me a while, but I've really warmed to the Hubert H. Humphrey Building.
posted by ryanshepard at 6:32 AM on February 25, 2010


Huh? So buildings now need to have user manuals? I dunno, this is akin to saying that we don't get the intellectual underpinings of a cup designed to leak a little every time one takes a sip.

That's confusing the style with the function. If the building is hard to navigate or leaky, that's poor design and/or engineering. A lot of people never even go into Boston City Hall, and even fewer have to work there. When they say it's "ugly," they're not talking about the interior, they're talking about the exterior.
posted by explosion at 6:34 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


We gotta rock-a rock-a rock-a non-stop tonight at the Government Centre!
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 6:37 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


The first thing you see when you cross the Brooklyn Bridge is Verizon.
posted by swift at 6:38 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


For those interested in a deeper look at the design process behind Boston's City Hall, here's a piece from Historic New England (PDF) worth perusing.
posted by beagle at 6:38 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


You have to be taught the tenets of Brutalism before you can really appreciate Brutalist architecture.

Point me in the right direction, please. Because I really hate that stuff, and feel that DC would be better off without it.

Of course, I'm no paragon of taste. My favorite building that (other) people think is ugly is the Old Executive Office Building.
posted by JoanArkham at 6:41 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


I like Jackson Pollock alright. What I would object to is if all the existing art and furniture in my living room was removed, the fireplace blocked, and a giant Jackson Pollock was suspended in the ceiling in the middle of the room, so I couldn't travel through the house without crouching to go under it. And this was all done at my expense, but I couldn't sell the Pollock.

That seems to be what the Boston City Hall is.
posted by condour75 at 6:42 AM on February 25, 2010 [5 favorites]


Kind of like how Thomas Kinkade is a better artist than Jackson Pollock in too many people's eyes.

First of all, art is not the only, or even the major, goal of architecture. A building is a tool and as such functionality (and by that I mean "design" not "exposed guts") is the primary goal.

But even if we limit ourselves to aesthetics, I don't know why the only two options should be gingerbread and face-raping.
posted by DU at 6:42 AM on February 25, 2010 [7 favorites]


Dear internet fraud detective squad, station number 9

I think you got it wrong. This is way downtown somewhere.

The midtown building is 811 10th Avenue (at 53rd). I found this friendly flicker of it. It's kind of above Hell's Kitchen, but close.

I don't think either of these are particularly ugly. Of course, they are particularly creepy, but that is something else.
posted by hexatron at 6:43 AM on February 25, 2010


Reminds me of a comment Jerry Garcia once made. He once likened the Dead to "old whores and bad architecture," suggesting that eventually you gain respect if you hang around long enough.
posted by VicNebulous at 6:44 AM on February 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Brutalism doesn't seem terribly offensive to me but by god is it boring. Can anyone except the architects actually tell any of those 1960s university libraries apart from one another?

However, there are far worse things than Brutalism. And by "things" I mean giant owls.
posted by enn at 6:47 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


The giant owls are a little over the top (seewhatIdidthere) but at least it isn't gray concrete.

I see on Wikipedia that Brutalism was supposed to usher in a socialist utopia. You know how some people theorized that Dick Cheney might actually be a liberal trying to take down the GOP from the inside by making them overplay their hand?
posted by DU at 6:51 AM on February 25, 2010


OK explosion, give me an example of a well designed functional brutalist-style building. I actually do like some of them aesthetically (like le Courbusiers Chandigarh High Court), but having lived and worked inside (and close by) some of those type of buildings (parts of Mexico City are full of them) I just think the form is incapable of "human scale". Concrete just breeds an oppressive type of ungainly gigantism.
posted by Omon Ra at 6:55 AM on February 25, 2010


The Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang.
posted by Tlery at 6:59 AM on February 25, 2010


I used to live next to a hospital for the workers of the national oil company of Mexico. I kind of love-hate it. Here's another picture.
posted by Omon Ra at 6:59 AM on February 25, 2010


Wilco and Bob Newhart liked 'em, but I think they look like corn cob hard-ons.
posted by applemeat at 7:00 AM on February 25, 2010


I'll raise you "ugly" buildings done well! Champlain College, Trent University.
posted by generichuman at 7:01 AM on February 25, 2010


Brutalism in theory is great, as long as the building owner is willing to spend a little money maintaining the building. Otherwise you get filth and staining everywhere, which is what happens most of the time.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 7:02 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ah, yes. My home away from home: the [in]Humanities Building. As a tour guide, we all cheerfully told visitors that it was built so that, during the riots of the 60s, tear gas could spread through the ventilation system in under 10 seconds. (Which might explain the toxic fumes in the Art Department and the 40-degree temperatures during the summer.)

Looking at some of those pictures, I actually do have some nostalgia and respect for the Jenga-like style in which the floors are stacked on each other. Then I remember the ankle-deep indoor rivers and my consternation at trying to remember which stairways actually had outside doors or went to particular floors, and I'm not so sad that it's getting the wrecking ball in a couple of years.

Somehow Vilas Hall, its neighbor across the University Ave. bridge, always escapes notice, even though its side plaza is kind of decrepit and the layout is full of "you can't get there from here!" Maybe the warmer color of the brick makes a difference.
posted by Madamina at 7:06 AM on February 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


The Experimental Psychology department at Oxford University is pretty odd, architecurally. From street level, it's horrendously ugly - a squat, grey hulk, looking more like a fortress than anything (which seems quite appropriate, given the high levels of security required to keep out the animal rights protesters).

From the air, though (can't provide a photo, sadly, although they used to have one on their website), it's completely different. The concrete looks much brighter, and the multi-level design starts to make sense, as it looks something like those step pyramids you see in South America. It's symmetrical but nicely varied, and actually looks like somewhere you'd like to work.

Functionally it's not bad. It has some useful aspects (such as the fact that you can't get a mobile signal indoors, which helps audiovisual isolation experiments no end), although those seem to be rather more by luck than design (not too many mobile phones around in the 60s). And then it has some complete weirdnesses, like the main library being buried in the middle of the building and very depressing, to the point where they had to paint windows on the walls to make it look at least vaguely cheerful. Really, of all possible departments to do something odd like that, you probably wouldn't expect it from the psychologists...
posted by ZsigE at 7:13 AM on February 25, 2010


I can admire the intention of the architects and the use of lines and forms, but I have simply detested most architecture built in the post-war period. There are exceptions, but otherwise, I feel that they lack a lot in the form of grace and beauty of the building styles that came before them, like the Art Deco for example. My favorite period is generally from the late 19th to pre-war 20th. At the turn of the century, you had what felt like more attempts at beauty in even the simplest and inconsequential buildings, even if it meant a nearly insignificant arching bricked window or accents along the the roof line.

Part of my frustration stems from the Architecture school on my campus. Some years ago, they inhabited the former library building which has a classical style, complete with a once glorious reading room with great arching windows and a space that inspired the pursuit of knowledge. The reading room now has been turned into a virtual cubicle farm with no attempt to preserve the inward feeling or even appreciation to the interior trimmings. It's become a haggard version of itself. It's like a conscious disregard for the architectural foundation of the building.

Likewise, a grand art deco building's interior has been destroyed by decisions in the sixties and seventies to add more efficiency (office space), which have somewhat ripped the soul from the building. But more so, a walk on my campus is like a walk through the stages of American architecture from the 1870s to the present day. If one begins from the east where the sun rises and begins strolling west, you have beautiful brick buildings that give way to Collegiate Gothic structures that suddenly give way to modern structures that pale in the shadow of their constructed predecessors.

In regard to specific vast concrete buildings, to an extent I also find them somewhat menacing and cold. For many of them I feel an absent of spirit, but perhaps because rather than representing some explosion of intellectual leaps in the philosophy of architecture, it seems like two or three lost generations wasted on a style that was simply hard to bring into a successful cohesion and resulted in hundreds to thousands of minimalist buildings that generally failed to inspire for their intended purposes, and squat buildings that at this time simple often pale before the buildings that they replaced, either in physical location or in era.

