It was a slow death, and a public one. For months, construction machinery chewed through the reinforced concrete bulk of the Morris A. Mechanic Theater in downtown Baltimore, grinding its sculptural stone-and-steel towers and cantilevers down to street level by what seemed like inches at a time.
Many locals were happy to see it finally reduced to rubble earlier this year. Built in 1967, it had sat derelict for a decade, and its unforgiving structure had doomed it to ultimate obsolescence decades before that. Its buff walls had sprouted cracks and crumbled corners. While Baltimore is a city that typically takes urban decay in stride, the Mechanic’s blocky, windowless backside loomed over a prime block on one of the busiest streets of a downtown showing welcome new signs of prosperity.
But for fans of Brutalism, the mid-20th-century architectural style, the demolition of the Mechanic represented an all-too-familiar loss. It meant yet another structure designed by John M. Johansen, one of the modernist architectural titans known as the Harvard Five, flattened into oblivion. And it meant another defeat in what has become a long-running battle by handfuls of architects, historians, and assorted nerds around the world to save Brutalist architecture from wholesale destruction.
Defending Brutalism is a thankless task. Whenever some wag whips up a list of the ugliest structures, the style is always well represented. The Huffington Post named “25 Buildings to Demolish Right Now” in 2012, and Boston City Hall came in at No. 1. (The Mechanic sat at No. 21.) Like a number of aging Brutalist buildings, Boston City Hall has, in fact, been maligned for years and stood under threat of demolition in the mid-’00s, and the list of significant Brutalism exemplars already pulverized is getting longer at an accelerating pace: the Robin Hood Gardens public-housing complex in London; the Prentice Women’s Hospital and Maternity Center in Chicago; the Mummers Theater in Oklahoma City (another Johansen design).
Brutalism’s defenders get it. “It’s easy to hate,” says Christine Madrid French, an architectural historian and preservationist who specializes in mid-century modernist structures. “It’s big, it’s imposing. It doesn’t welcome you in.” The name—initially derived from “béton brut,” French for “raw concrete”—probably doesn’t help.
But Brutalism’s partisans see the popular view of the style as tragically short-sighted. Its drab-colored monumentalism may be out of fashion at the moment, but fashions change. It wasn’t that long ago that the Victorian houses now fawned over by yuppies everywhere were considered fussy, fusty old relics fit to be chopped up or bulldozed.
And if we keep tearing down Brutalism’s legacy with the same fervor that people once trashed Victorian, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco buildings, says Chris Grimley, an architectural curator and graphic designer, “generations fifty years from now are going to wonder, ‘What were they thinking?’”
Brutalism was supposed to be the architecture of the future—as least, as the future was envisioned last century. Its roots extend back nearly a hundred years to 20th-century modernist icon Le Corbusier, who advanced the idea that functional, egalitarian architecture could help level class distinctions. He also seized on the use of poured concrete reinforced with steel rods as a cheap and expressively potent construction material. By 1955, Le Corbusier and others were putting his ideas and materials into practice, and a clutch of British architects and critics had coined and codified the term. (Johansen, for one, preferred the term “functional expressionism,” which is just as apt.)
Remember, the postwar world was all about changing the world. By the 1960s and 1970s, “new social programs are funding new public space, and you had a lot of new institutional architecture,” says Fred Scharmen, a designer and assistant professor of architecture at Morgan State University in Baltimore, who specializes in speculative and utopian architecture. “On the one hand, people turned to this kind of form-making because it’s cheap, but also because there are new ideas about what is the public realm and what kind of presence institutions should have in it. There’s almost a kind of populist sentiment behind the creation of these public spaces.”
In America, the style was often applied to government buildings. Most notably, Boston redid the entire hub of its civic government in the style in the ’60s. In addition to commissioning a new city hall and a surrounding plaza from various architects, the city tapped Brutalist master Paul Rudolph to create its new Government Service Center, a deceptively sensuous virtuoso example of the style.
But the term “Brutalism” was not a complete misnomer. Many found the new buildings stark, cold, ugly. While that may not have been any individual architect’s goal, it wasn’t an accident. So much of art and design is discussed in terms of beauty, Scharmen notes, “but that’s sort of a one-note emotional response.” Brutalist architects and critics were interested in “different kinds of emotional resonances.”
“People apologize for Brutalism, and say, ‘Oh no, no, it isn’t about being ugly,’” he continues. “But I think it kind of is.”
The 1960s and ’70s “were not a peaceful time,” French says. The Cold War, assassinated leaders, the Vietnam War and protests, revolutionary rhetoric spreading around the world, exploding street crime, political upheaval—if some Brutalist buildings seemed fortress-like, they only reflected the combativeness of their era.
But eras end. By the dawn of the more optimistic 1980s, postmodernism had inspired architects to bring back older forms, often as knowing references, even sly jokes, creating more openly approachable buildings and a lighter mood. Critics went on the attack against Brutalism, and the tastes of those dispensing commissions turned away from windowless expanses of monochromatic concrete. “There was a sense that architecture that was very abstract is a kind of talking-down to the common person,” Scharmen says of the backlash.
Buildings are not living things, but they do have lifespans. After thirty years, even the most forward-thinking new structures will be subject to failing systems, leaky roofs, or changes in the way people use them. At that point, those in charge have a decision: renovate/remodel, or tear it down and build something else.
