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Brutalism and Ballard
August 9, 2010 12:47 PM   Subscribe

The term Brutalist Architecture comes from the French term for raw concrete, beton brut. The style resonates strongly in the works of JG Ballard. (previously, previously)

Of course, people have made the connection before.

Joanne Murray "explores notions of ‘equivalence’ and the articulation of aftermath in New Brutalism and the fiction of JG Ballard" halfway down the first "more inside" link.

Some examples of Brutalism can be beautiful: 1, 2, 3, 4
Here's a list from Wikipedia.
Here's a Flickr group.
posted by kittensofthenight (85 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite

 
I was all about reading what the person in the first link had to say about my least favorite type of architecture, but then he lost credibility by making my least favorite grammatical error and using "there" for "their." Oh well.
posted by millipede at 12:57 PM on August 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


One example of Brutalism looks like a Canada Goose, or a peacock, or a dragon, or a giant Godzilla foot, stamping on your hopes and dreams forever.

Man, I'll never get into tenure track, will I?
posted by maudlin at 1:03 PM on August 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yay brutalism. Architecture I love to hate. Not that I actually hate it, but in many ways its ugliness is so fascinating to me.
posted by Carillon at 1:04 PM on August 9, 2010 [4 favorites]


I think that if you were to survey the general population of Boston (and people have!), the consensus would be that a smoking crater in the middle of town would be preferable to the abomination that is City Hall.
posted by backseatpilot at 1:06 PM on August 9, 2010 [4 favorites]


Yeah, put me in with the "brutalism is beautiful" crowd. I read Ballard at an early age, maybe that's the reason why I find the style so striking.
posted by Kattullus at 1:12 PM on August 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


Well, I've never been to Boston. I guess it's easy to make buildings look cool with a camera.
posted by kittensofthenight at 1:13 PM on August 9, 2010


I lived in the Chateau in Minneapolis. Very solid walls.
posted by cthuljew at 1:21 PM on August 9, 2010


No argument about the Geisel Library, but 33 Thomas Street isn't brutalist, and the Boston City hill is widely despised.

I also quite like the DC Metro's vaulted ceilings.

(Previously)
posted by schmod at 1:22 PM on August 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


I immediately thought of this particular building nearby. Looked it up, yes, it is indeed Brutalist. It's widely regarded as the ugliest building within several blocks. Organizations loathe being housed inside of it and constantly scheme to escape its confines as if it were Purgatory. One interior stairwell is a vertigo-tempting spiral composed of concrete, steel railings, and existential nausea. Other structures have arisen to hide this squat and unadorned rectangular solid made, presumably, as a monument to just what humanity can do wrong with stone. Some abstract sculpture, both incomprehensible in meaning and reprehensible in form, may have been added to ameliorate the effect, only to make it all the worse, as its slow cycle of rust matches the dreary stains streaking the building proper.

Were it a food, it would be a block of highly processed cheese, extruded through some nozzle directly onto the plate, daring you to eat it, with some form of noxious mushroom offered as garnish.

I love staring at this ugly chunk of crushed rock.
posted by adipocere at 1:22 PM on August 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


I don't know architecture, but I know what I like. And, man, that stuff is fugleeeeee.

It's the "grindcore" of architecture.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 1:24 PM on August 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yeah, put me in with the "brutalism is beautiful" crowd. I read Ballard at an early age, maybe that's the reason why I find the style so striking.

Considering what happens to people in Ballard novels I'd think the natural reaction would be to run screaming from any Brutalist building
posted by The Whelk at 1:25 PM on August 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


but 33 Thomas Street isn't brutalist

Oh it's a telephone exchange! That makes sense, I just always assumed it was the Inter-dimensional HQ of Harkokken & Hart, monsters at law.
posted by The Whelk at 1:26 PM on August 9, 2010


Preston bus station is truly beautiful as far as I can remember, although it's different when you have to live with it and use it daily.
posted by shinybaum at 1:33 PM on August 9, 2010


It's not the concrete that makes a building Brutalist. It's the feeling of being crushed into insignificance that the building creates in those who view it.