The examples of Boston did not greatly impress me. I believe that while the city hall isn't nearly as ugly as so many seem to claim, it doesn't invoke the seat of civic government that I have in mind. Then, I think the finest such structures should echo the architectural styles of the cultures that are the underpinning of our democratic republic. You don't look at Boston City hall and think of the powerful philosophies of Locke or the words of Jefferson. Certainly, the style is revolutionary, but it is a revolutionary style that doesn't capture what was behind that revolutionary spirit of '76. That's why it fails for me. I hold nothing against folks who love the style, because ultimately architecture is a matter of taste and not all tastes are the same.
posted by Atreides at 7:13 AM on February 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


In New Haven, we have a large number of brutalist buildings. Not as large as the number of Dunkin Donuts, but close.
posted by Lazlo Hollyfeld at 7:20 AM on February 25, 2010


Two of my local favorite bad examples are the Hunter Museum and the hotel at Fall Creek Falls SP. These buildings have always struck me as arrogant, and to me that is the anti-intellectual architecture. They convey an attitude of here's my giant, utilitarian concrete box and fuck you if you don't like it.
posted by lost_cause at 7:21 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


I was haunted by these buildings on the U Chicago campus. I could not imagine anything pleasant happening in them.
posted by drowsy at 7:22 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Long "golden-hour" exposures do not a pretty building make.
posted by JBennett at 7:25 AM on February 25, 2010


Understanding some of the whys behind brutalist architecture doesn't really make me appreciate it much more. While you can draw parallels to other forms of art (Pollock, Picasso, other artists whose work has been accused of being ugly,) the difference is that you don't typically have to look at ugly art hanging in a gallery somewhere, while big brutalist buildings are in the face of everyone who goes anywhere near them, all the time. You can extoll their intellectual virtues all you want, but it won't make them any less of an eyesore if people don't find them visually pleasing.
posted by usonian at 7:26 AM on February 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


If you're building a building with lots of flat roofs, I recommend building it in a place where it rarely rains and even then keeping a couple of WetVacs on hand for the inevitable and often messy leaks.

Additionally, the often-popular spiral cement slab staircases that tend to show up as the one little taste of whimsy in brutalist buildings are only there to tempt, and then cause grave injury to curious children. I know whereof I speak.

My guess is the ugliest building in Australia would have to be this one. (Federation Square, Melbourne)

That building goes well beyond ugly and into the hurts-my-eyes, hurts-my-feelings camp. Well done, Melbourne.
posted by thivaia at 7:27 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


It took me a while, but I've really warmed to the Hubert H. Humphrey Building.

Not only is it ugly, but it looks like every single other ugly concrete building.

Look, generations from now, people will still lament the loss of the old penn station. When they tear down Boston City Hall, it won't be long before most everyone forgets it was even there, and those who do remember it will regard its loss with a sense of palpable relief.
posted by deanc at 7:27 AM on February 25, 2010 [10 favorites]


Of course, I would still take brutalism over (expletive).
posted by thivaia at 7:37 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


The clear winner for me is the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, on 16th street in DC. Unfortunately, the congregation is planning on tearing it down.
posted by god hates math at 7:43 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Foe of Brutalism, James Howard Kunstler, in his TED talk, describes why ugly buildings, and collections of ugly spaces, foster apathy towards one's own homeland:

"when you degreade the public realm, you degrade the quality of civic life. When we have enough of these places that are not worth caring about, we're going to have a nation that's not worth defending."

(featuring Boston City Hall Plaza)
posted by ikahime at 7:43 AM on February 25, 2010 [5 favorites]


When he saw this (then new) building on his 1882 American visit, Oscar Wilde said it looked like "a castellated monstrosity with pepper boxes stuck all over it."
posted by applemeat at 7:51 AM on February 25, 2010


Christ. Listening to this discussion - like so many about postwar architecture - is like a glimpse into a terrifying alternative universe where rock and roll never caught on beyond a few highbrows and most people still really dig big band. (Runs away screaming.)
posted by WPW at 7:52 AM on February 25, 2010 [4 favorites]


To everyone who says they love the Barbican in London. Yeah, I like it too. But I'm realistic and aware enough to realise that the Barbican is a total anomaly.

It's what happens when you build what looks like a nasty concrete council estate (project if you're American)... but you use really good quality interior fittings, you put it in a fantastic location, you plonk a world class arts complex in the middle and you populate it largely with rich middle class professionals.

So, yeah, the Barbican's great. But there are plenty of similar looking complexes in East London and South London and Sheffield and Glasgow which are hell on earth.
posted by rhymer at 7:54 AM on February 25, 2010


I've always thought the Provo and Ogden Mormon temples were pretty hideous.

Apparently the Mormons think so too, as they're now planning to renovate Ogden's, although there are no announced plans for Provo yet.
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 7:56 AM on February 25, 2010


I put it to you: the most horrible library on the face of the earth
posted by Omon Ra at 8:05 AM on February 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Buffalo City Courts Building.

I'm surprised you picked that and not the entirety of UB North Campus (many links).

(I like it well enough myself. It's got a certain Logan's Run charm, the no-windows rap is just wrong, and the habitrails are awfully convenient in winter. And the Ellicott Center Legoland across the street is kind of fun.)
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:05 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


generic human: I'll raise you "ugly" buildings done well! Champlain College, Trent University.

Hey! I lived in that res for a year and it is definitely the best looking residence on campus...This or this has got to be better than the big block of cheese building. Although Trent itself is an interesting mishmash of architectural ideas.
posted by hepta at 8:08 AM on February 25, 2010


The Boston Service Center is ugly, and has an equally ugly sister in Birmingham's Central Library. Inside, the library is one of the worst buildings I've ever used, so it fails on both counts.

In Sheffield, we have the delightful Moore Streeet substation, which admittedly has a hard job, but makes the worst of it. A lot more stuff has thankfully been demolished in the last couple of decades, though Park Hill (only kinda Brutalist, but still ugly in the way it works) is being refurbished.

Brutalism is unhuman in its scale, function and esthetic. No amount of architecture wankery will redeem it, and no amount of patronizing will make the "common person" like it.
posted by Sova at 8:12 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


hepta: Hey! I lived in that res for a year and it is definitely the best looking residence on campus...This or this has got to be better than the big block of cheese building. Although Trent itself is an interesting mishmash of architectural ideas.

I lived there, too! I can actually see the window of my room in that photo. A/B staircase, 2000-2001.*

I find Gzowski college to be actually offensive. I mean, it's an ugly building on its own, but it actually mars Ron Thom's original design for the campus and the way it fits into the environment.
posted by generichuman at 8:18 AM on February 25, 2010


A gift from the USSR to the people of Cuba.
posted by pianomover at 8:31 AM on February 25, 2010


Man, I love Brutalism. I wish we had more of it here in LA. I am very jealous of Boston's Government Center.

I don't agree with all this rambling about whether it's inherently intellectual or cold or inhuman or whatever, or whether you have to understand architecture to appreciate it. I don't know the first thing about architecture; I wouldn't even know the name "Brutalism" if it hadn't occurred to me one day to go look up the name for that weird concrete-and-glass style that I liked so much. I always just thought it was fucking cool-looking.

People are overthinking this. It's a big tangled mess of concrete; it looks way different from most other buildings. It's not gonna be for everyone. But some folks will think it's cool.
posted by equalpants at 8:33 AM on February 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yeah, most of the brutalist buildings built in Britain as council housing aren't anywhere near as nice as the Barbican. The Glasgow Corporation built them really enthusiastically shortly after WW2, both because loads of houses had been flattened in the bombing and also because Glasgow was ridiculously overcrowded. The story goes is that in the 70s the City Council was the biggest landlord in Britain\Europe\the world (depending on who you asked) - I had a brief poke around Google to see if it was true but couldn't find much one way or t'other. Anyway, there were a bunch of big brutalist slabs like the subject of the post built around the city in places like Possil and Castlemilk, as well as a bunch of equally grim but not so monumental houses like this. The folk living there call them 'deserts wi windaes', and the contrast with the Barbican is pretty stark. I suppose it's all context - if your concrete slab is right by a load of arts facilities and full of folk who are reasonably well off, it's gaunna seem much nicer than if it's right off on the edge of the city and full of folk living in grinding poverty.

(If you're interested in the whole Glasgow council housing thing there's a nifty wee read here)
posted by Dim Siawns at 8:36 AM on February 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


The Carpenter Center at Harvard is the most aesthetically pleasing example of Brutalist architecture that I've been in, but in general I think the entire movement is a great example of A Bad Idea.

That said, I do like how some Brutalist buildings do a good job of telling you what they're there for. The Hoover FBI Building on Penn Ave. has "Police State" on every facade.
posted by longdaysjourney at 8:38 AM on February 25, 2010


It was probably my love of brutalism that turned me into an architect. As a kid I spent a lot of time on university campuses around the world so I was exposed to it from a very early age; perhaps it's a bit like Marmite in that way. The Robarts Library at UWO, the stations of the Montreal Metro system, Arthur Ericksen, Toyo Ito....there's something about these soaring, cathedral-like spaces that really touches and inspires me (and that delicious smell of concrete in the stairwells!).
But anyway, I'm not going to try and win anybody over, I just wanted to point out that Jonathan Richman sings a great song about Boston's Government Center.
It's called Government Center. Even if you hate the building you might like the song a little.

