Brutal/Heroic

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By Mark Pasnik, Michael Kubo, Chris Grimley

This article is excerpted and adapted from Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston (The Monacelli Press, 2015) which examines Boston's unparalled concetration of concrete architecture built in the postwar decades, an era that initiated the city's wholesale transformation through powerful and often controversial policies of civic intervention. 

Marcel Breuer & Associates, Madison Park High School, 1967–77
Photo: Nick Wheeler, Courtesy of the Frances Loeb Library, Harvard University Graduate School of Design

Brutal
Uncovering the history of concrete buildings in the second half of the twentieth century requires confronting the label under which they have been widely misunderstood and disparaged: “Brutalism,” a loosely and often arbitrarily applied moniker emerging from European discourses. Divorced from its initial social and aesthetic connotations, the word has today come to imply that the buildings categorized under this label originated from deeply negative—brutal—intentions. In retrospect, the worst aspect of Brutalism has been the misapplication of its name.

Far from a coherent lineage, the adoption of the labels “Brutalist” and “Brutalism” has been marked by a host of contingencies and translations in meaning from their origins to their later use. In his etymology of the “New Brutalism” in the United Kingdom, the historian and contemporary partisan Reyner Banham listed an array of possible sources for its naming in English: the “Neo-Brutalist” label that Swedish architect Hans Asplund sarcastically directed to his colleagues; the béton brut (literally, “raw concrete”) of Le Corbusier’s postwar buildings; the roughly contemporaneous coinage by Jean Dubuffet of art brut; even the cheeky equation of the student nickname and name, respectively, of Peter and Alison Smithson, two of the movement’s main practitioners and theorists: Brut(us) + Alis(on) = Brutalism.1Born of myriad origins, by the mid-1950s the New Brutalism had been adopted as a mantle by a generation of young architects, to be exported worldwide over the following two decades under the expanded banner of Brutalism.

Paul Rudolph, Government Service Center, 1962–71. Photo: Robert Perron

Sert, Jackson & Associates, Holyoke Center, 1958–67. Photo: Phokion Karas

Testament to their uncertain provenance, what these terms referred to was ambiguous from the start. Banham had alreadywondered in 1955 if the New Brutalism was a descriptive label for buildings or “a programme, a banner” for an attitude—an aesthetic or an ethic.2This either/or would come to plague the discussion of Brutalism’s meaning. For their part, the Smithsons declared that “Brutalism tries to face up to a mass-production society, and drag a rough poetry out of the confused and powerful forces which are at work. Up to now Brutalism has been discussed stylistically, whereas its essence is ethical.”3By the time of his retrospective account of the movement in 1966, however, Banham was obliged to concede that its meaning had narrowed almost immediately upon its introduction, quickly devolving from the Smithsons’ ethical imperative to a mere descriptor for the hard-edged formal qualities of concrete.

In its translation to the United States, Brutalism became even more dissociated from its ethical connotations, coming to stand solely for the aesthetic efforts of those working to develop a concrete idiom, a group that included Louis Kahn, Paul Rudolph, and I. M. Pei. While much of the architectural discourse in the postwar decades was focused on the laconic Miesian box as an outgrowth of the International Style, a generation of architects was moving away from this reduced language of glass and steel toward forms of monumentality often inspired by the robust postwar buildings of the Smithsons, Le Corbusier, and others.

During the production of his only North American building on Harvard University’s campus, Le Corbusier shared with his protégé and colleague, Josep Lluís Sert, his own reservations about the derivation of concrete and the terminology applied to it later in the British scene:

Béton brut was born at the Unité d’Habitation at Marseilles where there were 80 contractors and such a massacre of concrete that one simply could not dream of making useful transitions by means of grouting. I decided: let us leave all that brute. I called it “béton brut” [“bare concrete”]. The English immediately jumped on the piece and treated me (Ronchamp and the Monastery of La Tourette) as “Brutal”—béton brutal—all things considered, the brute is Corbu. They called that “the new brutality.” My friends and admirers take me for the brute of the brutal concrete! 4

In contrast, he was clear about the differences between these earlier efforts and his work in the United States: “The Visual Arts Center,that we are doing together at the center of Harvard University, is in béton brut, but smooth, and this is in a spirit of perfection which animates you as well as me.”5

The inaccuracy of Brutalism as a stylistic label reverberates in the commentary of many of the architects who built in Boston in an era when the city became a center of concrete modernism worldwide. Araldo Cossutta insists that his colleagues at I. M. Pei & Partners never used the term, protesting that “the word ‘brutal’ gives the impression of buildings created by wild people. I resent the word Brutalism being attached to my work in any way.”6Henry N. Cobb agrees that that “the effort was about refinement, rather than a Brutalist interpretation,” reinforcing the term’s inability to describe the sophistication with which the firm, among many others, treated concrete.7Speaking of her concrete house and studio in Lincoln, Massachusetts, Mary Otis Stevens was more introspective about the link between Brutalism and her projects. “I didn’t make that connection, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t believe in some of the ideals of Brutalism.”8

Mary Otis Stevens and Thomas F. McNulty, Lincoln House and Studio, 1961–65. Photo: Thomas F. McNulty, Courtesy MIT Museum

These distinctions and disenchantments have been compounded by changing national attitudes toward government and the decline of state investment in the public realm after the late 1960s. Today, the rough categorization of this strain of concrete architecture as Brutalist has served to disconnect it from the period’s political, social, and material concerns. Originally seen to reflect the democratic attributes of a powerful civic expression—authenticity, honesty, directness, strength—Brutalism eventually came to signify hostility, coldness, and inhumanity. Ambitions which had been viewed as positively monumental were condemned as bureaucratic and overbearing. As a banner for a movement, “Brutalism” was a rhetorical catastrophe. Separated from its original context and reduced in meaning, it became an all-too-easy pejorative, suggesting these buildings were designed with negative intentions.