Note that it is especially popular for government buildings - ie. Albany, Brasilia.
posted by Joe Beese at 1:42 PM on August 9, 2010


I think Brutalist buildings are pretty, but I also think grey, overcast days are pretty, so my aesthetic preferences may be somewhat divergent from the norm.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:42 PM on August 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


The Whelk: Considering what happens to people in Ballard novels I'd think the natural reaction would be to run screaming from any Brutalist building

And yet we have plush Cthulhu.
posted by Kattullus at 1:42 PM on August 9, 2010


Boston City Hall Beautiful? Here's a rebuttal just from the Wikipedia entry:
James Howard Kunstler said on a talk show that, "There is not enough Prozac in the world to make people feel okay" when walking along the road on the back side of the building.
I've heard it referred to as "the crate Faneuil Hall came in."
posted by Jugwine at 1:44 PM on August 9, 2010 [5 favorites]


I love Brutalism, but only in individual instances. A neighborhood designed by a Brutalist would be bru... hard to handle.
posted by griphus at 1:48 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


ZenMasterThis: "It's the "grindcore" of architecture."

Well, I have a soft spot for grindcore as well, so I guess that makes sense!
posted by brundlefly at 1:49 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Joe Beese: "It's not the concrete that makes a building Brutalist. It's the feeling of being crushed into insignificance that the building creates in those who view it.."

My grad school department's brutallist block of a building literally looks like it's going to crush you as you walk in the main entrance.
posted by octothorpe at 1:49 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, if Kunstler said it, it's gotta be true.
posted by xod at 1:51 PM on August 9, 2010


its
posted by xod at 1:52 PM on August 9, 2010


If you need more reasons to hate brutalism, check out Scollay Square and the West End of Boston before it was destroyed in a fit of brutalist mania. (Hint: imagine if the Beacon Hill and the North End were connected by a similarly styled warren of streets and buildings.)
posted by alms at 1:54 PM on August 9, 2010 [6 favorites]


My grad school department's brutallist block of a building...

Love the graffiti in that photo.
posted by xod at 1:55 PM on August 9, 2010 [4 favorites]


Also, Moos Tower on the UMN campus looks like something one would come across on an aeons-dead desert planet. And that's awesome.
posted by cthuljew at 1:56 PM on August 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


Sometimes a book is hard to read or a film is hard to watch but by completing it you know it was something important and worthwhile which deserved your perseverance.
I just want to say that's a nicely put together sentence. And, yes, Boston City Hall is soul crushing, inside and out. I challenge anyone to approach that building and depart un-crushed.
posted by reren at 2:06 PM on August 9, 2010


Story of some Christian Scientists and their church, which is brutalist. They're not too fond of it.
posted by Dolores Haze at 2:14 PM on August 9, 2010


One of those examples produces a crazy optical illusion when scrolling up or down.
posted by DonnyMac at 2:18 PM on August 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


Love the graffiti in that photo.

I assume that you read the explanation for the graffiti in the caption underneath. A few of my more right-wing professors were not amused.
posted by octothorpe at 2:18 PM on August 9, 2010


Sometimes a book is hard to read or a film is hard to watch but by completing it you know it was something important and worthwhile which deserved your perseverance.

I read that sentence in the first link and didn't like the scolding tone. Architecture as "Eat your spinach?"
posted by longsleeves at 2:20 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


There's an incredible Brutalist structure in the final part of Inception, by the way, the mountain fortress. Does anyone know if that place exists, or if it was built for the movie?
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 2:23 PM on August 9, 2010


The real tragedy is that, since it's a famous example of an Important Architectural Style, Boston is probably stuck with that awful City Hall forever.
posted by rusty at 2:28 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


My grad school department's brutallist block of a building literally looks like it's going to crush you as you walk in the main entrance.

My grad school department's building is also a brutalist block, except it is hollow on the inside, presumably to make it easier to throw yourself into the central concrete "courtyard."
posted by emilyd22222 at 2:35 PM on August 9, 2010


In Rhode Island, we have the Community College of RI. Everyone who's seen it then goes on to opine that Boston City Hall isn't so bad, really. It's so 70's science-fiction New Brutalism ugly, there are no publicity stills of the building on the CCRI site. Never the less, some hardy souls risked permanently damaging their camera with a snapshot here.