Aside: some people seem to think 'brutalism' can mean any really big 'ugly' building. The name actually derives from the French for raw concrete (beton brut) and refers specifically to formed concrete buildings.
posted by Flashman at 8:38 AM on February 25, 2010


I think brutalist architecture looks great compared to something like this pile of vomit.
posted by get off of my cloud at 8:53 AM on February 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


I have a lot of appreciation for Brutalist architecture and history will definitely judge us for tearing down some of these buildings (heh, not all of them though!). But these are the same guys who gleefully razed all the pretty Victorian buildings that I like to look at in old black and white photos so, y'know, whatever. What goes around, comes around. I tend to think of all Modernists as wanting to 'Kill the Street' and in America at least, they were pretty damn successful and I fucking hate them for it.
posted by GalaxieFiveHundred at 8:59 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Rhymer you make some good points here, but there is more to the success of the Barbican than that. And indeed the late flowering of places like the (not Brutalist) Trellick Tower shows that a lot of the hell holes you cite are like that because of misguided government policy and the pathologies of the residents. These are problems of policy and people, not architecture. Post 1968 social housing the UK is based on extreme means tests that favours only the very most needy, troubled or frankly troublesome people. The working poor who they estates were meant for are largely shut out in favour of intensely warehousing people with serious issues of one sort or another. Put a large number of them together with no counterbalancing demography and that's what makes them hellholes. When they have a powerful residents association, a good social mix of tenants, security, etc they work just fine. Goldfinger himself was saddened by what people did to his creations “I built skyscrapers for people to live in there and now they messed them up- disgusting.” No-one forced Robin Hood Gardens to become what it has, it was policymakers and ultimately people who did.
posted by The Salaryman at 9:02 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


There is a great book called Concrete Toronto, that works as a social and aesthetic defense of Brutalism in Toronto, and by extension for the style as a whole. I still get made fun of when I say I love OISE though. It is mostly the proportions, and how the windows on the top half are slightly recessed.
posted by PinkMoose at 9:02 AM on February 25, 2010


link to OISE
posted by PinkMoose at 9:02 AM on February 25, 2010


Man, I love Brutalism. I wish we had more of it here in LA. I am very jealous of Boston's Government Center.

I don't agree with all this rambling about whether it's inherently intellectual or cold or inhuman or whatever, or whether you have to understand architecture to appreciate it. I don't know the first thing about architecture; I wouldn't even know the name "Brutalism" if it hadn't occurred to me one day to go look up the name for that weird concrete-and-glass style that I liked so much. I always just thought it was fucking cool-looking.


When you live or work near these things, the novelty wears off. Once the novelty wears off, the building is still there.

People are overthinking this. It's a big tangled mess of concrete; it looks way different from most other buildings. It's not gonna be for everyone. But some folks will think it's cool.

Folks who live elsewhere.
posted by Anything at 9:05 AM on February 25, 2010 [6 favorites]


It's a big tangled mess of concrete

In general, if that were the case, I'd like it more -- recalling some of the more organic Art Nouveau forms of the early 20th century in concrete and glass would be very interesting to me.

But the fact is that a lot of Brutalist architecture is incredibly imposing, with massive flat stained concrete surfaces that are completely out of scale with your average human being (which I suppose could be a good thing depending on the use of the building). I think it can be done very well (I actually really like the Hirshhorn in DC), but in general I'd say good Brutalist buildings are the exception rather than the rule. It requires a fair amount more attention to detail, I think, than most architects in the '60s and '70s were willing to put in to them1.

Anyway, the building I love to hate on is the Centre Pompidou in Paris. It's a very conceptual building, with all of the mechanical and electrical systems on the outside (including the escalators). As much as I want to say it's ugly, it's really interesting for me as an engineer to have the functional systems exposed -- and color coded -- and out there for everyone to be forced to see, rather than hidden away as they usually are. The problem with this is that the design of the interior is absolutely godawful, and makes for a fundamentally confusing space. As I remember, there was basically no natural light in it either.

For me, the ugliest buildings are the ones that are incredibly bland and functional without having any kind of architectural merit, like the one I'm working in right now, though that picture does not do its boring hideousness justice. I'd rather have more buildings based on visually striking "visions" even if they're aggressively offensive to people, because that is more emotion than the vast majority of banal, uninspired architecture engenders.


1I'm not an architect or art student, so I can't say I know the history of Brutalism particularly well, other than what I've gleaned from my architect mother and graphic designer girlfriend. But it seems to me that there was a burst of it from major architects that was very influential and inspired a lot of poorly thought out copycat designs from smaller architecture studios.

posted by malthas at 9:08 AM on February 25, 2010


Reminds me of a comment Jerry Garcia once made. He once likened the Dead to "old whores and bad architecture," suggesting that eventually you gain respect if you hang around long enough.

That's actually a line from Chinatown, but it was the first thing I thought of when I saw this thread, too. I don't live in Boston and can't really speak to the Government Center. I know it's ugly as all sin, and beagle's explanation of why it's as ugly and function-free is it apparently is reads essentially as, "The architect was a pretentious dick and didn't give a shit about anybody having to use the building or look at it." That said, it's at least interesting, which is more than you can say for most of the brutalist hate-structures marring our cities.

But I'm from Northeast Oklahoma, and when we build ugly, we go all the fucking way with it. The Price Tower. The Bartlesville Community Center. The Oral Roberts Hospital. We do ugly right dammit!

Finally, omonra, I agree that the Lauinger Library is hideous - like, insidiously so, especially when the rest of Georgetown looks like Hogwarts perched over the Potomac. But NYU's Bobst library is not only the worst library on earth, but in the running for worst place of any kind on earth.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:09 AM on February 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Since I lived a few blocks from it growing up, mine would have to be the old Louisiana Power & Light building in Algiers Point in New Orleans. It's actually completely tiled with "LPL" (look closely).
posted by brundlefly at 9:17 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Marina City, Chicago.

Ugh.
posted by tzikeh at 9:20 AM on February 25, 2010


I have to say, a school of architecture called "brutalism" is pretty metal.
posted by brundlefly at 9:24 AM on February 25, 2010


Here in Minneapolis we have a nice high-rise example of Brutalism, nicely softened by tacky multi-colored panels which caused me to really like the complex when I was a child. Today the place just makes me queasy. Concrete floors and walls! What a selling point.
posted by Ickster at 9:26 AM on February 25, 2010


The destruction of this (ugly) building/shed at the Illinois Institute of Technology campus was considered a tragedy by many people, but not by me.
posted by worpet at 9:27 AM on February 25, 2010


I should point out that, when it was built way back when (completed in 1901) Philadelphia City Hall was subjected to many criticisms similar in tone to those now leveled at brutalist architecture.
posted by Mister_A at 9:27 AM on February 25, 2010


Haven't posted in the blue for a while, and never thought that I'd see an article about me in the blue... but seeing as this thread has a lot of interest in it, I'll point you to here: Heroic. Pinkmoose, we actually had an exhibit previously on Concrete Toronto (where I grew up), and it only made sense to start looking at Boston, since the number of buildings built in concrete in that time-frame is astonishing.

We are interested in looking at this time period, as it's an interesting one both from a cultural standpoint, but also from a business one: the profession of architecture changed dramatically in that period (the emergence of the 'anonymous' office in The Architects Collaborative, the change in the structure of construction companies from an all-in-house to one of sub-consultants and outsourced labor). There's a number of good interviews and writings on the Heroic site. I'd recommend the McKinnell (who is the farthest from architectural-dickness as you can get), and Tad Stahl.

Unfortunately, we are losing the people who built these and participated in their making, so there's an archival aspect as well.
posted by grimley at 9:31 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


The German word for something like this is Bausünde -- building-sin.

Or gesamtkunstwerk -- total work of art. Depending on your point of view, the two words could be antonyms or synonyms.

Another pair of potentially useful terms here could be "ducks" versus "decorated sheds" as proposed by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown in Learning from Las Vegas. A duck, according to the authors, is “Where the architectural systems of space, structure, and program are submerged and distorted by an overall symbolic form. This kind of building- becoming-sculpture we call the duck in honor of the duck-shaped drive-in, ‘The Long Island Duckling,’ illustrated in God’s Own Junkyard by Peter Blake." While invoking the The L.I. Duckling (U.S. West-coasters, think Brown Derby Restaurant), they mean late modern architecture: the work of Paul Rudolph (as illustrated in the FPP's slide show), Boston City Hall, et cetera.

A decorated shed, on the other hand, is a conventional structure with its symbolic and metaphorical content generally limited to the facade or a sign. Populist, legible, logical and imminently functional, decorated sheds are still best illustrated by design practices in Las Vegas, a conventional steel frame casino and hotel dressed up like the New York skyline for example.

The long view could be La Tourette vs The Portland Building. The former is arguably the essential precedent for Boston City Hall; the latter is a criticism of the former and the harbinger of the populist, postmodern architecture of the 1980s in the U.S.

