Brutalism: The Word Itself and What We Mean When We Say It

Record of a Pecha Kucha-style presentation at Architecture + (Kent State), Friday November 18th, 2011

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The word “Brutalism” has lost its meaning. At present, it equates to: large buildings, sometimes of concrete, constructed sometime between World War II and the end of the 1970s. The sheer number of projects this describes is staggering, and many of the architects responsible for them in fact despised the term. We need to relearn the story of this pervasive locution.

Once upon a time, Brutalism referred only to “The New Brutalism,” a snide phrase coined by Alison and Peter Smithson to describe their unbuilt project for a townhouse in the SoHo neighborhood of London. For the Smithsons, “New Brutalism” was initially interchangeable with what they called “the warehouse aesthetic,” which sought to capture the raw quality of materials. As Peter Smithson pointed out in a late interview:

“Brutalism is not concerned with the material as such but rather the quality of the material, that is with the question: what can it do? And by analogy: there is a way of handling gold in Brutalist manner and it does not mean rough and cheap, it means: what is its raw quality?” [Peter Smithson: Conversations with Students, Princeton Architectural Press, 2004]

This raw quality, the treatment of materials “as found,” came to define the aesthetic proclivities of the group seen here, composed of the Smithsons, photographer Nigel Henderson, and the sculptor Edouardo Paolozzi. Eventually this group formed a part of The Independent Group, which is credited with launching Pop Art. For them, Brutalism was not a style but something else, hence:

“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. Up to now Brutalism has been discussed stylistically, whereas its essence is ethical.” [Alison & Peter Smithson, “The New Brutalism,” Architectural Design (April 1957)]

Immediately recognized as radical and transformative, “The New Brutalism,” was the subject of much debate. In fact, a series of think pieces had appeared in journals before the Smithsons managed to complete their first building, the Hunstanton Secondary School seen here.

One of brutalism’s strongest early supporters was historian and critic Reyner Banham. In 1955 he published an essay summarizing the defining characteristics of this new style as follows:

“1, Formal legibility of plan; 2, clear exhibition of structure, and 3, valuation of materials for their inherent qualities ‘as found.’”

Banham found this simple list inadequate, so he added:

“In the last resort what characterizes the New Brutalism in architecture […] is precisely its brutality, its je-m’en-foutisme, its bloody-mindedness.” [Banham, “The New Brutalism,” Architectural Review (December 1955)]

Banham later published what he purported to be the definitive statement on The New Brutalism, comprising an international selection of buildings. His contention was that the interplay of ethics and aesthetics defined production and reception of brutalism.

The trouble is, Banham excluded most of the buildings we now regard as brutalist. No Paul Rudolph, no Marcel Breuer, no Boston City Hall, and only one early project by Louis Kahn. And for the record, the Smithsons shunned Banham’s book, accusing him of co-opting their ideas to serve his own agenda.

 Surely, the binary put forward by Banham is much too blunt and exclusionary. In order to rethink the word brutalism itself, it may be useful to return to the dictionary. Let’s look at the definitions of the parts in question. I’ve made a few redactions for the sake of brevity:

“brutal”

  1. savagely violent: a brutal murder
  2. punishingly hard or uncomfortable: the brutal winter wind
  3. without any attempt to disguise unpleasantness: the brutal honesty of his observations

“-ism”

  1. denoting an action or its result: baptism
  2. denoting a state or quality: barbarism
  3. denoting a system, principle or ideological movement: feminism
  4. denoting a basis for prejudice or discrimination: racism
  5. denoting a peculiarity in language: colloquialism
  6. denoting a pathological condition: alcoholism

[Oxford American Dictionary, 2007 Edition]

If we cut and paste a bit we might come up with something satisfactory:

“brutalism”: A state or quality of principled but pathological hardness or discomfort, without any attempt to disguise its unpleasantness.

A bit convoluted, but you get the point. Using this makeshift definition, the word itself might be reframed to describe a particular attitude about building, best described by Banham’s “bloody-mindedness.” Unlike the historically loaded word style, the idea of an attitude might effective at drawing together the diverse group of architectures to which we affix the word in question.

Universally recognizable by its severe, abstract geometries and the monolithic use of concrete, block and brick – this attitude called brutalism became a consensus approach to monumentalizing modern architecture.

