19 Dec 2007

Brutalism, the Architecture That Doesn’t Work, But Won’t Go Away

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Brutalist buildings of the mid-last century have often proven a major problem to the institutions that were silly enough to commission them. Cyclopian monuments to modernist self importance, Brutalist buildings tend to resemble Darth Vader’s vacation home, all of them being one sort of variant or another on the theme of prison, tank garage, or military bunker from some dystopian future.

Ugliness is not really their primary problem, though. Brutalist buildings tend to have been designed as thoroughgoing expressions of superbia, in a spirit of utter and complete indifference to reality. Their unhappy owners too frequently discovered that basic systems, like heating and cooling and roof drains, simply didn’t work, that maintenance was impossible, and repair costs prohibitive.

40-50 years later these dinosaurs are typically eyesores and falling apart, but Brutalism is the gift that keeps on giving. Any building of the sort is a) unusual and b) inevitably the intellectual handiwork of a big-name architect. Consequently, architects and preservationists dote on them, and the institution foolish enough to build it in the first place is highly likely to meet major resistance when it wants to give up and tear the monstrosity down.

Yale’s Art and Architecture Building (designed by Paul Rudolph) is a notorious example, but is nonetheless being restored. (Hey! It’s only money.)

And, Charles Paul Freund, in the American Spectator, relates the sad (but amusing) story of the Third Church of Christ, Scientist in Washington, D.C.

How many dollars does it take to change a light bulb? Well, if the defunct bulb you’re replacing has been illuminating the Third Church of Christ, Scientist in downtown Washington, you could be looking at a bill of up to $8,000. That’s because unscrewing a blown bulb in that concrete monument to impracticality is tantamount to a construction project. According to one church official, you’ve got to build scaffolding just to reach some of the bulbs.

Why should anybody care about the Christian Scientists’ maintenance budget? Because their light bulbs, along with the rest of their building, are at the center of a series of issues from property rights to the separation of church and state that may be coming soon to a courthouse near you.

If you haven’t yet had enough of Washington and religion this campaign season, take a stroll a couple of blocks north from Lafayette Square to 16th and I Streets, where one of the country’s least welcoming houses of worship sits in sight of the White House.

If at first you don’t at first recognize the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, as a church at all, don’t be embarrassed; most people probably mistake it for a fortress intended to protect the president’s house against a tank assault. It’s a largely windowless octagonal tower made of raw, weathered concrete, and it’s surrounded by a sterile “plaza” that seems to have been emptied to keep the line of fire clear. The site inspires few people with a sense of spirituality.

That includes its own congregation, which has always disliked the building and dearly wants to be rid of its ugliness and its crushing costs, but which has been prevented from replacing the structure by Washington’s local preservation authorities.

Not that the church is either old or historic. It was designed in 1971 in an effort by the Christian Science church to establish a signature architectural presence in the heart of the capital. (The office building surrounding the “plaza” was part of the project, too.) The church tapped I.M. Pei’s firm for the design; Araldo Cossutta, who was also responsible for the city’s unloved L’Enfant Plaza, was the architect.

In terms of fulfilling its function, the project misfired. It’s uninviting to the community not only because it has the feel of a bunker, but because its front door is, by design, hidden. The cold plaza is generally avoided by the church’s neighbors.

The sanctuary seats 400, though the active congregation has shrunk to some 50 worshippers. The building’s concrete exterior is already deteriorating, and the maintenance costs are overwhelming. Money that would be better spent on the church’s mission, members say, is eaten up by the building itself.

So why has the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board unanimously declared the Third Church of Christ, Scientist to be an official D.C. landmark, preventing not only its demolition, but even its unauthorized alteration? Because, it turns out, it is a sterling example of the mid-century school of design known as Brutalism.

Admirers of Brutalism include numerous architecture and design specialists, and some of these persuaded the preservation board that when it comes to raw concrete and the rejection of ornament, the church “is in a league of its own” and must be preserved.

That action has drawn harsh criticism, especially from Washington Post Metro columnist Marc Fisher, who called the building “antagonistic to human spirituality” and an “example of a failed and arrogant architectural experiment.”

Defenders of the building have dismissed Fisher and others like him as design philistines, and regard the whole issue of the building’s aggressive ugliness as an irrelevant matter of taste. “Preservation isn’t always about whether we like and not like buildings,” one of the board members observed before she voted to make the church a landmark. “You can learn enough to have an appreciation for it.”

Read the whole thing.

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One Feedback on "Brutalism, the Architecture That Doesn’t Work, But Won’t Go Away"

Nicolas

It’s great that you’re touching on the subject of architectural brutalism, as the generally public really knows very little about it. I do, however, disagree with you on most points.

You are correct that many of the brutalist buildings have mechanical systems that don’t function very well today. That is a flaw of the 1960s due to failed attempts at using innovative systems that is not confined to brutalist buildings.

You are also correct that a lot of brutalist buildings are not aesthetically interesting or even architecturally noteworthy. I don’t think many people, even architectural historians, would care much if the average brutalist buildings were razed.

I do wish, however, that you’d have more appreciation and respect for the better brutalist buildings. Rudolph’s A&A at Yale is one of the most exciting, intriguing (and in my opinion, beautiful) buildings of the 20th century. Does it deserve the money that is being put into its renovation? Absolutely. Is it more architecturally significant than the vast majority of the collegiate gothic buildings at Yale? Absolutely. It’s an important part of our architectural and cultural heritage. I

Your assertion that these buildings are simply “monuments to self-importance” is naively dismissive. You could say something similar about any challenging work of art that you don’t particularly care for. Please open your mind to architecture that is beyond the norms of conventional beauty.



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