Category Archive 'Brutalism'

22 Feb 2010

Modernism, Not Workable Again

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I couldn’t find a decent photo of the interior courtyard of Morse, featuring the Morse Tower. They’ve planted some little trees, which get in the way now.

Morse College (along with Ezra Stiles) is one of two new residential colleges at Yale built circa 1961 featuring back-then very fashionable designs by Eero Saarinen, who whipped up a curious melange, alluding to medieval hill towns in Tuscany via a late 1950s marriage of George Nakashima to a comfy Disneyesque-version of Brutalist modern concrete architecture.

Students wound up receiving a basically ugly, somewhat industrial-looking modernist college with the sort of interior that might have been designed by communist hobbits… if communist hobbits had a lot of money. Their consolations were single rooms, and lots of expensive built in wood. The grain of the corridor doors in Morse was very striking, and I can tell you that back in the early 1970s at least half of the hirsute crowd of stoners in the Morse TV room could normally be found sitting facing away from the set engrossed in the grain patterns of the door. You could get wrecked just walking through that TV room.

One drawback of life in Morse was the fact that Saarinen had an aversion to right angles (too uncreative, I suppose), which produced peculiar room shapes. Two rooms in Morse College were notorious for having eleven walls, none of which was long enough to put the standard issue Yale bed against, while still allowing the resident to open the door.

Over the last decade, Yale has been “remodeling” (read: gutting and completely rebuilding) its residential colleges, completely revising floor plans and installing new PC green mechanicals, doubtless with an eye to packing in more students into less generous spaces.

At the present time, Morse is receiving its remodeling, which the Yale Daily News reports, once again, demonstrates just how feckless and irresponsible architects and the institutional administrators in the prosperous and happy 1960 era of Brutalism really were.

Though the college is built in the Modernist style, its aged facilities were anything but modern, [Evan] Yassky [of the Philadelphia-based architecture firm KieranTimberlake] said. Many of Morse’s internal systems, from electrical to fire safety, needed to be upgraded or replaced. An unexpected challenge was the difficulty of upgrading heating mechanisms inside the college because of the irregular angles of the buildings, Yassky said.

When the college was completed nearly 50 years ago, it was heated by means of hot water pipes cast into the concrete of the college’s floors. But some time in the 1980s, the pipes failed, and because they could not be pried out of the concrete, the University put together a slapdash set of above-ground heaters throughout Morse, said Chris Meyer of Turner Construction Company, the general superintendent of the current renovation. These were neither dependable nor particularly effective, he added.

Determined to get it right this time around, the University asked the architects at KieranTimberlake for a thorough overhaul of the heaters. But Morse’s irregular interior corners have turned the otherwise simple task of installing radiators around the rooms’ perimeters into a costly puzzle.

“It’s a challenge that I didn’t quite appreciate when we first started the project,” Yassky said. “It’s not like, instead of 90 degree angles, Saarinen used 70 or 80 degree angles. Every angle was different.”

Fitting each crooked corner with custom pipes would cost millions, Yassky said, so the firm modified the majority of the rooms to include more square corners for the heating. These new perpendicular walls are particularly noticeable inside the college’s new common rooms, where some walls have been opened or removed to create the suite-style residential spaces typical of Yale’s other colleges.

“It’s been a fascinating experience and intellectually stimulating to engage with Saarinen’s design,” Yassky said.

The most prestigious architects of that era could not be bothered to care about how someone a few decades down the road would have to effectuate a repair. Budgets were extravagant, the sky was the limit for materials and designs costs. “Let them tear it down and rebuild, when they need to fix a leaky pipe!” thought the great architect. The administrators never deigned to critique the genius’s design with an eye to how exactly someone was going to change the light bulb placed 50′ in the air or how anyone could repair heating pipes buried in concrete.

Modernist architecture was to buildings a lot like what liberal policy was to society: grandiose, gestural, dismissive of the past, narcissistically self-promotional, staggeringly costly, and totally impractical.

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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