This really doesn't do justice to the cyclopean size and scope and "Oh, for fuck's sake, what were they thinking?" lunacy of the architectural detail. (That huge block of concrete suspended in mid-air, poised to crush the life out of anyone wo dares approach the loading docks, is more than two stories tall.)

And then it gets worse inside.

And it's at the top of a hill, surrounded by acres of poorly maintained parking lot, so you're trudging up a vast, broken, grey plain of suffering to C'thulu's summer cottage every time you're there for a class.
posted by Slap*Happy at 2:36 PM on August 9, 2010 [4 favorites]


A neighborhood designed by a Brutalist would be ...

...the east campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago [PDF]. Crumbling cement second-story walkways, and all these creepy identical buildings designed to make you late to class because you couldn't tell the lecture halls apart, with these nasty dim little arrowslit windows into dank classrooms that smelled like damp stone. The campus rumor was that it was built to be riot proof (can't throw bricks through those tiny windows, you know! And there's a helipad on top of University Hall for evacuating the administration in a crisis!), though I don't think that was actually the case. They are renovating some of the buildings now, and that's a good thing.

I do admit to a slight fondness for silly upside-down UH. But I think the rest of the original east campus, most of all the sadistic joke that is the Behavioral Sciences Building, would only be improved by razing it and replacing it with something comparatively homey, like a nice, fire-gutted warehouse.
posted by sldownard at 2:39 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Dangit. PDF link here.
posted by sldownard at 2:41 PM on August 9, 2010


Pretty much all Brutalism is bad, but it seems that English Brutalism is worse. I mean the Boston City Hall or NYPD headquarters is ugly, but Robin Hood Estates, or Birmingham Central Library is so very, utterly, soul-destroying it is hard to believe it wasn't made that way deliberately. We are talking dystopian sci-fi, I-want-to-go-home-and-stick-my-head-in-the-oven hideous.

It has to be more than the weather too. Boston is wetter (although usually in great snowstorms/rainstorms, not endless gray drizzles). There are depressing Brutalist examples in equally dark and damp Netherlands and Germany, but they don't seem have that "I have given up" look that only British Brutalism has.

I think I can boil it down to this: I notice that UK Brutalism goes for very small windows and, well, things sticking out from the buildings, giving rot more places to roost.

And I will re-state what I said in this Brutalism thread about the "Get Carter" car park.

But why does this architectural style fare far worse than others? I mean you look at Detroit and you can see, under the years of decay and neglect how beautiful those abandoned downtown office buildings or old mansions once were. You really can't say that about Trinity Square or a lot of the brutalist housing estates in Britain.
posted by xetere at 2:42 PM on August 9, 2010


Pruis (not Prius) Hall is a recital hall at my first undergrad alma mater, Ball State University. It's a sort of brutalist impression of a piano. It, being echo-y concrete, gave the performer the deceiving sense that every square foot of the building was ideal for communicating aurally, where in reality a very small section towards the rear of the stage was the only place from which an excellent, resonant sound could be projected. A couple fellow trumpet players and I were probably kicked out of that building several dozen different midnights.
posted by The Potate at 2:43 PM on August 9, 2010


I see your point, longsleeves. I was more interested in the statement as a concise explanation of why certain difficult art, like great works of literature, might nevertheless be worthwhile. I don't know if that model makes as much sense for architecture. We can each choose whether or not to dip into Ulysses, but brutalist icons are inflicted on all passersby. Regardless, the fact is that buildings are there and we can elect to ignore them, despise them or consider and appreciate them. I don't think I will ever appreciate Boston City Hall,but seeing and learning about other, more endearing brutalist buildings helps me understand what that damn architect was thinking when he drew up the blueprints.
posted by reren at 2:49 PM on August 9, 2010


Imagine taking a bus up Burnaby mountain during one of those 30 day stretches when it rains every single day in November/December to arrive here. It may serve well as a location for SF series being shot on the cheap in Vancouver, but for "beholding the bright countenance of truth in the quiet and still air of delightful studies", it just doesn't work. I really wonder if there's a pronounced rate of winter suicides amongst SFU students as compared to UBC ones.
posted by Roachbeard at 2:51 PM on August 9, 2010


Oh man, I feel ill. Some of those buildings (at least as depicted on the photographs) make me want to cower in fear.