Combining the current establishment-expressionist public architectures of Gehry, Hadid, Eisenman, Libeskind, Mayne, Foster, et al, with the popular resurgence of mid-century housing and furniture, c.f. Dwell Magazine, the preservationist/institutional and public reassessment of late modern architecture proposed by the FFP article is inevitable and already well underway.
posted by xod at 9:31 AM on February 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


I used to work at the Walters Art Museum, before they stuck that glass atrium on the side. The biggest part of the museum is a Brutalist concrete box - well, actually, it's weird, since it's mostly glass but there are huge concrete screens over the glass to prevent the sunlight getting in and destroying the art yet allowing light to leak in around the edges. The Brutalist building is stuck to the side of a 19th century replica of an Italian Renaissance palazzo which in turn is stuck to the side of 1) a really glorious turn of the century townhouse and 2) an older, highly respectable, early 19th century straight up and down townhouse. The transitions between buildings are a bit uneasy - hey! Let's go straight from white marble down this nifty concrete spiral staircase! - but it's kind of a cool concept. Also, it was completely renovated about ten years ago and functions a little better now.

However! The story I was told as a teenager back in the 70s and 80s was that Brutalist architecture was intentionally designed to survive atom bombs. The reason it was so commonly used for museums and libraries was so the pitiful survivors of apocalypse, crawling about in their zero sum culture, could eventually rediscover civilization, intact inside a concrete shell. I have no idea if there's any truth to this urban legend but I always really liked it.
posted by mygothlaundry at 9:33 AM on February 25, 2010


navelgazer you are right. That's just a majesty of awful!

now then:
Curtis Hixon Hall, built in 1964 and demolished in 1993, just as it was becoming beautiful again.
posted by toodleydoodley at 9:34 AM on February 25, 2010


When you live or work near these things, the novelty wears off. Once the novelty wears off, the building is still there.

No way. I have worked near these things plenty, and never got sick of them. I don't like it because it's novel; I like it because I think concrete and glass look really cool together. Especially at twilight, when the brightness of the sky just about matches the brightness of the lights inside, but of course they've got very different color temperatures, so you've got this beautiful contrast between the cool blue exterior and the warm yellow light coming from the windows--and this from a building that's just flat gray the rest of the day!

But NYU's Bobst library is not only the worst library on earth, but in the running for worst place of any kind on earth.

Aww, really? Man, I miss Bobst. That was easily my favorite building on campus. I always liked to study in there, especially on the higher floors, where you could see out through the atrium.

Man, you guys are breaking my heart...
posted by equalpants at 9:36 AM on February 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


One of the funniest things about the LP&L building mentioned by brundlefly above is that, although it's perched right on a point of the Mississippi River (map) with a priceless (well, multi-million-dollar) view of the New Orleans skyline and the French Quarter and a panorama of the river on three sides... there are no windows! (Other than a glass-walled room on the roof, which you can't see in the photo.)
posted by muffuletta at 9:36 AM on February 25, 2010


The ugly architecture that defined my childhood in Decatur, Alabama:

The Morgan County Courthouse
Decatur City Hall
Decatur Public Library

I think they're ugly, but I feel affection for them, both because I'm just so used to them and because they were all (I think) part of an initiative begun by my grandfather when he was mayor called "Operation New Decatur." I'm not sure how successful (or not) the project was.
posted by ocherdraco at 9:42 AM on February 25, 2010


Seattle Public Library

Niagara Falls Public Library

Ottawa Public Library

Robarts Library at University of Toronto

the most horrible library on the face of the Earth (Lauinger)

Birmingham's Central Library

NYU's Bobst library

Northwestern University Library

And they wonder why kids don't read.
posted by tzikeh at 9:43 AM on February 25, 2010


(Runs away screaming.)

Don't let the giant ugly bare concrete door hit you on the way out.
posted by pracowity at 9:51 AM on February 25, 2010


Salaryman, some truth there, although again, the Trellick is exceptional - it's just off the Portobello road which accounts for its popularity with hipster types. It's late flowering coincided with the gentrification of Notting Hill (and I don't doubt that if it were surrounded by square miles buildings like itself it would never have flowered).

That said, you're right - these places don't absolutely have to be horrible. But I also think that it's true that if the demographic mix means that the propensity to become horrible is high, then brutalist architecture certainly doesn't help.

Robin Hood Gardens (E London) is probably more representative. Architects fawn over it but the majority of residents hate the place and can't wait to see it flattened. I can't help but think a well designed building is one that serves its residents, not just the design community. And there is some truth to the stereotype of the modernist architect who lives in a listed Georgian terrace...
posted by rhymer at 9:56 AM on February 25, 2010


I loves me the Birmingham New St Signal Box.

I wish there was more of that in the UK not the hideous dross that the vast majority of new builds are nowadays
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 10:05 AM on February 25, 2010


So as not to get off topic, I asked for suggestions on the proverbial "good" library here.
posted by Omon Ra at 10:06 AM on February 25, 2010


This is the soul sucking state Public Library where I live.
posted by Omon Ra at 10:17 AM on February 25, 2010


Also, the soul sucking state congress and the soul sucking state auditorium.
posted by Omon Ra at 10:19 AM on February 25, 2010


I really just don't get the de Young Museum in San Francisco. I know they spent years and years designing and building and carefully setting it into the environment and winning praise from all sides, but when I finally saw it last year, all I could think was...wow, it looks like it's disintegrating already. It can only be appreciated from a distance.

I think brutalist architecture looks great compared to something like this pile of vomit.

Oh my...you know, I was prepared for pretty much anything except the literal depiction that turned out to be.
posted by kittyprecious at 10:19 AM on February 25, 2010


Christ. Listening to this discussion - like so many about postwar architecture - is like a glimpse into a terrifying alternative universe where rock and roll never caught on beyond a few highbrows and most people still really dig big band. (Runs away screaming.)

That's an interesting analogy, but flawed. I agree that to anyone who enjoys postwar architecture (Modernist/New International/Brutalist/Post-Modernist) -- and there have to be a number of people who pay for these buildings that do -- then what came before must look twee and precious. Still, for the overwhelming majority of the populace, it seems that postwar buildings are neutral at best and offensive at worst. In other words, this alternate world you posit did not see the Count Basie and Glen Miller and Lionel Hampton give way to Buddy Holly and the Beatles and Hendrix, but moved straight on to Skinny Puppy and Cannibal Corpse and Marilyn Manson.

Despite the better part of a century to do it in, postwar architecture has yet to develop a coherent vocabulary. Show someone a neo-classicist building like the Prado or an Art Nouveau building like, well, all of central Riga or a Richardsonian Romanesque like the American Museum of Natural History and they will have an immediate reaction. Some like it, some don't, but the building declares what it is all about and everyone understand the declaration. So much postwar architecture, though, still cannot communicate anything intelligible to its viewers and users.

This is why university campuses, where one often finds a lot of postwar architecture in a tightly confined area, are interesting places to study how users engage with it. Every university campus I have ever seen has urban myths grow up around some if its newer buildings: "the architect was drunk", "the contractors read the plans upside down," "they counted the votes wrong and the entry that came in last place won the design competition," and the evergreen "the architect did not account for the weight if the books in the library, so it is sinking" -- these tell you that whatever the architect was trying to say with his work is not getting through.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 10:21 AM on February 25, 2010 [6 favorites]


I'm probably multiply biased, as I manage a silly architectural folly in Baltimore built in 1910 that's often described as ugly by mean critical types, but I love the gorgeous shaggy-wood brutalist Morris Mechanic Theater, which I can see perfectly from the top of the clock tower. I'm also a fan of the original core of Columbia, Maryland, which was near where I grew up in Scaggsville and was a city-scale work of 60s brutalism and adaptive reuse before the 80s swamped it in grim nowheresville architecture. It was great, with raw concrete, rough-plank wood sided houses, communal green spaces and walking trails everywhere, and amazing sideways sculptural traffic lights that eventually disappeared because colorblind people complained.
posted by sonascope at 10:21 AM on February 25, 2010


@richochet biscuit - Just heard James Kunstler rattling off the "weight of the books" BS on another of his interminable podcasts. Sigh.
posted by sonascope at 10:25 AM on February 25, 2010


This is my favourite ugly building, the Belfield campus of UCD in Dublin.
posted by LN at 10:34 AM on February 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Sears headquarters in Toronto.

Speaking of Sears (though it was originally built and inhabited by Eatons), I've often felt that this back-of-a-toilet-bowl monstrosity found at the corner of Georgia + Granville in Vancouver would be much improved by a randomly fired missile that more or less blew half of it to smithereens but left the other half standing. Sculptors, landscapers and other related artists could then be called upon to turn the ruin into a combination public park/monument which would stand as a grim (yet strangely, gaudily beautiful) reminder of how FUCKING STUPID IT IS for a city to allow greedy developers and braindead architects to do essentially whatever they want with the single busiest intersection (certainly for pedestrian traffic) in the entire city.

