January 1, 2013

Defending Brutalism

The Uncertain Future of Modernist Concrete Structures

  • By: David Hay

The last thing you would expect to find in Goshen, a leafy New York hamlet a little more than an hour from New York City, is one of America’s more controversial buildings. But standing west of Main Street, surrounded by well-manicured grassy plots, is Paul Rudolph’s striking 1971 exemplar of Brutalism: the Orange County Government Center. Edward Diana, the county executive, wants the late-Modernist 150,000-square-foot complex torn down. It already stands vacant. After flooding caused by Hurricane Irene in late August 2011 added to the state of disrepair inside the building, Diana had the complex closed.

Still, when Diana made his plan known in early 2011, reaction in the architectural community beyond the small town was fierce. Among those coming to the building’s defense was David Fixler, from the Modernist preservation organization DOCOMOMO. “It is an extremely important work of art, and representative of a way of designing that is no longer practiced today,” the Boston-based architect says. “The chances of it being replaced by a building that is equally profound are highly remote.”

A common theme in the commentary that followed Diana’s proposal was the categorization of Rudolph’s building as Brutalist. No one disputed its status as a prime example of this style of architecture. Brutalism was a utilitarian approach to construction popular in the 1950s, ╦ç60s, and ╦ç70s that favored the use of poured-in-place concrete. It did not have many fans at the time. Many suspect it has far fewer now. So those trying to save the Orange County Government Center find themselves in the same position as those campaigning to preserve other endangered Brutalist buildings, such as John M. Johansen’s Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore and Marcel Breuer’s Ameritrust Tower in Cleveland. And like it or not, an essential part of their strategy has been uncoupling Brutalism from its all-too-common synonym, “unloved.” But time may well be on the side of Rudolph’s building. Much maligned over the years, Brutalism is acquiring new fans. It seems poised for a comeback.

Brutalism earned its moniker from the French béton brut, literally “raw concrete.” When it emerged, architects had forsworn their allegiance to the International Style’s steel frames and glass walls and were happy to design buildings using great expanses of concrete. The very strength of the material encouraged a sense of monumentality in their work. In addition, the Brutalist aesthetic demanded overt displays of all this concrete, no matter how rough or crude.

Practically, what made Brutalism so prevalent was its cost. Poured-in-place concrete structures were cheap. When Kips Bay Towers, designed by I.M. Pei, were built on the East River in Manhattan in 1961, “the cost was $11 a square foot, remarkably low for the time,” says Francis C. Wickham, an architect and associate of Pei’s who once lived in the landmark complex. (The second phase of construction cost $13 per square foot.)

The cost factor appealed to the most penurious of clients: federal, state, and local governments financing a public construction boom that included new subway systems, such as the Metro in Washington, D.C. At the same time, American universities were expanding and offering sites for Brutalist structures. London’s Southbank Centre and other new cultural institutions were also realized in concrete.

Because the style was relatively inexpensive to build, however, design was frequently sloppy. Many structures from the period—oddities now mocked on the Internet—ended up misshapen, badly proportioned, and drab. It was hardly surprising that Brutalism attracted many critics. Prince Charles notoriously remarked in a 1987 speech, “You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe: When it knocked down our buildings, it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble.”

Still, many of Brutalism’s earliest champions were English. In the 1950s, architects Peter and Alison Smithson famously promoted a philosophy dubbed the New Brutalism. It promised a raw and rough materiality that had a social and artistic purpose. “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,” they wrote in Architectural Design. “Up to now Brutalism has been discussed stylistically, whereas its essence is ethical.”

One of their most publicized commissions, the Robin Hood Gardens housing project, built in London in 1972, however, was far from a success. Structural problems led to water leaks, and then the complex acquired a reputation for violent crime. After that, the proposition that the use of raw materials like concrete offered some social panacea was pretty much dead. (As of press time the buildings still stand, awaiting demolition.)

The Smithsons’ project was hardly the first Brutalist building to have problems. Concrete surfaces often don’t age well, especially in cold, damp climates. Excess moisture streaks the walls, and on occasion rust leaks from the steel rebar inside, staining the surface orange. Some of the people working and living in these buildings so disliked their rough surfaces they covered them up. What’s more, observes Michael Abrahamson, who studies architectural theory at the University of Michigan, Brutalist buildings are difficult to renovate. “Obviously, their walls are not easily removed.”

Still, many famous and beloved structures of the period were built in concrete, among them Jorn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House. Supporting the structure’s shell-like roofs, massive concrete beams curve upwards. Looking up from the lobby underneath is a spectacular sight.

In America, where monumentality was also embraced, many architects found the material extraordinarily expressive. Marcel Breuer’s St. Francis de Sales church in Muskegon, Mich.; Crites & McConnell’s C.Y. Stephens Auditorium at Iowa State University in Ames; and Louis Kahn’s famous Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., became famous structures almost overnight.

