Saturday, October 19, 2013

Brutalist buildings were not designed to be riot-proof

Chances are good that if you went to college in the United States after, say, 1975, your campus featured at least one imposing, bunker-like concrete building in the architectural style known as “Brutalism.” Colorfully translated from Le Corbusier’s purely descriptive term b├ęton brut (or “raw concrete”), Brutalist architecture—as it was developed and practiced during the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s by architects like Alison and Peter Smithson in the U.K. and Paul Rudolph in America—favored heavy, solid shapes cast in intricately textured reinforced concrete , sharp angles, and a general sense of what architecture historians describe as “heroism” or “monumentalism.” ...

Yet the Brutalism boom started to crumble even as it approached critical mass—very quickly, students, faculty, and community members came to a widely shared (and rare) consensus that the new buildings were, in a word, ugly. ...

Assuming that your campus did have a Brutalist building, you’ve probably been told a lie about it that goes something like, “Hideous, right? The administration chose that design because it was good at preventing student riots and occupations.” The notion, apparently, is that the style’s typically complex floor plans, dazzling edifices, and oddly placed entrances would discourage those kinds of activities. ...

Though the riot-prevention narrative is widely known, every architectural historian or critical source that I consulted viewed it as extremely dubious. For one thing, the claim is somewhat anachronistic. Many campus Brutalist projects were planned (if not totally completed) before the student movements of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s really took off, so crafty administrators would have to have been very prescient to foresee the countercultural-quashing usefulness of any particular style. ...

But more to the point, the philosophy behind Brutalism—which was developed in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, again well before the student rebellions began—was directly opposed to repression and control, a detail which makes the style’s later association with totalitarianism all the more ironic. ...

Indeed, according to scholar Timothy Rohan, Rudolph, the architect behind Yale’s controversial Art and Architecture Building—one of the earliest and most influential campus Brutalist works—imagined his creations as “educational buildings that were intended to be richly expressive citadels for [high] culture” against the corrosive influences of “mass culture, overpopulation, and science.”