Oh, and there would need to be over-sized statues erected of the said developers and architects, but these could never be cleaned, just slowly buried over the decades in tons of pigeon shit.
posted by philip-random at 10:43 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


An architect friend of mine refers to Atlanta's High Museum of Art as "White Castle World Headquarters" and to the Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson airport terminals, with their underground automated "people mover" trains to the arrival/departure gate concourses as "The Bomb Shelter to the Buses."

I hate those structures, but love his snark.
posted by paulsc at 10:43 AM on February 25, 2010


Some of the Brutalist buildings in the slideshow accompanying the article are quite nice in their own way. Boston City Hall is not one of them.

Successful local government should not be hiding behind the facade of East German/Soviet totalitarianism, sorry. It's godawful ugly, lopsided, and an eyesore. It looks like a cinder block on stilts. Yes, I know it's meant to be "riot-proof" that doesn't make me appreciate it any more or less.

And yes, the fact that it rises from a brick oasis of awfulness doesn't help either. It practically radiates unfriendliness and unwelcome to the people of Boston. Which is exactly the opposite of what a good civic structure should do, in my opinion. No wonder we need to "make the secretaries feel better".

Contrasted with the geometric lovliness of 133 Federal or the sweep of the State Service Center and it looks particularly inept. Just because a movement has haters, it doesn't mean you have defend the worst examples of something.
posted by davros42 at 10:44 AM on February 25, 2010


I grew up completely disappointed that in the city of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, of the University of Virginia campus, this edifice served as the city hall. The only nod to the architectural richness of the region was to simply put statues of Jefferson and other famous Virginians on the front. Oh, and they used more brick, less concrete.
posted by Atreides at 10:44 AM on February 25, 2010


..there was a burst of it from major architects that was very influential and inspired a lot of poorly thought out copycat designs from smaller architecture studios.

Yes, or more likely, cheaply made knock-offs from architecture studios of all sizes. If you don't take the time (spend the money) to build something appropriate for the site and function, I don't care what kind of architecture it is, it's a bad building. I think most people forget that bad examples of Moderne, Richardson Romanesque, &c. have often been torn down already. People are also more willing to accept flaws in buildings that seem "old", while modern buildings have no such buffer. Which is just fine, I think- implicit in the Modern aesthetic is that there are problems being solved and functionality increased, so if that's not happening, there's a flaw in the execution. Though if you've manged to build something appealing in other ways, people will overlook many functionality issues; Frank Lloyd Wright is a great example of an architect that often made poorly engineered, poorly scaled buildings that are given a pass because of the wonderful aesthetic qualities and response to the environment they exhibit.

Unfortunately for Brutalism, it's a cheap, easy style to build quickly. Fewer windows means even cheaper, so any budget constraints imposed by city councils or developers are going to be obvious, and that's what happened in many places. Add to the fact that concrete is a poor choice in cold, wet climates, and you have failure all around. Brick and brick masons are more expensive, (and there are Brutalist buildings made of brick; concrete is not a requirement for the style in spite of the etymology of the term), so in the middle of the last century when cities were trying to reinvent themselves, concrete was chosen whether it was appropriate or not. These crappy buildings shouldn't define the whole genre, though.

Seattle Public Library
...
And they wonder why kids don't read.


The Seattle Public Library is not Brutalist, it's Modern. It also happens to be a lovely place to read, especially on rainy days. Full of kids when I was last there.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:23 AM on February 25, 2010


Crap, almost forgot another wonderful brutalist landmark in my area--the original DC Metro system, which is, to me, a kind of enormous cathedral of going-somewhereism. I always have a hard time taking anyone seriously once they've expressed any kind of distaste for the place, which is both a cave-like mathematical womb and the world of the future at once.
posted by sonascope at 11:26 AM on February 25, 2010 [7 favorites]


The defenses of brutalism/ugly buildings here seem to amount to, "it is so sophisticated that the rest of you small minded people cannot possibly understand how important it is."

It was innovative because it was speculated that the ability to pour large amounts of concrete very quickly to construct buildings would be a money saving innovation that would allow the public to be housed and served quickly and inexpensively. Added to this was a philosophical veneer surrounding it that declared that we'd be better off if we abandoned things that were ornamental and non-functional, because it reflected a lot of dishonest bourgeois aspirations that we needed to move away from (though this was more due to the nature of the construction methods and materials).

The result was a lot of crappy places to live and work that ended up being semi-permanent scars on the landscape. Boston City Hall's plaza was not an unfortunate accident-- it fits in well with the very mindset of the architectural style from that era.
posted by deanc at 11:27 AM on February 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


sonascope, I love the Metro. Really, really beautiful.
posted by brundlefly at 11:31 AM on February 25, 2010


sonascope: I remember the first time I was in DC, going down to the metro with my sister and shouting, "Whoa! It's like you get to go on Space Mountain every day!"

Living here now, I still think it's cool, though I miss the variety of station types you get with the NY Subway.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:37 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


I can't believe so many people think the Marina City Towers are ugly! They aren't really brutalist, are they? Then again, one of my favorite buildings in Chicago is the Aon Center,
precisely because it is so magnificently inhuman and badass.

I'm also surprised that no one's brought up the famous car park from the original Get Carter yet....
posted by thewrongparty at 11:37 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Seattle Public Library is not Brutalist, it's Modern. It also happens to be a lovely place to read, especially on rainy days. Full of kids when I was last there.

There is nothing whatever about that building that says "come in and read books". I've driven past all four sides of that block and I still can't tell which side is the front. Maybe the architect did that on purpose, but not only can I not tell which side is the front, I can't see anything that resembles a front door. How do you even go into this thing? It doesn't look like a place for the public to come and go; it looks like a place for people who know its secrets to do mysterious things in. It's not a public space, it's an evil villain's lair.
posted by Mars Saxman at 11:39 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


The most ugly architecture in the world? Suburbia.
posted by stepheno at 11:45 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Crap, almost forgot another wonderful brutalist landmark in my area--the original DC Metro system

Have you seen this? It's L'Enfant (I think) before the tracks were installed. Freaking gorgeous.
posted by god hates math at 11:50 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


I always have a hard time taking anyone seriously once they've expressed any kind of distaste for the [The DC Metro], which is both a cave-like mathematical womb and the world of the future at once.

One problem with the DC Metro is that pretty much every station is identical looking, making it easier to miss your stop or misjudge your distance to your destination if you're not paying 100% attention at all times.
posted by mpbx at 11:53 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure I would defend brutalist architecture as "so sophisticated that the rest of you small minded people cannot possibly understand how important it is," because that's not really a defense. I'd defend good brutalist architecture in the same way I'd defend good architecture of any era, by how it works and feels, how it settles into the landscape or how it asserts itself above it.

I grew up in a two hundred year-old log house that was essentially architecture-free, and I loved the thick walls, the exposed logs in the room we'd stripped of plaster, the little hand-hewn chips and marks in the 4x6 joists. My best friend, on the other hand, lived in a wonderful piece of early-seventies brutalist architecture, with forty-foot ceilings, stripes of windows set in unexpected places, and curving raw concrete walls that were left as they were when the formwork was removed, with grain and reversed knotholes and all. In each case, there's a way the materials used to build the building are just left to be what they are, which is part of what can be great about brutalism.

Is concrete ugly?

The last thirty years have been some kind of anti-concrete rampage, with everything hiding behind veneers of stone and vitreous tile and paint and metal cladding, mostly in reaction to what people never could shake their elitist hatred over. Hell, I spent the first year of my employment at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore as the head engineer of the mosaic project that paneled over some brilliantly-executed curved brutalist walls with mirrored mosaics, and as a concrete lover, I was more than a little sad to see it all go (though the mosaic was my baby, so I got used to it). The fads come and go, but there's really nothing wrong with any material. It's how you use it, how you honor its capabilities and form, and how you make it a part of a landscape or an impediment to the place.

The problem is that there's no ability to discern, it seems, and that people look at the Hirshhorn and the FBI Building in DC as if they're the same thing. In time, the prejudices would fade, and the triumphs of 60s/70s brutalism would emerge, but people have been more zealous about destroying those places than almost any other school or periiod of architecture. Time will tell, but it's running out.
posted by sonascope at 11:57 AM on February 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


The metro is awesome, in a "this is the 1960s idea of the future" sort of way. It is, however, beset by systemic problems, one of which is the fact that the system is treated as though it were a piece of public sculpture where any changes that may affect the aesthetics are treated with great suspicion and beset with lots of controversy. There was a huge public row when it came to putting canopies over the outdoor escalators to protect them from rain.

