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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Beauty in Brutalism

I saw the Wall Street Journal article "The Beauty in Brutalism, Restored and Updated" linked on Planetizen. It's a great read.

I particularly love how Ada Louise Huxtable sets up the history of recent-past preservation so eloquently and yet so concisely:

For a maverick movement begun by little old ladies in tennis shoes fighting bulldozers in the urban renewal demolition wars of the 1960s, historic preservation has achieved some astounding successes, from the passage of landmarks preservation laws and the establishment of the National Trust for Historic Preservation to the recognition, restoration and reuse of an impressive part of this country's architectural heritage. Guidelines have been established for a wide range of buildings, from the monumental to the vernacular -- repair first, restore second, rebuild last; make clear what is new or added, and honor the original materials and construction.

But when the vernacular expanded to the popular and kitsch joined high art in the pantheon of taste, nothing, potentially, was unworthy of serious consideration and a good argument could be made for almost any building that had survived. The new cultural ideals were inclusive and pluralistic. Objective scholarship was sidelined for subjective, emotional associations fueled by partisan passions. Familiar standards simply fell apart, and so did the comfortable operating consensus of the preservation movement.

It was at this moment of disequilibrium that modernist architecture came under attack, its aging landmarks threatened with destruction. These buildings broke with every convention of design and construction, but beyond disagreements about criteria, there were the failed experimental technologies of a now historic avant-garde. Preservationists were faced with a whole new set of problems.

Even so, amidst all the attempts to vilify Brutalism, perhaps modernism's most unapologetic and brash expression, Yale University has restored a brutalist gem, Paul Rudolph's Art and Architecture Building.

Huxtable goes on to attack Boston for its well-publicized hatred of its brutalist City Hall. Boston is not alone in its disdain for the 1969 put it at the top of the list of the "World's Top 10 Ugliest Buildings and Monuments".

Huxtable's piece is a great defense of brutalism, and a call to re-examine our attitudes toward modern buildings. Surprisingly, she does not advocate for a full restoration of the building as it once was in the case of these experimental designs. As she notes in her first couple paragraphs, preserving modernism changes the whole game of preservation. The whole modern movement was founded upon the unrelenting notion of progress; whatever new materials and experimental construction techniques were available were then used. No modernist looked back; that was antithetical to progress. When we, nearly half a century later, look to the re-use of these buildings, we may have to recognize a need to retool them. Huxtable, of course, says it better, and in fewer words:

Nothing is the same when you reach the 21st century. Suddenly a 20th-century heritage is in crisis and in desperate need of a revised, realistic agenda to keep its landmarks useful and alive.

As we all well know now, modernism is the current battleground for preservation. The fifty year mark that is the rule of thumb for deeming a building "historic" now puts us at 1959. The label "historic" will soon sail into the tumultuous 1960s.

Because these threatened mid-century modern buildings were so landmark for their time, and still appear unique and apart from earlier eras, their loss is particularly noticeable. This is great for efforts such as the one to save the San Luis, which is not Brutalist, of course, but is also unabashedly modern and under threat. We will regret the loss of these buildings, and they are reworkable, even if not in their original, literal, experimental sense.


Brian said...

I'm kind of mixed when it comes to brutalism - some I like, some I don't. The Yale Law School building actually looks pretty good to me, and I'm a fan of the Pet/Sverdrup Building on Fourth Street downtown - the improvements made to that building, the lighting, in particular, are great.

Boston's City Hall is not so bad in itself, but its surroundings - a sea of brick - made me feel really uncomfortable for some reason when I walked by it.

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