On the other hand, some of them have a pretty sweet sci-fi vibe that I think I could get behind (but probably not live in).
posted by jnrussell at 2:53 PM on August 9, 2010


It might be shorter to describe which buildings in Birmingham, UK are not Brutalist.

Forward!
posted by srboisvert at 2:54 PM on August 9, 2010


I like Brutalism because I'm a huge fan of concrete. I'm currently working on doctoral research project, one component of which is the "architectural revolution" that was the invention of ancient concrete in southern Italy. Concrete is a wonderful, magical feat of human ingenuity that revolutionized not only the aesthetics of the urban landscape but how people viewed and utilized space. Only now are we starting to understand and replicate the quality of concrete that the ancient Romans had developed.

The magnitude of structures, non-traditional shapes, and curvilinear features of Brutalism allow for some of the most creative and awe-inspiring buildings I have ever seen. I would wager they suspend the giant blocks of concrete in mid-air, simply because they can. None of that would be possible without the (re)invention of concrete.
posted by Eumachia L F at 2:56 PM on August 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


Robin Hood Estates, or Birmingham Central Library is so very, utterly, soul-destroying it is hard to believe it wasn't made that way deliberately

To repeat my earlier comment: I believe that they are made that way deliberately.
posted by Joe Beese at 2:59 PM on August 9, 2010


Which is worse, the Brutalist campuses of the 70s or the pastel pink and orange ones of the 90s, where they used tinted concrete block as a poor man's substitute for real brick?
posted by smackfu at 3:01 PM on August 9, 2010


Whenever Brutalism comes up I feel compelled to link to a photo of Wurster Hall at Cal.

The punchline being, of course, that it's the home of the architecture department.
posted by asterix at 3:05 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


You can't fight city hall. Don't even think about it. Get your damn zoning variance application or whatever, and get the fuck out.
posted by longsleeves at 3:15 PM on August 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


I remember being literally stunned by the ugliness of Robarts Libary. It just didn't make any sense from the outside.
posted by bonobothegreat at 3:16 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


I meant to add that my late father, an architect who disliked brutalism in general, counted Pruis Hall among his favorite public spaces he ever spent a lot of time in. One of my favorite childhood memories was standing outside the entrance with Dad as he geeked out about how Pruis showcased (and it's pretty difficult to see it from the pictures, but they're the best ones I could find online) the "very plastic" nature of reinforced concrete. It really offended him in a nerdy kind of way when architects used his favorite building material ("It's a marvel of engineering! Have some respect!" he often said) purely as a cost-saving measure rather than to achieve the impressive, imaginative forms that it's capable of.
posted by The Potate at 3:27 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


As a Canadian living on the West Coast, am I allowed to say that I hate Arthur Erickson?
posted by KokuRyu at 3:28 PM on August 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


Marcel Breuer's final legacy, the Atlanta Central Library has been called a masterpiece, but it's unrelentingly Brutalist, locally disliked and possibly endangered.
posted by Haruspex at 3:28 PM on August 9, 2010


I know that it's a matter of taste but it's really weird to see people go "aaaaargh my eyes it's so ugly" and link to a picture of a building that stuns me with beauty, like The Robarts library and the Behavioral Sciences Building at UIC.
posted by Kattullus at 3:33 PM on August 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


I nominate Caltrans District Seven Headquarters in Los Angeles.

Cool looking photographs - from a distance. Up close, it is the definition of brutal. Completely out of human scale, it looms over the street like a monumental trash enclosure, drab and dark.

The lobby is like something out of a Terry Gilliam movie. The foyer is darker and more depressing than the outside even hints at. Above the welcome desk is an array of fluorescent lights that are hidden behind cheap looking fiberglass panels (note - those aren't the actual lights above the desk itself, but they give an idea of what awaits the unwary). "Array" is probably a misnomer - the lights are arranged in a semi- random fashion, and give the distinct impression that most of the bulbs are burned out and in need of replacement.