It also has had problems adjusting to the needs of the future. With so many people using it, the ability to quickly add an express line would have been useful, but that's either impossible or simply cost-prohibitive.
posted by deanc at 11:57 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


... NYU's Bobst library...

This is, as far as I'm concerned, an evil, evil building. No wonder students have killed themselves there. Horrible. Hated it when I was a student there, the lighting alone was like working inside Satan's microwave.

(... The Seattle Central Library is another really nasty piece of work. All the initial, hyped-up praise heaped on it - and on the "starchitect" Koolhaas - just added to my scorn. It's an anti-library.)
posted by Auden at 11:59 AM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Successful local government should not be hiding behind the facade of East German/Soviet totalitarianism sorry. It's godawful ugly, lopsided, and an eyesore.

This much-beloved and charming Art Deco building is the city hall in my new city. To get something as simple as a dog license or birth certificate requires a trip in a 69 year-old elevator to dingy and cramped office on the 13th floor. The building is drafty and cold, and because it was built with a spirit of optimism it is now half empty. I've heard that it leaks.

Boston was my former city, and I ran a business there. I had to go to City Hall for permits and fees, and even a dog license. Boston's City Hall has a floorplan that only an idiot could get lost in, there are no time consuming and expensive elevator rides for everyday services and there is plenty of room for queues at the clerk's windows. Easy to get in, easy to get out. If I had to choose, I would pick this building over the other every time.

That said, the city government in Buffalo is entrenched, stagnant and corrupt. The permitting processes here are long affairs, and I wouldn't want to do business here. On top of that, the surrounding city has been in a slow decline since the 80s. Boston, on the other hand has updated many parts of its permitting processes. There is corruption, sure, but nothing near the levels we see here. There is no one who could say that the city government of Boston is hiding and unsuccessful, or that the city is in decline.

To say that a city government is unsuccessful because the building isn't pretty is just plain weird. Local government is much more than the building that houses it.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 12:04 PM on February 25, 2010


Carleton University's Architecture Building is pretty freaking ugly. Strangely enough, when I was going there their architecture program was quite highly regarded. This one looks like it was designed as an undergrad project.
posted by Kirk Grim at 12:38 PM on February 25, 2010


This is my favourite ugly building, the Belfield campus of UCD in Dublin.

posted by LN at 5:34 PM


I love it too, and I'm studying on a nearby (brick and Masonic) campus of UCD. Belfield's considered such fair game that even the student president takes shots at it in the media, but I was walking across through Belfield this week during snow and rain, and it's got some fucking power - the walkways keep you dry, and every building has presence, as stained as the concrete is, and looking out from the top floor of the James Joyce library gives you a view of the rooftops, small pools of rain on them, looking like another future. It makes me pretty sad that it's so hated, not (only) because I'm a snobbish asshole, but because it totally brings me joy and it's a pity other people don't get that too. I want to show them the boardmarks on the Sports Centre, or the elegant cast window drip detail on the Ag Science facade, or how smooth the coffering is in the library undercroft, or the sweep of the steps by the lake when you stand at a certain angle. And maybe they'd still hate it then.

My defense of Brutalism is that I find it and its motivations beautiful. Shit quality in finishings and materials mar some of it, but ditto bad architecture in every other style and period and form. The consolation to getting into heated arguments with people who hate it is that I genuinely get happy from those carparks and office blocks, ones I use and know and have worked in and love in spite of knowing.
posted by carbide at 12:48 PM on February 25, 2010 [5 favorites]


Ickster, I love Riverside Plaza. It may be my favorite tower in Minneapolis. I've often thought it would be awesome to paint all the colored panels in glow-in-the-dark paint so we'd get a mosaic of the building every night.
posted by mrbula at 12:55 PM on February 25, 2010


Carbide, I know what you mean, I studied at UCD for four years. My favourite view was from the windows in the music department, which look out towards the Joyce Library and the lake. One thing Belfield does really well, in my opinion, is to contrast gardens and green space with the concrete of the buildings and walking spaces. One complements and contrasts the other, like the city and nature in a constant dialogue about how best to get along. I honestly think Brutalist architechture is set off in its best light this way.
posted by LN at 1:09 PM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


My first taste of Brutalist architecture was the spectacularly depressing D.B. Weldon Library at the University of Western Ontario (it looks even worse on the inside). When people asked me what it looked like I'd tell them it resembled some of the bunkers in Doom. My mind was absolutely blown when I read the plaque inside the front door that explained it had been built that ugly on purpose.
posted by The Card Cheat at 1:09 PM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


One of my main problems with brutalism (and a lot of modern architecture, and concrete in general) has to do with the fact that these buildings were designed to last forever, but they don't really, they're just really hard to destroy. When they're finally totaled and inevitably abandoned, it's almost impossible to remove them without going through expensive and complex demolitions (particularly any building over 3-4 stories). No one wants to pay for the demolitions because the land under them isn't worth the trouble. So they sit around and crumble bit by bit. The styrofoam of the architectural landscape.
posted by symbollocks at 1:33 PM on February 25, 2010


mrbula - I still liked it into adulthood, right up until I lived on the West Bank for a while and saw the place at ground level. 'Soul crushing' is the phrase that springs to mind.

On the occasions that I still hang out on the patio behind Palmer's, I don't mind the towers, but the concourses and everything on the first couple of levels are just oppressive.
posted by Ickster at 1:44 PM on February 25, 2010


The first exposure I remember to Brutalism was this Southwestern Bell building, which was on my way to school. I assumed it was that way because they needed something special for all the heavy phone equipment. It didn't occur to me that anyone would deliberately make a building that way.

I lived next door to Lovett as a college student. There are a number of Brutalist buildings on the Rice campus but at least the academic buildings tend to have whimsical things imprinted into the brick and concrete. Lovett is just a toaster.
posted by immlass at 1:52 PM on February 25, 2010


Lots of amazing buildings here – and cheers to bright cold day; that Bad British Architecture blog is fucking brilliant.

Also: no discussion of Brutalism would be complete without some mention of what might be my all-time favourite building: the once-beautiful, now dilapidated St Peter's Seminary, designed by the firm of Gillespie, Kidd & Coia, who were responsible for a whole host of Brutalist buildings; mostly in Scotland but also in England. (I made a post about the firm's work here, for anyone interested.)
posted by Len at 2:20 PM on February 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


Stephens Auditorium at Iowa State U is an example of a brutalist building I don't hate.
posted by TrialByMedia at 2:32 PM on February 25, 2010


When you live or work near these things, the novelty wears off. Once the novelty wears off, the building is still there.

Equal Pants, I live near, and work in Robards and the other, smaller brutalist library Kelly, both on the U of T Campus once a week. Robards looms on the end of my street, and the novelty has moved onto a continual hum of awe that has never gone away.
posted by PinkMoose at 2:53 PM on February 25, 2010


The matter of interior floor plan and layout has come up a couple times, and has certainly been trumpeted with regard to Boston's city hall. But to an extent, isn't that an area far more flexible than the exterior architecture? I understand how the exterior can affect the interior, but for example, in the case of the cool art Deco Buffalo building, couldn't that permit office be put on the lower floor? Isn't it a matter of installing a faster elevator? Couldn't interior walls be dropped down? Better insulation installed, etc? (regarding the drafty complaints) All the triumphs of the interior of the Boston City Hall can essentially be replicated within any architectural style.

I also understand that certain elements of support, load bearing, and what not can play a role, but again, I don't expect such requirements to play such a dominating role in the placement of government offices. Essentially, isn't much of the interior what some committee requested or agreed upon with the architect?

(One of the areas where I understand the exterior affecting the interior is the distribution of direct or indirect light (or complete prevention), primarily for purposes of art displays - and this I can understand).

For the most part, when people speak of an ugly building, they refer to its exterior, or are the majority of the comments in this thread only applying 50% of the critique?
posted by Atreides at 3:02 PM on February 25, 2010


Penn. Fucking. Station.

Oh, you said "favorite?" Huh. I got nothing.
posted by shmegegge at 3:06 PM on February 25, 2010


I'm late to the game, but my favorite ugly building is Wurster Hall on the UC Berkeley campus (Image 1, Image 2, Image 3). It's unholy ugly, especially when you have to work around and walk by it daily.

My favorite thing about it, though, is that the Architecture department is located inside of it. I think the university is really trying to ram home the point to the next generation of architects that brutalism is fucking ugly and oppressive. "YOU LIVE IN IT AND YOU LEARN IT! RAR!"
posted by barnacles at 4:22 PM on February 25, 2010


I always rather liked McBryde Hall on the Virginia Tech campus. There are exits at every corner of the building, and the interior is almost completely rotationally symmetric, with a single hallway going around the perimeter. You can always identify the freshmen because they circle the hall multiple times, trying in vain to remember which way they came in.
posted by Commander Rachek at 4:48 PM on February 25, 2010


Oh man, I like almost all of these. I like distinctive buildings, weird buildings, unapologetically ugly buildings. I wish I could explain why I like big concrete piles so much — I think part of it is that they're authentic to their time period, and I like having tangible reminders of how people used to think. (Things I don't like include: chintzy faux-Renaissance buildings, cookie-cutter strip malls, and stuccoed-over Craftsman houses.)