One of Paul Rudolph’s most striking all-concrete accomplishments is the Yale Art and Architecture Building. Completed in 1963, it is now known as Paul Rudolph Hall. Both famous and infamous—there was an unconfirmed story about a student attempting to burn it down—the dramatic, light-filled structure was recently restored to its original appearance by the current dean of the architecture school, New York architect Robert A.M. Stern.

By the time Rudolph designed the Orange County Government Center, he had long departed from the Brutalist imperative that concrete be rough and raw, and he made every effort to reimagine both color and form. The building in Goshen was constructed of concrete blocks. Intent on making them expressive, Rudolph designed molds that gave each block a ribbed surface and altered the mix of sand and gravel to achieve a buff color. “He was pushing a humble material to the point where it was quite refined,” notes Francis C. Wickham, the former I.M. Pei associate who now lives near Goshen.

Making concrete expressive was only one part of Rudolph’s ambitious design. The Orange County Government Center had to house adult and juvenile courts, each in its own building, as well as county offices in a third. By floating sections above ground, he diminished its sense of monumentality.

The buildings’ interiors are remarkable for the way planes and surfaces intersect, the result of which is that each room, including the solemn courtrooms, appears to bleed into the next. Spaces emerge like different-sized boxes unevenly stacked next to and on top of each other. Sometimes Rudolph extended a ceiling from one room to another. Elsewhere, he simply hinted at the possibility. The overall effect is a sense of movement and lightness in the otherwise imposing, concrete-walled spaces.

Despite his best intentions, the result isn’t easy to appreciate. According to Mildred F. Schmertz, writing in Architectural Record in August 1971, “at first glance it looks improvised, random, almost capricious,” but like all of Paul Rudolph’s buildings “it is superbly organized within a complex spatial order.” She compares the building favorably to the later work of Le Corbusier, adding that it “reveals an understanding of the buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright which far exceeds that of Wright’s more literal-minded disciples.”

Rudolph’s building never found many admirers in Goshen, however. “They didn’t put it on the historic register, and as far as I know it was never included on any tours,” says Orange County resident Richard Hull, a professor of history at New York University.

Now discussion of architectural significance has taken a back seat to more practical concerns. The Government Center’s mechanical systems are out of date; its many roofs leak; and lack of attention to repairs, as well as years of quick fixes, have made it increasingly uncomfortable for employees and visitors. Since Edward Diana ordered it closed in September 2011, it has remained shuttered, and he has continued to lobby hard for a new complex.

With the purported cost of new construction starting at $75 million, plans for renovating the complex are also being considered. Jeffrey Berkman, a county legislator, convened hearings in August, subpoenaing architects and construction consultants. Among the recommendations of his committee’s report is major renovation of the Rudolph building, as well as construction of an addition.

Bolstering Berkman’s case, and that of the preservation community, has been the extraordinary renovation of another of Rudolph’s Brutalist works: the Claire T. Carney Library at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, south of Boston. The master plan for the spectacular campus, its main buildings laid out inside a circular roadway, was devised by Rudolph in 1964. But like the complex in Goshen, the library, the construction of which was completed in 1972 and supervised by the firm Desmond and Lord Architects with Rudolph consulting, showed the effects of age. The university considered replacing the building entirely but on examining the costs—in the neighborhood of $350 a square foot for a new building versus $205 a square foot for refurbishment—they opted for the latter.

Not only does the restored structure have improved heating and cooling systems, it also honors the building’s original aesthetic, right down to the exposed, raw-concrete walls and ruby-red carpeting.

“For years the university was apologetic about the building, but now they’ve embraced it,” says Robert Miklos, the founder of designLAB, the Boston-based firm in charge of the restoration and addition. “For the students it has a Mad Men feel to it, and that’s very appealing.”

Those students are not alone. Many young architectural enthusiasts believe Brutalism has been unfairly maligned. “This was the last period in architecture where pure creative expression was very much in vogue,” argues architectural critic Michael Abrahamson. “After the late 1970s there was shift toward more self-conscious design. All of a sudden, the idea of expressing yourself freely in a more monumental way was gone. Brutalism was pure Modernism’s last gasp.”

Critical to this renewed attention has been a revival of interest in concrete. For more than a decade, William E. Massie, architect in residence at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield, Mich., has been developing new ways to use the material. Massie sculpts molds, often from Styrofoam, using computer drawings and a digitized lathe. Pouring concrete into these complex molds, he creates the curving walls of elegant houses. An outstanding example is his Big Sky House in Meagher County, Mont., a four-story tower with concrete elliptical sides. “It is such a strong yet malleable material; it is unfortunate it is not more popular,” says the architect.

It is too early to tell whether Paul Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center will survive. But given the warm reception designLAB’s UMass Dartmouth restoration is getting and the renewed appreciation of concrete and Brutalism, perceptions just might be changing.

David Hay is a New York-based writer and playwright. He has written about the importance of preserving Modernist architecture for such publications as The Los Angeles Times, Dwell, and Metropolis.

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