As a new century began, Brutalist buildings were showing their age, not just in terms of their style, but also in their structures. Despite their monumental appearance, they can be quite fragile.
Concrete poured around steel reinforcing bars—aka “rebar”—forms a nearly perfect symbiosis: versatile, enormously strong, expands and contracts almost identically under temperature extremes. But concrete is porous, and steel rusts. Brutalist buildings featuring flat horizontal surfaces or poorly treated concrete inevitably absorb water, leading to freeze/thaw cycles below the surface and decaying rebar. Cracks and crumbles follow.
Many Brutalist buildings became notorious for leaks and drafts, which often were inherent in the designs. In other cases, they arose from neglect.
Chris Grimley, whose firm over,under is based in Boston, offers an extreme but telling example. In the ’60s, the Christian Science Church commissioned I. M. Pei’s firm to create a new administration building, plaza, and other additions to complement the historic 1894 “mother church.” Designer Araldo Cossutta’s painstakingly planned and executed plaza was unveiled in the early 1970s.
In the detailed manual Cossutta wrote regarding the proper care and maintenance of the building, he specified that the reflecting pool be filled with water year-round and kept above freezing during the winter. The thermal mass of the liquid was designed to help protect the expansion joints in the parking garage under the plaza from freezing, cracking, and failing. But after a few years, the church stopped keeping the pool filled for budgetary reasons, and the garage developed leaks and cracks.
It’s not the concrete construction that caused the structure to fail, Grimley says, but the fact that the property managers didn’t read the manual. “And the cost implications of trying to fix that mistake are larger than the cost of keeping water in the pool,” he says.
When it comes time for a government body or other organization to consider spending a lot of money to spruce up a little-loved concrete hulk from another era, the wrecking ball holds an appeal. “They’ll say, ‘It’ll cost $100 million to save that historic building and adapt it,’” French says. “And then they tear it down and build something for $200 million.”
Economics sometimes work in Brutalism’s favor. Thomas Menino, the late former mayor of Boston, spent a couple of years on a drive to offload the little-loved City Hall and Government Center plaza to private developers and build a new complex elsewhere in the city. But by 2008, he concluded that his plan was too costly. The Brutalist complex owes its continued existence in part to the recession.
A new generation has grown up with Brutalist buildings, and some twenty- and thirtysomethings have grown to love them.
Grimley was born in London, grew up in Toronto, and wound up living and working in Boston—all cities that reinvented their centers in the 1960s with a wealth of Brutalist structures. They are literally part of the landscape of every phase of his life.
Scharmen, a sci-fi fan, was captivated early on. When he was a kid in the 1980s, twenty-year-old Brutalist buildings “looked like the future,” he says. And Brutalist architecture “still has that power to make you think about whatever other worlds, cultures, even economic realities are possible.”
Many younger fans converge on Facebook and Tumblr to swap images of cast-concrete wonders—see The Brutalism Appreciation Society on the former platform and fuckyeahbrutalism on the latter. Others are taking a more active role in celebrating it, and in trying to help save it.
Grimley is one of three Boston-area architects involved in the Heroic Project. Inspired, in part, by “constantly hearing City Hall referred to as the ugliest building in the world,” he and colleagues Michael Kubo and Mark Pasnik organized the exhibit Heroic: Boston Concrete 1957-1976 in 2009 to celebrate and rehabilitate the image of the city’s Brutalist bonanza. They plan to publish a book related to the exhibit in fall 2015.
But simply preserving the Brutalist buildings that still stand may not be the best, or most effective, goal. While Grimley believes that Boston City Hall and Rudolph’s masterpiece Government Service Center should be preserved, he’s hopeful about plans to rethink the plaza they border. After all, much of the ire directed at the city’s government hub lands on the stark expanse between the buildings.
“You can always reinvent space, right?” he says. “The thing that you can’t reconstruct is the cultural impact or the cultural history of this work.”
But in many cases, the structures won’t adapt easily, or will never get the chance.
In the case of the Mechanic Theater, the very rigidity of its concrete form made it difficult to host the proscenium-based theater productions and modern lighting rigs that might have sustained it as a working theater. Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation recommended that the city recognize the Mechanic as a historic landmark and block its owner’s plans to demolish it, but in the end the city planning commission declined to save it. As one downtown development booster told The Baltimore Sun, “At some point just because a building was built, doesn’t mean it has to stand forever. Mistakes are made sometimes.”
“It’s really a loss,” French says. “There are only so many Johansen structures in the world, and each time you lose one, you lose a piece of this unique architecture collection, and you’re never going to get that back.”
Brutalism boosters are hindered by the so-called “fifty-year rule.” In most officially conferred designations, if a structure isn’t a half-century old, it isn’t “historic.” The earliest wave of Brutalist buildings meets the criterion, but anything built after 1965 doesn’t qualify yet.
But Brutalism’s time may come again soon. “There’s generally a fifty-year window between when something reaches its prime and then interest is revived in it,” Scharmen says. “And like any cycle, there are going to be buildings that are gone. And that kind of is a good thing, because there wouldn’t have been room to have built this stuff that’s so optimistic about the future back in the ’60s and ’70s if there hadn’t been other buildings that didn’t make the cut.
“There’s a sort of evolutionary pressure—only the strong will survive,” he adds. But fans of Brutalism have a responsibility to “help keep that conversation going about what is strong.”