If this story of Brutalism is indeed about consensus, our primary question should be: what made this uncompromising, imposing, and frankly quite impractical attitude so seductive?

The story of Paul Rudolph’s Art & Architecture building at Yale University might be instructive. Commissioned when Rudolph was appointed dean at the Yale School of Architecture, the completed building is overflowing with quotations and citations of the history of architecture.

Like Wright’s Larkin Administration Building, Rudolph wanted his work at Yale to have a sense of permanence, a built-in history, monumental enough to rival Roman ruins. In spite of his erudition, Rudolph’s building is most often remembered as the site of a mysterious arson.

The oft-cited myth is that a disgruntled architecture student, fed up with the building’s presence in his life, set fire to his desk in protest. True or not, this myth makes discussion of the building’s architectural merit or lack of merit extremely difficult. When we talk about Rudolph, we have to talk about the fire.

I’m tempted to cite Bernard Tschumi’s “Advertisements for Architecture,” in particular two sentiments expressed here, below the photographs:

On the left, “Architecture is defined by the actions it witnesses as much as by the enclosure of its walls.” And on the right, “Architecture only survives where it negates the form that society expects of it.” Through his actions, the arsonist responsible for Yale’s fire altered the narrative of Rudolph’s building and of brutalism in general, but might the story someday change?

While no mysterious event clouds our view of the Hunstanton School, the overwhelming personal narrative constructed by Alison + Peter Smithson certainly does. Known for talking big and building little, the Smithsons were never as successful as their books would have you believe.

Their largest project, Robin Hood Gardens council housing in London, is one of the worst failures of urban renewal during the brutalist moment. Its foundering hurt their reputations, and larger commissions never came their way. Unlike Rudolph, however, the Smithsons regained their stature by changing their attitude. Their work in the 1970s traced a shift away from the unhomely airs of brutalism toward a sophisticated engagement with Postmodernism, and a more open embrace of history.

The story of brutalism reminds us that once upon a time, there was disciplinary consensus. In retrospect, this consensus appears a peculiar convergence between ethics and aesthetics, during which truth in materials and the question of monumentality dominated the discipline no matter one’s ideological bent, a time when do-gooders and designers held certain goals in common. Successful or not, the results of this peculiar convergence are all around us, reminders that we could all use an attitude adjustment.

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Tricks of the Trade: Notes on Envisioning Organization

I attended a conference at the Ohio State University Knowlton School of Architecture last month titled Envisioning Organization, and athough it fell short of my high expectations, it’s worth commenting in depth.

It was difficult to discern a curatorial position, but the conference seemed to be about the instrumentalization of graphic design and architecture, interrogating the efficacy of architectural research and graphic design at producing what one could call “knowledge effects.” These effects produce spontaneous common beliefs and conventions within constituencies based on a shared data intake. Many presentations made prodigious use of statistics, presuming to tell everybody what they’re doing wrong, and how they can do better. The conference suffered from a bit of an identity crisis, not sure whether to come down in support of data use in architecture or to outline a critique of such data use. For certain of the presenters, data was a useful tool for producing architecture. For others, data was the proverbial monkey on their back, something to be tossed aside in order to open themselves to conditions on the ground. Is data mining and fact-finding, the search for architectural or programmatic truths, still a valid modus operandi or a burden to be overcome? The question remains open.

More importantly for this conference, what is the relation between the producer/collector of data and their audience? This question was on my mind because of a report I heard on National Public Radio on the way to the conference. This will seem a bit of a digression, but bear with me for a moment. Concerning the recent suspension of Keith Olberman from MSNBC, the report brought about a discussion of objectivity in journalism. It is more effective to expect an untenable level of journalistic detachment, or to make one’s bias transparent? This is one case, perhaps the only, where I side with Fox News. Instead of reprimanding a concerned commentator for expressing said concern financially, wouldn’t an audience be better served by a full disclosure of such contributions? Could one produce content exposing bias rather than dishonestly cloaking the unavoidable taking of sides? When architects, for example, research the American suburb, they’re bound to find themselves in conflict with their subject. Must they attempt to remain objective or can bias become a part of their critique?

