Monday, May 7, 2012

Brutalism. The Ugly Face of Preservation.

In recent months there has been much discussion and conflict over the preservation of architecture from the Modern Movement. Structures that once represented the technological and artistic triumphs of the architect from the mid-twentieth century are viewed as unruly intrusions to the environment around them, especially Brutalist style structures. Brutalism represents an aesthetic of architectural design and planning that is rational, geometric, stripped of ornamentation, and predominantly composed of corrugated concrete. This style was initiated by Le Corbusier whose architecture was perhaps the “brutal reaction to the machine mass-produced Miesian building types” born in the post-World War II era.[1]
While we have come to slowly accept, as significant to our architectural history, the glass curtain wall machine-like jewels from one camp of the Modern Movement, we are quick to deny claim and significance to those rugged, concrete, man-made structures of the Brutalist style. Why? They are aesthetically unattractive. Brutalist structures are testaments to urban ideals for civic and educational facilities of the Modern Movement. They also project attitudes of raw unforgiving dominance, and were built by some of the world’s most forward thinking architects. Yet, Brutalism has and is continued to be met with severe criticism and cold reception. Criticism is continually directed towards the design and rough aesthetic qualities of the structures facades, but also for how their corrugated concrete does not mix well with damp climates. No wonder vocal disdain was heard loud and clear at the University of Oregon campus during the late 1970s, implementing the initiation of The Oregon Experiment.[2]
Still, today there are cries for the demolition of Brutalist structures, many of which are called architectural eye-sores or more simply, ugly. Two of Paul Rudolph’s designs, The Orange County Government Center of 1958 and Sarasota High School of 1960 have been in the spotlight of the demolition or renovation debate. Acceptance of Brutalism has been rough from the beginning, and history has proved it is not getting easier. However, we must preserve structures from the Modern Movement, even the declared eye-sores, because they are significant markers of our architectural history. The Brutalist style of architecture offered an alternative and direct challenge to the glass curtain wall that was a dominant characteristic of urban renewal and planning during the Modern Movement. Brutalism was the bold statement to the passivity of glass curtain wall design, and perhaps the closest bridging of conceptual architectural drawings and building.[3]
Perhaps a more pressing issue is why is there a lack of value associated with preserving architecture from the Modern Movement. Even the more favored glass curtain wall structures are still met with uncertainty in regards to preservation. Let’s not forget that Veterans Memorial Coliseum once faced cries for demolition, despite its intellectual display of form and material.  Structures from the Modern Movement are historical documents that attest to the cultural, social, economic, technological, and artistic climates of the eras in which they were conceived. Yet, preservationists are met with ferocious declarations of demolition once these structures begin to show any signs of weathering and aging, which prompts the reminder that for some they are also aesthetically disappointing and offensive.
Preservationists have to ask the more difficult questions of which structures should be saved, and why. Preservation becomes problematic because a set of criteria has been created that ultimately judges the significance of a structure not only for the manners in which it was conceived, but as part of our “perceived architectural heritage.”[4] Declaring a structure(s) as part of our cultures architectural heritage further complicates the preservationists roll because it is then implied that the structure(s) has been significant to the contribution of our current cultural identity.[5] Have structures executed in the Brutalist style been significant towards the contribution to our cultural heritage?  Perhaps not, but they are important markers in our architectural history.
Should structures executed in the Brutalist style be wiped clean from our architectural history? No, but this style should not be fostered, recreated, and executed again. And one of the best manners in which to ensure this is to keep a physical and visual historical record. Preservation cannot be for the aesthetically pleasing only, because our architectural history would be stripped bare and left with dispassionate and boring structures. 

[1] Curcic, Slobodan. “Review of The New Brutalism. Ethic or Aesthetic by Reyner Banham.” Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 3, No. 2 (1969) 171-173.
[2] University of Oregon. <> [Accessed May 2, 2012].
[3] Rohan, Timothy R. “Rendering the Surface: Paul Rudolph’s Art and Architecture Building at Yale.” Grey Room, No. 1 (Autumn 2000) 84-107.
[4] Whiteley, Nigel. “Modern Architecture, Heritage, and Englishness.” Architectural History. (1995) 220-237.
[5] Refer to previous footnote.