A favorite nearby is the municipal services building in Glendale, California (self-link photo). It's a big modernist 1960s concrete box on top of four steel stilts, which is pretty audacious in a very earthquake-prone area. It was seismically retrofitted only recently! I like how it offsets its bulk with its patterned windows, its stilts, and its smaller level on top. It's still a little looming and awkward, but it's much more interesting to me than an International-style glass box. I'm also a fan of more traditional civic center buildings, but I have to look at this one all the time, and I don't mind.
posted by dreamyshade at 5:09 PM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wow, what a great discussion! So glad I posted this. Love the pics!

Going into this, I had sort of an unconditional hatred of brutalist architecture, but the article made me re-think that a bit.

As a style, i don't think brutalism would be hated nearly as much if it weren't so damn ubiquitous. Just look at the photos in this thread; it 's not a wonder that people made such ugly buildings -- it's that they made SO MANY of them. Brutalism came about when the US was doing a ton of construction, and so now we're stuck with a ton of the stuff.

Most of these buildings seem to shout at you -- "I'm trying to make a statement here!" -- as if the architects were unaware of how badly such "statements" age. I don't care how ingenious or innovative you are, eventually your shit will become played out and people will become sick of it. We don't naturally despise buildings that make statements, we just expect our edifices to have a certain quality of timelessness. This isn't to say that all brutalist buildings lack timelessness -- in fact, some even look kinda cool -- but many of them seem to exude this sense of joyless frivolity. My typical reaction is, "Yeah, someone obviously thought this was a good idea back in the 60s."

Which brings me to my next point -- why was our architectural sense so bizarre at a time when other fields of design were hitting on all 8 cylinders? Think about mid-century art, fashion, and interior design -- the mid-20th century was sort of a high-water mark for all three, and we regularly see these styles come back in the form of "retro." Yet nobody is falling over themselves to recreate brutalism. What was up with the architects from this era? Were they just not paying attention to what the other creative people were doing?

One thing I just do not understand about brutalism : why did they hate windows so much? Did brutalist architects all have tragic pasts where a family member fell out of a window? Seriously, why such hate for the daylight? It seems like they wanted to eliminate windows entirely, or else surround them with these bizarre cubbyhole-like contrivances. Seriously, what was up with cubbyholes?

Anyway, the article (and the pictures in this thread) helped me realize that it's possible for a brutalist building to have "pug appeal" -- whereby something is so ugly that it actually becomes kinda cute. In small doses (and in the right places) this can be welcome. Three decades of the stuff is a bit much.
posted by Afroblanco at 6:08 PM on February 25, 2010 [3 favorites]


I don't know what it is, but I found it in Sweden.
posted by griphus at 6:20 PM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


From the SkyscraperPage forum referenced above, I like this example of brutalist architecture in Paris's Mairie d'Ivry district. Notice that it is used to create human-scale buildings that seem to be useable for retail and commercial purposes and is integrated into the rest of the neighborhood, but using the poured-concrete building methods. And there are actually windows! It's so unlike the eyesores that we know and hate.
posted by deanc at 6:26 PM on February 25, 2010


The Bournemouth decision to raze their ugliest building inspired CurbedSF to run a poll on the ugliest building in San Francisco. The former Sears building on Geary at Masonic is winning so far, just ahead of Fox Plaza. Vote now!
posted by gingerbeer at 6:40 PM on February 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


I knew someone would have to mention Wean, but I am confused about the concept of what counts as the basement. Maybe the 3rd floor? It did flood a couple times. Or maybe the 4th floor, the mysterious under-part that went most of the way to Porter.

My favorite ugly building is the old US Steel/USX building. I also am fond of the old ALCOA building and the PPG building. There is something very endearing to me about buildings with facades made of the primary products produced by the companies. Of course, a new PPG building would have to be made of industrial chemicals and paints, which would be interesting but not nearly as shiny.

The USX tower, however just looks like some evil overlord's headquarters.
posted by that girl at 6:51 PM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


deanc: I LOVE that Marie D'Ivry building. I'm generally opposed to brutalist architecture because I live in the DC Metro area, and for every awesomely cool bit of Neo-Classical or whatever the hell the OEOB is (I just know that it kicks ass and is my favorite building in the city) or any of the gorgeous structures on Embassy Row, there are a dozen or more examples of concrete awfulness destroying what could otherwise be a very charming city. It's like somebody just said, "well, this better damn well look like impenetrable bureaucracy!" And I hate that.

What you linked to, however, seems designed to be like a craggy granite mountain-face, incorporating foliage in its design, and it rules. It totally works.

I linked to the Price Tower above, which does the same thing, which is why, as ugly as it is, I still love it. (Trust me, the building is even worse from the inside - to the point of being almost cool by challenging anyone who would ever try to use the space constructively. It was originally designed for New York, but Wright couldn't find anyone to finance it, so it was built in Bartlesville at 1/3 scale.)

Also of note is that there is nothing between the Price Tower and the Bartlesville Community Center (also linked above, and of which I hold many great memories) but two giant parking lots. They serve, for this very rich, wonderful, tasteless Oklahoma town, like a weird approximation of the Washington Mall, with the Community Center in place of the Capitol Building and the Tower in place of the Monument. Even the cardinal directions are correct. But instead of grass in between, we get parking spaces. It's perfect, in it's own way.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:03 PM on February 25, 2010


All this talk of impenetrable Washington buildings made me thing of the Central Bureaucracy building in Futurama. Proof that ugly buildings will survive till the year 3000.
posted by Omon Ra at 8:19 PM on February 25, 2010


Also, the description of Bobst Library as "an evil, evil building" is exactly correct. It doesn't deserve a place in this thread as an "ugly" building, exactly. It isn't necessarily ugly at all. It is, rather, the architectural embodiment of Hell.

I'm not kidding. I don't believe in Hell, and I'm not speaking in a spooky Haunted House kind of tone either. Bobst needs to have all of it's valuable resources removed, and then be torn down. It is the only building I've known that can make a rational person believe that a building is capable of abject evil. It is seriously the worst place on earth that I have ever visited outside of a concentration camp. It exudes malice.

I don't know what it is, but it needs to be gone. Maybe you have to visit it personally, but when I read Dante, I have to picture Bobst in order to get the full chilling effect of "Abandon all Hope..." I truly believe that if NYU started a fundraiser to replace Bobst with something else, they'd raise more money than with any other fundraiser in the school's history. Almost everybody who has passed through it has felt how awful that building is. Make it be gone already.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:16 PM on February 25, 2010 [1 favorite]


And how could no one have mentioned what I now realize is my favorite of all "ugly" buildings, The Fucking Watergate. It's hideous, and yet every time I pass it I marvel at its beauty, and want to live there.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:35 PM on February 25, 2010


I grew up completely disappointed that in the city of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, of the University of Virginia campus, this edifice served as the city hall. The only nod to the architectural richness of the region was to simply put statues of Jefferson and other famous Virginians on the front. Oh, and they used more brick, less concrete.

I don't know - I think that might be a situation where trying to compete with the existing buildings would bring about a completely different set of criticisms, and be pretty expensive to pull off successfully. Would you rather have a break from the norm or a poor imitation of world-renowned stuff?
posted by LionIndex at 9:37 PM on February 25, 2010


I feel brustalism has followed me my entire life. My grammar school wasn't brutalist, but being built in the early seventies has some cheaper elements. My secondary school was renovated in the seventies with a large tip of the hat to brutalism (albeit with some windows). I attended several Brutalist universities (Trent, York,Ryerson) and used concrete-award winning libraries. I ended up working in public libraries, currently a three level monstrosity that has a total of ten square feet of windows (all in one place). When asked for directions over the telephone I always direct people to look for the prison - everyone finds it easily after that!

I admit having grown up with it, I have a fond place in my heart for brutalism. When I see some of the brutal "updating" of brutalist architecture it makes me sad. At least the building was pure before.
posted by saucysault at 9:39 PM on February 25, 2010


I don't know - I think that might be a situation where trying to compete with the existing buildings would bring about a completely different set of criticisms, and be pretty expensive to pull off successfully. Would you rather have a break from the norm or a poor imitation of world-renowned stuff?