On the upper floors, it is somewhat less bleak - but the walls and carpet are only just slightly lighter than what I might think of as a Kafkaesque shade of grey. The grey is everywhere - as if the Stepford wives had formed a design committee and voted in an inoffensive but grotesque, colorless shade designed to sap the life from any living thing that entered. It's the headquarters of the Daleks.

On the plus side, a lot of attention was given to energy conservation and other progressive technologies. It's just a shame it's butt f***ing ugly.
posted by Xoebe at 3:36 PM on August 9, 2010


Which is worse, the Brutalist campuses of the 70s or the pastel pink and orange ones of the 90s, where they used tinted concrete block as a poor man's substitute for real brick?

The latter, surely. Brutalism is, at the very least, honest in its unashamed use of concrete.

Tangentially related, I get a kick out of my father-in-law's excitement at building an ugly faux-colonial all-steel house. He somehow misses the irony at his delight that, "This steel siding looks just like vinyl!"
posted by The Potate at 3:41 PM on August 9, 2010


I would wager they suspend the giant blocks of concrete in mid-air, simply because they can.

That's right. Brutalist buildings don't actually hate you. Their designers do.
posted by General Tonic at 3:45 PM on August 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


My alma mater's architecture building is not quite brutalism, but it's so...well...words fail me.

In any case, it's damned hard to find pictures of the thing on the internet if that tells you anything.
posted by Xoebe at 3:59 PM on August 9, 2010


My grad school department's brutallist block of a building literally looks like it's going to crush you as you walk in the main entrance.
posted by octothorpe


It looks like it one of those industrial foot-operated die cutters, the ones that are always chopping off fingers.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:05 PM on August 9, 2010


Huh. I have always despised Brutalism, but it never dawned on me that the The Reg was a significant instance of the style. Possibly because it's set in a lawn, with trees and tennis courts. It never really bothered me.
posted by stargell at 4:10 PM on August 9, 2010


I get to look at Brutalist architecture every morning as I eat breakfast.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:12 PM on August 9, 2010


Say what you like, you'll be grateful for brutalist architecture after the zombie plague strikes.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 4:32 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is the psychology building at UNC.

I DON'T SEE ANY IRONY THERE
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:36 PM on August 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


Remember those calming episodes of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood that you watched as a kid? They were filmed in this scary looking concrete cube of a building.

Out of curiosity, why were most of these buildings built by public/non-profit entities like governments, schools and public TV stations? You don't see too many commercial examples of brutalism.
posted by octothorpe at 4:38 PM on August 9, 2010


octothorpe, I think it's because government institutions tend to build in inhuman scale anyway—a way of "showing off," of reminding the visitor that he or she is approaching a powerful institution.

Corporations are much more interested in maintaining a smiley-happy-friendly! façade, so they are willing to balance their phallus measurement against beauty. For example: a city built by bankers with size problems.
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:43 PM on August 9, 2010


government institutions tend to build in inhuman scale anyway—a way of "showing off," of reminding the visitor that he or she is approaching a powerful institution.


And those ominous overhangs are there to remind you that the individual can be crushed at any moment.
posted by stargell at 4:59 PM on August 9, 2010


Out of curiosity, why were most of these buildings built by public/non-profit entities like governments, schools and public TV stations? You don't see too many commercial examples of brutalism.

Slightly more positively or less conspiracist than sonic meat machine, I think it's because, at least in my city, the public authorities have always been more willing to accept architectural visions and to put their money into buildings that are forward looking statements of confidence. Commercial institutions are generally far more conservative and cheap, so rarely commit to anything interesting. Overwhelmingly, civic spaces, hospitals, train stations, theatres, universities, libraries have far more architectural merit than any shopping centre or office block, in my experience.

I have to agree though, that the brutalist phase was generally a sorry one, and I rather wish they'd passed over it quickly. I love what concrete can do, but the only truly magical building I've seen linked here is the Giesel Library.
posted by wilful at 5:12 PM on August 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


of reminding the visitor that he or she is approaching a powerful institution.

