"Et tu, Beton Brut?"


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By Sarah Sher
In the past few months, there has been an extraordinary amount of press on Brutalist architecture, most of which has centered on the controversy of whether or not to demolish Paul Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center. The front-page article in the New York Times on April 7, “Architecture’s Ugly Ducklings May Not Get Time to Be Swans,” served as a catalyst for an explosion of newspaper, journal, magazine, and blog articles about the building and its Brutalist style, including pages and pages of reader comments.  



There has certainly been controversial preservation battles throughout history. It is rare however to see so much emotion on both sides this heavily covered in the press. Based on these articles, one would assume Brutalism is despised by everyone with the general sentiment that they are “ugly.” Brutalist buildings are portrayed as “eyesores” designed by “egotistical elitists.” They are misinterpreted as vicious attacks against society, as cheaply made, quickly put together buildings with little thought behind them. In reality, they were carefully designed by architects who strived to return to architecture that was for the people – that provided stability, protection, monumentality, and an honest expression of materials.  There was a tremendous amount of craft that went into the carpentry of creating the formwork and finishing the concrete surfaces.

Unite d'HabitationIt was Le Corbusier who coined the term "beton brut" – translating in English to “raw concrete” -- while constructing his Unite d'Habitation in Marseille, France (completed in 1952). This raw-ness, or “brut”-ness, was picked up by architects internationally, forming an architectural style that we now call "Brutalism."  While this style is most associated with concrete, it is meant to describe buildings of the 1950s through the early 1970s showcasing masonry materials in an honest, monumental way, reflecting back to history but with a modern interpretation. It was a reaction against the modernism of the early 1900s that claimed to honestly express materiality, but was in fact coating each building with plaster and paint.

Instead of using "Brutalism" as a way of accurately categorizing this architectural movement, it has become a way of describing any and all concrete modernist buildings the public finds displeasing. The very same communities that commissioned these buildings forty years ago ironically are now calling for their demolition.  New ideas and social change of the mid-20th century with a desire for bold architecture seems to have been replaced by safe neo-Classicist designs.  

Pirelli Tire CompanyDespite the negative perception surrounding Brutalism, most of these buildings have groups that coalesce around them, suggesting a resurgence of appreciation for this type of architecture. Orange County Government Center has The Taxpayers of Orange County, Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital has Save Prentice, Marcel Breuer’s Pirelli Tire Company building had the Long Wharf Advocacy Group.  On top of these localized campaigns, state, national, and international preservation organizations are now giving Brutalist buildings the attention they deserve.  Within the preservation and academic communities, there is an understanding this architectural style is significant and worthy of preservation.

So why is it more difficult to convey this significance to the general public than it is for other building types?  Does it come down to taste? If so, this is a well-covered issue for preservation as our profession was born out of distaste for earlier styles of architecture now commonly considered both historic and beautiful.  Most pro-Brutalist preservation articles bring up how there were generations before that reviled Victorian houses and Art Deco buildings and one day there will be a generation that loves Brutalist buildings just as much as other styles.  

And then there are people like me – people who truly think Brutalism is beautiful and are waiting to be identified as the “new generation.”  I am moved by each building’s boldness, the dark weathered, rough surfaces.  I am consistently in awe of the board imprints in the gray concrete, the exposed aggregate in a sandblasted precast unit, or the hand-tooled “corduroy” detailing.  When visiting Marseille, France, I was not in the city itself for longer than ten minutes; I could not pull myself away from Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation.  I assure you that I am not alone.  I am surrounded by friends and family who are this new generation and who understand the beauty of these buildings. Perhaps we already have a new generation that embraces Brutalism not only because of its historical, architectural, and social value, but because it is beautiful.  

Breuer BronxThere are other possibilities for why Brutalism elicits such a negative response. Perhaps it is the word “Brutalism” itself and its perceived root from the English word “Brutal”. Without understanding how it references Le Corbusier’s French derived “beton brut” or “raw”, how would the general public know the subtle difference?  It is also possible people  think the name implies the buildings are intentionally and literally hostile. Boston-based architects Michael Kubo, Mark Pasnik, and Chris Grimley curated an exhibit in 2009 called “Heroic” in order to make this switch from referring to these mid-century concrete masterpieces as “Brutalist” to “Heroic” for the very purpose of altering the image of these buildings.

This brings us back to a more general issue of education through information and experience. Fieldtrips, tours and open houses are excellent ways for people to get close, see the craftsmanship, the rawness and the power. From far away, these special details can often go unnoticed. Communication about the history of Brutalist buildings and how their architects were responding to all sorts of architectural and social concerns in the 1950s-1970s would also go a long way to providing context for future discussions.  

In addition to perception, maintenance is also a considerable issue. Because Brutalist buildings are still relatively young and have not been treated as heritage structures, they have been ill taken care of. Ad hoc repairs have rendered their surfaces scarred, and while a Dutch repair on stone may be well accepted, a patch on a uniform surface of concrete has a much more jarring effect.  Many buildings have also been cleaned insensitively, softening the formboard impressions, which in turn removes a significant part of their character.  

Brutalist buildings are misunderstood creatures.  Identification as “Brutalist,” insensitive alterations, and the misinterpretation of their history has made preservation controversial. However, the amount of press that has been generated as a result of this debate is encouraging, and may have contributed to the 11 to 10 vote by the Orange County Legislature to oppose financing the replacement of Paul Rudolph’s masterpiece.  While there is still work to do on behalf of “beton brut”, recent discussions have positively resulted in greater exposure and hopefully greater understanding for this important architectural style.

Photos: Unite d'Habitation courtesy of Sarah Sher, Pirelli Tire Company courtesy of Sarah Sher, Begrisch Hall courtesy of Liz Waytkus