The presenters at Envisioning Organization seemed to be swept up in the presumed objectivity of their stats, and used them as a jumping off point to produce architectures both true and fictional. To me it seemed many of the presenters were making prodigious use of what might be called fuzzy logic, the belief that architecture is a problem solving enterprise, and that if we can only find the right problem, everything is easy. I have outlined my position on this question previously in my piece on the Mountain Dwellings by Bjarke Ingels Group and Julien de Smedt.

Among the strongest presentations was that of Jimenez Lai from Bureau Spectacular, whose manga narratives explore the possibilities and affordances of architectural convention. Decontextualizing the plan/section dichotomy to zero gravity, or reversing the figure/ground relationship of New York and Central Park, he enables new effects while maintaining the narrative of architectural disciplinarity. Can such “fictions” become instrumentalized in the same way the “truths” of statistics are?

Instead of overwhelming one’s audience with oversimplified representations of complexity, what if we made concepts more general and transferrable, less particular and less hermetic? Might ideological and aesthetic programs be easier to explain? “It takes a lot of work to say something obvious,” Lai said during discussion, and keep it compelling I might add. Lai and others seem to be tired of exploring the margins. Maybe it’s time to refocus on the conventions of architecture, to stop inventing new ways to expand our thinking. Maybe all that is outside “the box” (in other words, convention) are more boxes. The one we’ve got is pretty darn compelling. What can we do with it?


Observations on Ingenuity and Appropriation

Lifeline, part of Ingenuity Festival (Cleveland, OH), September 24th-26th 2010

The proletarian revolution is that critique of human geography whereby individuals and communities must construct places and events commensurate with the appropriation, no longer just of their labor, but of their total history.[1]

Without pretense to revolution, many in Cleveland, Ohio are taking it upon themselves to critique the physical and social geography of their city, questioning, however temporarily, the viability and vitality of underutilized spaces. Most recently, this phenomenon took form in the staging of Ingenuity Festival on the derelict trolley level of the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge from September 24th to 26th.

Ingenuity has been held at various locations in Cleveland for six years, but only this year has it found its unlikely and inimitable home. Abandoned since trolley service ceased in 1954, the bridge’s lower level once connected public transit from near west neighborhoods to downtown. In recent years this massive piece of infrastructure, nearly two thirds of a mile long and 75 feet wide, has piqued interest as a potential public amenity on par with New York’s High Line. Ingenuity, in concert with last year’s Bridge Project, organized with the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, have brought upwards of ten thousand visitors to judge for themselves.

Aside from the bridge occupation itself, Ingenuity’s most visible appropriation came at the hands of artists Kidist Getachew, Michael Lehto, and John Thomas, who, in collaboration with the City of Cleveland Division of Water, created a sixty foot waterfall at the apex of Veteran’s Memorial, plummeting one hundred thirty feet to the Cuyahoga River below. This urban waterfall was obviously derivative of Olafur Eliasson’s similar work for New York in 2008, but transposed to Cleveland it became an unavoidable reminder of the city’s greatest natural resource, and a fundraiser for fresh water access in Ethiopia.

Notable among the many performances hosted by Ingenuity was “The Myth of Cleveland,” a play by a group of young thespians on the myth of Sisyphus. Characters pushed a papier-mâché boulder up one of the bridge’s many access ramps, only to have it roll back down, a metaphor for the futility, but also necessity, of reviving a city long since in decline. The ten-minute play ran every hour on the hour during the entire three-day festival. In what may have been the festival’s most astute but least time-consuming installation, some modern-day psychogeographer simply scrawled on the bridge’s concrete structure in chalk: Guy Debord!


[1] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1995), 126.


All You Can Eat: A Buffet of Architectural Ideas for Cleveland

MayCo Billboard Tall

What is Cleveland’s recommended daily intake of architecture?

All You Can Eat posits that Cleveland is of a high metabolic rate, that it burns through ideas faster than they can be generated. In response, All You Can Eat presents a binge of possible futures excessive in scale and exhaustive in scope, ideas both raw and cooked, half-baked and hair-brained. All You Can Eat is a an event/exhibition to be held at The Sculpture Center in Fall 2009. A formal announcement and call for entries is forthcoming.

More information, in addition to the call for entries and a press release are available at: postarchitecturejournal.wordpress.com