Yes, all hail the omnipotent institution of public television!

Corporations are much more interested in maintaining a smiley-happy-friendly! façade

e.g. the Transamerica Building.

Here's a more likely explanation: Brutalist architecture is relatively inexpensive, and public buildings are bid for competitively, so cost matters than esthetics. On the other hand, large companies are interested in showing off their affluence, so they engage in competitive displays of conspicuous consumption, and are therefore more likely to commission more esthetically pleasing structures.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 5:16 PM on August 9, 2010


well, Jimmy Havok, you used the same data to come up with the exact opposite hypothesis!
posted by wilful at 5:19 PM on August 9, 2010


I'd like to think that I pointed out a fact that needs to be taken into consideration (public institutions are more constrained by budgets than private institutions), that are better explained by my theory than by the theory that public institutions have an implicit desire to be perceived as brutal and overwhelming.

Someone with experience in pitching architectural projects in both the private and the public sector could either confirm or deny my premise.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 5:42 PM on August 9, 2010


Yeah but I'm saying that public institutions probably have more money and are more willing to do something experimental. You are in the USA? 1. Your experience of civic institutions is likely to be different to mine in Australia – for us, they’re possibly more highly regarded and have more leeway to spend money on monumental things.
posted by wilful at 6:08 PM on August 9, 2010


I think it was the same way in the U.S. pre-'80s, wilful. Most of our brutalist monoliths are from that era...
posted by sonic meat machine at 6:17 PM on August 9, 2010


If you need more reasons to hate brutalism, check out Scollay Square and the West End of Boston before it was destroyed in a fit of brutalist mania. (Hint: imagine if the Beacon Hill and the North End were connected by a similarly styled warren of streets and buildings.)

Oh god. Oh god. Those pictures now make me want to built a time machine so that I can go back and prevent Curbusier from ever being born (and also Robert Moses while I'm at it).
posted by schmod at 6:36 PM on August 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


You can't fight city hall. Don't even think about it. Get your damn zoning variance application or whatever, and get the fuck out.

That needs a sign with big block letters saying "Welcome To The Machine".

Except that would make it too human.
posted by WhackyparseThis at 6:46 PM on August 9, 2010


One interior stairwell is a vertigo-tempting spiral composed of concrete, steel railings, and existential nausea.


This sounds like the ideal location for my pretentious photoshoot.
posted by louche mustachio at 8:06 PM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Here's an (un)inspiring sight: the George F. Curtis Building (UBC Law). It's so ugly that it's difficult to find official pics of it on the web, and various other more attractive buildings tend to stand in for it.

It's basically a concrete bunker. The library itself has raw concrete walls -- on the inside.

However, I am amazed to discover through this search that it is being -- or has been -- torn down, to be replaced with something perhaps just a fraction less dehumanizing.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 8:52 PM on August 9, 2010


Imagine taking a bus up Burnaby mountain during one of those 30 day stretches when it rains every single day in November/December to arrive here.

I was wondering if someone was going to mention Simon Fraser. Incredibly oppressive architecture on such a beautiful site. I don't get it. And I've heard so many people sing its praises; the cognitive dissonance required must be staggering.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 8:53 PM on August 9, 2010


The term Brutalist Architecture comes from the French term for raw concrete, beton brut.

Huh. I did not know that. I always foolishly assumed that it was called that because looking at it made people feel like they were being fucked in the eye socket with a dead hobo's dick.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:04 PM on August 9, 2010 [5 favorites]


I long for the day when cheap diamond coatings will ensure these structures will be a boot stamping on the face of human aesthetics - forever.

Yeah, I got some issues I'm working through.
posted by codswallop at 9:12 PM on August 9, 2010


It's basically a concrete bunker. The library itself has raw concrete walls -- on the inside.

You say that like it's a bad thing. In my book, raw concrete beats plaster, any day of the week. Especially for university buildings, where, thanks to the vagaries of funding, repainting plaster walls can be postponed way past "okay, this is starting to look sinister".
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 10:20 PM on August 9, 2010


Their designers do.