Heroic
In our recent book on Boston’s concrete modernism in this period, we recover a different word—Heroic—as a more accurate descriptor for the modes of thought that governed many of these works. Less remembered in the handwringing over the meaning of Brutalism, “heroic” was used as a term of both praise and criticism by many of the same architects who were invested in these debates. Alison and Peter Smithson invoked it as a call to measure up to the ethos and achievements of their avant-garde predecessors, claiming that “the heroic struggle of the first period of Modern Architecture . . . gave a sense of moral responsibility to invent for ourselves forms appropriate to the postwar period; forms equal in power—but of a different order of strength . . . responding to the more complicated, even confused, needs of our time.”9Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown redeployed it as a weapon in Learning from Las Vegas, advocating for the “ugly and ordinary” as a corrective to the “heroic and original” ambitions of their contemporaries. “This is not the time and ours is not the environment for heroic communication through pure architecture,” they admonished.10

Le Corbusier with Sert, Jackson & Gourley, Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, 1958–63. Photo: Mark Pasnik

I. M. Pei & Partners and Araldo Cossutta, Associated Architects, Christian Science Center, 1964–73. Photo: Mark Pasnik

Heroic refers at once to the formal attributes of the buildings themselves—powerful, singular, aspiring to the iconic—and to the attitudes of the architects and institutions that created them. It attempts to bring into focus not just their visual character, but also their underlying motivations, to seek out an expression that could appropriately reflect the symbolic importance of civic life in urban centers. In this way, the forward-looking optimism of concrete architecture in the United States communicated the social ideals of John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs, as emblems of the collective will to capitalize on growing national wealth to broadly repair and enrich the public realm.

The robust architectural language we call Heroic was shaped by this civic spirit. At its best, Heroic architecture did reflect an ethic, a cultural project meant to reveal the realities of its time and forge a new honesty about architecture’s role within the broader social and urban transformations of the postwar era. Many of the era’s architects explicitly sought a language through which to express these ideals, a sentiment echoed by those practicing in Boston. Mary Otis Stevens speaks of her belief in “the link between architectural and moral integrity”; N. Michael McKinnell of “imbuing architecture with an authenticity;” Henry Cobb of holding a “principled view” of architecture; Araldo Cossutta (quoting Le Corbusier) of aiming for “the architecture of truth”; Frederick A. “Tad” Stahl of achieving “universal principles, authenticity, and civility.” Nearly all refer to the powerful influence of Le Corbusier, combined with a desire to have architecture communicate honestly through the use of concrete, a material with the capacity to be structural and expressive simultaneously.

Like Brutalism, Heroic carries both positive and negative connotations. It underscores the ambition, but also perhaps the hubris that marked the architectural production of the time. While Brutalism has become nearly impossible to dissociate from its negative connotations, Heroic acknowledges the complexities of these buildings—both the intentions from which they grew and their controversial status afterward. We feel the need to reject the accumulated cultural baggage of Brutalism and redirect public discourse about the future of these buildings within a wider historical perspective. Calling them Heroic reframes a more balanced discussion about their legacy and value for us today.

Kallmann, McKinnell & Knowles, Boston City Hall plaza, 1962–69. Photo Credit: Photo: © Ezra Stoller/Esto

Boston University skyline. Photo: Phokion Karas

About

Mark Pasnik, Michael Kubo, and Chris Grimley are codirectors of pinkcomma gallery and collaborators in the design firm over,under.

Mark Pasnik is an associate professor of architecture at Wentworth Institute of Technology and has taught previously at the California College of the Arts, Carnegie Mellon University, Northeastern University, and Rhode Island School of Design.

Michael Kubo is a Ph.D. candidate in the History, Theory, and Criticism of Architecture at MIT, a founding partner of the design practice Collective–LOK, and was associate curator for OfficeUS, the U.S. Pavilion at the 2014 International Architecture Biennale in Venice.

Chris Grimley is an adjunct professor at Northeastern University and has taught previously at the University of British Columbia, Rhode Island School of Design, and Wentworth Institute of Technology.

The Heroic Project was launched in 2009 with an exhibition at pinkcomma gallery and has appeared at the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Modern Module (2010) and the Art Institute of Chicago (2015). Previous articles have been published in Architect, Celeste, CLOG, and Harvard Design Magazine.


Notes
1 Reyner Banham, The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic? (New York: Reinhold, 1966), 10.
2 Reyner Banham, “The New Brutalism,” The Architectural Review (December 1955): 354–61.
3 Alison and Peter Smithson, “The New Brutalism,” Architectural Design (April 1957): 113.
4 Le Corbusier, letter to Josep Lluís Sert, May 12, 1962, reprinted in Eduard F. Sekler and William Curtis, Le Corbusier at Work: The Genesis of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), 302. The translation is Curtis’s, 166.
5 Ibid.
6 “Integral Architecture,” interview with Araldo Cossutta appearing in Heroic.
7 “A Shared Ethos,” interview with Henry N. Cobb appearing in Heroic.
8 “The Anti-Hero,” interview with Mary Otis Stevens appearing in Heroic.
9 Alison and Peter Smithson, The Charged Void: Architecture (New York: Monacelli Press, 2001), 38.
10 Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, Learning From Las Vegas (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1972), 87.