17 April 2010


Boston City Hall / photo by Doug Joyce

Every style of architecture has its 'middle-age'. It's the point where everyone wonders what the fuss was all about. You know that building with that unfortunate Style X wasn't cared for or was altered in a way that wasn't very loving, hastening the descent in our esteem. But even when Style X is meticulously maintained, it becomes yesterday's news; and even the people who loved it when it was brand new begin to forget why.

The Brutalist style has been through that middle age. That style of expressive concrete and exposed structure, that counterpoint to Miesian weightlessness, that bastion of architectural 'honesty', has been reviled to the point of having its major edifices become endangered, a poster-boy for the societal rejection of yesterday's fashion.

But there is always the point in the cycle, where transcendence manages to occur. I read with interest in the April 2010 issue of ARCHITECTURE Magazine about three young architects ,Michael Kubo, Mark Pasnik, and Chris Grimley and their
critique of Brutalism and it's forgotton value:

"They’re often misunderstood: “Brutalism” was a terrible label—an all-too-easy pejorative that suggests these buildings were designed with bad intentions. As the late critic Reyner Banham noted, at its best, Brutalism did have an ethic, one meant to reveal the messy realities of construction and building systems, and to forge a new honesty about architecture and its role within the postwar era’s broader social and urban transformations. Brutalist buildings tried to be rugged and direct—more Marlboro Man than Mad Men—in opposition to the gray-suited slickness of glass-and-steel Modernism. Concrete, the style’s preferred material, was used to create dramatic forms that were singular rather than generic, sculpted and heavy rather than thin and light, and, frequently, civic and institutional rather than corporate. It is for their ambitions that we label these buildings Heroic."

And so we have the beginnings of the rehabilitation of another washed-up vocabulary.

I've been interested in this inevitability of the design continuum in general-- in buildings, art, industrial design, what have you, when the shock of the new becomes the yawn of the old, but then comes back to be loved. I'm old enough to have come up with and loved Brutalism although it was already out of style when I graduated from architecture school. The unique forms, the geometry, the materiality; I've seen the successes and failures of its application to our urban fabric. I confess to loving it now, and whatever you choose to call it, I am in agreement with Michael Kubo, Mark Pasnik, and Chris Grimley.

The layering of different buildings, representing different times, different economics and points of view all contribute to a complex and immensely interesting city. Part of the greatness comes from the creative voices of different generations, speaking together about one place. A style of architecture is never released from its responsibility of contributing to the public place that it helps to form, but it takes a remarkably narrow perspective to single out a style to be automatically condemned and to promote the removal of its best examples from a city.

© 2010-2016 Douglas Joyce Contact Me