I know nothing of architecture, but I always figured Brutalism got its start with some guy saying "Y'know, if the Maginot Line would be pretty rad didn't have all those cutesy cloches."
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:43 PM on August 9, 2010


The School of Architecture in Stockholm, Sweden is also housed in a brutalist building. It's regularly voted the ugliest building in Stockholm.
posted by soundofsuburbia at 11:41 PM on August 9, 2010


Oh, also, duh, how could I forget the most universally reviled structures in all of Minnesota??
posted by cthuljew at 2:00 AM on August 10, 2010


There's an incredible Brutalist structure in the final part of Inception, by the way, the mountain fortress. Does anyone know if that place exists, or if it was built for the movie?

It looked so familiar to me that I knew I'd seen it somewhere before. And I had: the snow fortress is the Geisel Library.
posted by 6550 at 10:00 AM on August 10, 2010


Thank you for the post. I especially liked Joanne Murray's description of Ballard's scientist friend sending him the weekly detritus from the lab. Here is a link to a longer talk she gives on this work.

Like The Independent Group itself, New Brutalism very much intended to shock suburban complacency, especially the old guard advocates of the detached, picturesque, Swedish social housing model so prevalent in England at that time. They wanted to tackle urban housing with a new, existential analysis of popular culture and a participatory model of dwelling and occupation of urban space by "the people." In a word: Utopian. The Smithsons drew as much from the Italian futurists and Soviet avant-garde architects as they did from their artist friends, Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton.

Ballard's relationship to this work is fascinating.

In the first fifteen years of his writing career J.G. Ballard created a small but influential portfolio of graphically experimental work, beginning in the late 1950s with his type collage, Project For A New Novel, and ending in the 1970s with a series of images called Advertiser's Announcements, which utilized the basic design parameters of print advertising. While it is interesting that Ballard the writer would even venture into the world of pictorial space, one shouldn't be too surprised, as Ballard has revealed that even when he started writing science fiction in 1956 he would have preferred even then to have written pieces similar to those in The Atrocity Exhibition. “I was interested in writing experimental fiction (though I hate the phrase, in fact) when I was still in school.”

From J.G. Ballard’s Graphic Experiments

For me, there are many more examples of controlling and "soul crushing" architectures than the brutalist works from the 60s. They are the suburban malls dressed up in gables, pediments or fake columns; the big box theme stores, whether neon, craftsman or shingle; the new Tudor Style university buildings; office parks and strip malls trimmed in plasticine stucco over shaped Styrofoam, cultured stone and vinyl - all perfectly "human-scaled" facades.

Surveillance cameras hung like gargoyles from the cornices, following me as I approached the barbican and identified myself to the guard at the reception desk… High above me, fluted columns carried the pitched roofs, an attempt at a vernacular architecture that failed to disguise this executive-class prison. Taking their cue from Eden-Olympia and Antibes-les-Pins, the totalitarian systems of the future would be subservient and ingratiating, but the locks would be just as strong.

From Super-Cannes
posted by xod at 12:39 PM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Interesting that third photo down in the first link (unless I'm very much mistaken) is the head office of CABE, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, which is the body that advises the UK government on good design. Draw your own conclusions from that!

Actually, I'm pretty sympathetic to this kind of architecture, when it's done well. One of the other photos is of one of Ernö Goldfinger's tower blocks in London (either Balfour or Trellick tower, I can't tell them apart). I recently read Nigel Warburton's excellent biography of Goldfinger, which depicts him as a man driven by an almost fanatical obsession with the quality of life of the people who would live in his buildings. I suppose it's equally possible to see him as a paternalistic control-freak (Warburton might even agree to some extent), but it's an interesting counterpoint to the sense I'm getting from the comments that brutalist buildings are necessarily 'dehumanising'. Often the intent behind these designs, if not the end product, was deeply humanist.
posted by zygoticmynci at 5:45 AM on August 11, 2010


My grad school department's brutallist block of a building literally looks like it's going to crush you as you walk in the main entrance.
posted by octothorpe

It looks like it one of those industrial foot-operated die cutters, the ones that are always chopping off fingers.
posted by StickyCarpet


Or the back end of a garbage truck.
posted by carter at 8:32 AM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


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