Obviously, any building that goes up in Charlottesville will be scrutinized to a certain degree, but I think given the location of city hall which isn't actually near the university, but on the Downtown Mall that has a pretty cool collection of architecture ranging from the pre-1900 to 1930's, they had more leeway to design without having the new building be placed side by side. And granted, I think what you asked was what resulted in the new Monticello visitor center which does nothing to invoke Jefferson's style of architecture. It seems more of an attempt to blend into the wooded area and perhaps the rustic nature of the general area.

One building that stands out as fitting for Charlottesville is the present county office building. It's not Jeffersonian, but it fits, and despite the fact that it was originally a school in which sometimes the size and purpose of such can be drags on the design. The University's School of Law and the Business School are also interesting examples, of two designs that sought to reference but not quite imitate though to varying degrees. The first is a pretty modern interpretation and the second is much more of an invocation of the Academic Village at the Lawn. When driving by the two, I find the law school interesting, but ultimately, the business school more pleasing to the eye, as well invoking a more welcoming vibe that relates to what I think, when I think of the University.

Perhaps my feelings would be different if they had simply succeeded at creating something more aesthetic and acknowledging the influence of Jefferson rather than attempt to imitate it. The aforementioned visitor center succeeds in being aesthetic, and it's a nice complex, and for that, I can live with it. I just can't find a place to appreciate the city hall.
posted by Atreides at 10:29 PM on February 25, 2010


I've only run across one Brutalist-esque building that I thought was appropriate — the new Detention Center in Alexandria, VA. (You can see it easily from the Beltway, just before the Eisenhower Ave exit if coming from DC.) The insides of those slit windows look like this.

IMO it only works because the facility is a "Detention Center" and not a "jail" or "prison." Jails and prisons both call up very specific images in my mind: old brickwork and iron bars, or guard towers and concertina wire — Charles Street, Newgate, Alcatraz.

But a "Detention Center"? Soul-crushing postmodern architecture was never so appropriate.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:18 AM on February 26, 2010


One of my main problems with brutalism (and a lot of modern architecture, and concrete in general) has to do with the fact that these buildings were designed to last forever

Ironically, reinforced concrete has a relatively short lifetime. Notwithstanding the fact that most buildings constructed recently have an expected lifetime of 50 years, reinforced concrete has a limited maximum lifetime. AFAIK 200 years is a very long life for a building constructed of such due to the corrosion of the rebar as water penetrates the concrete.

One of the things that struck me about visiting the Gaudi houses in Barcelona was that people are not queuing by choice to get into Brutalist structures anywhere in the world, quite the opposite! I think the clue is in the name. I think they are the architectural equivalent of a film by McG, filled with testosterone, stupid and ugly.
posted by asok at 5:53 AM on February 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Navelgazer: I'm curious--what exactly is it you don't like about Bobst? (The exterior? The layout? Those dull brass-colored cross-shaped bars that make up the railings?)
posted by equalpants at 8:44 AM on February 26, 2010


I think they are the architectural equivalent of a film by McG, filled with testosterone, stupid and ugly.

Really? That sounds more like Michael Bay that McG. McG has done two garish, T&A-filled "action" films that barely qualify for the genre, one movie of the week-style tear-jerker and a dour but bland action sequel. Brutalism is the last architectural style I'd compare him to.

/derail
posted by brundlefly at 10:35 AM on February 26, 2010


Continuing the Charlottesville derail, I find it somehow fitting that the Albemarle County office building is not just in any former school, but the former whites-only high school closed during the "massive resistance" to desegregation.

I find the insistence on using nothing but brick and white pillars on the most non-Jeffersonian of buildings (car dealers, real estate offices) in Charlottesville to be quite wearing and actually appreciate the buildings that make an effort to be something else, anything else, really.
posted by gingerbeer at 11:52 AM on February 26, 2010


GO GO MODERNISM

(♪♫♪♫♪♫)

GO GO MODERNISM

(♪♫♪♫♪♫)

GO GO MODERNISM

UGLY-AS-SIN MODERNI-I-ISM

posted by Rhaomi at 3:40 PM on February 26, 2010


Incidentally, Venable Elementary school is also a pretty building of the brick and white pillars category. I say incidentally, since it was the white only elementary school in town. It now operates as a regular elementary. I played a cold, 40 degree in the rain game of soccer on its field one growing up.

While I understand that commonality of bricks, columns, or general colonial architecture to be tiring, I do find it somewhat refreshing compared to other parts of the country where lesser or no standards are enforced and usually the cheapest path is sought with the ugliest or most mundane style applied. My fiancee often comments to me, (she didn't grew up in C'ville) how much she actually likes how it looks compared to where she grew up.

I'd rather see a nicely bricked McDonalds than a crass ones that used to inhabit the town. It's something cleaner and a bit more aesthetic, even if its done virtually everywhere. Nor is all new architecture in Charlottesville just boring bricks and columns, as the new transit center shows (though you're free to withhold a favorable opinion). Here's the town's actual guidelines.

And again, originally going back to my main point, I just have a higher expectation for the city hall as the heart of civic government, than I might other office buildings in the area. Though, John Paul Jones Arena is kind of that place where what I've been advocating can go really bad. I prefer the modern interpretation of old U-Hall. It doesn't have to fully replicate, but at least show some shared inheritance, if that makes sense.
posted by Atreides at 3:45 PM on February 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


UC Berkeley, where I’m in my last semester of undergrad, has a positively fascinating architectural history.

The short of it is that Phoebe Hearst (yes, of that Hearst family) sponsored a competition in 1898 for a plan to expand the fledgling campus. The guy who won didn’t want to do it, so the job fell to one John Galen Howard. If you ask me, he did a bang-up job. His Beaux-Arts architecture forms the core of the campus: beautiful structures like the Hearst Mining Building (which has a gorgeous interior that always reminds me of Grand Central Terminal), the Doe Memorial Library, and Wheeler Hall. The whole shebang is crowned by Sather Tower, otherwise known as the Campanile for its resemblance to the Campanile de San Marco in Venice.

Howard’s buildings all stand today, most of them without any changes. However, the University expanded a large amount in the 1960s and 1970s, and so, we have our share of Brutalist buildings that got smacked down amidst Howard’s beautiful works. These are the things that remind me how much I hate Brutalist architecture every time I start thinking I like it: Evans Hall, Moffitt Undergraduate Library, and Wurster Hall.

Evans Hall is particularly bad — it sits at the eastern edge of Memorial Glade, which is in the foreground of that shot I linked of the library and Sather Tower. If that shot were framed just a hair more to the left, Evans would creep into it. Walking across campus every day reminds me just how much I hate that building for ruining what is otherwise a truly beautiful place. Having class in there just makes it worse: the inside is all exposed concrete and fluorescent lighting (with no natural light to speak of), so it feels colder than it already is, and it echoes like a mofo.

Brutalism should go down in history as what it is: a failed experiment in applying a post-modern aesthetic fad to the buildings we have to live and work in every day.
posted by spitefulcrow at 11:54 AM on February 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Those buildings by Howard are gorgeous. Thanks for sharing those images.
posted by Atreides at 4:31 PM on February 27, 2010


People will probably hate me for this, but here. I know nothing about architecture or design. All I know is that, sometimes, I am walking down the street when I receive, seemingly out of nowhere, the most chilling gut-punch as a visceral response to certain buildings.

Here's a non-Brutalist building I find so comically ugly that I actually laugh at it every time I'm near (and you really do have to stand near to fully appreciate the fugly):

Old City Hall, Toronto.

If this means I have poor taste or am anti-intellectual in any way, so be it. Something about this building hits my funny-bone just so.
posted by Ouisch at 4:58 PM on February 27, 2010


And then there's the Medical Science Building at U of Toronto. Grosses me out every time.

(Though it makes for interesting photography.)
posted by Ouisch at 5:04 PM on February 27, 2010


Also...brutalist architecture always makes me think of the wicked witch's castle from the Wizard of Oz.
posted by Ouisch at 5:19 PM on February 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


My all time favorite "ugly building" is the former AT&T Long Lines Building at 33 Thomas Street in lower Manhattan, New York.
posted by svenni at 5:55 AM on February 28, 2010


I just can't find a place to appreciate the city hall.

Oh, I wasn't trying to defend the building as it ended up, just as a deviation from the standard of C-Ville. And even if the Grounds are a bit distant from Downtown, there's still quite a few old houses north of Downtown, as well as miles of houses north of the school that are fairly Jeffersonian/Roman revival in look, so it has to fit into that fabric as well. And even between the school and downtown on main street are First Baptist and a couple other churches.

I think one of my favorite C-ville buildings though is the church that's right on the north side of Beta Bridge. Really minimal classical elements so it's not gaudy, but well proportioned and laid out. And for a modern building, the architecture school wasn't too bad. Of course, they hid it behind a hill so that you couldn't see it from the main Grounds, but that's okay.
posted by LionIndex at 9:01 PM on March 1, 2010


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