Tough Love

Tough Love

The Morris A. Mechanic Theater in Baltimore.
Adam Gerard / Flickr

In this country, the rough, raw concrete ‘beton brut’ architecture known as Brutalism has never been popular with the public. So, we should not be surprised that buildings falling even loosely into this stylistic convention are now regularly threatened with demolition by civic and business leaders. We have, for example, reported in the last few weeks about the eminent demolition of John Johansen’s 1967 Mechanic Theater in Baltimore, which has been denied landmark status since 2007, and his iconic Mummers Theater in Oklahoma City. North of New York City, Paul Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center in Goshen, New York seems to be holding on by the thinnest thread while government officials let the building deteriorate in hopes of replacing it with a banal and generic colonial box. These buildings each have their own unique and distinguishing architectural and urban qualities that make them significant in their own right but, like the welfare state that existed when they were built, seem to be remnants of a time when American government put more thought into supporting public service and culture.

We don’t wish to carry on a crusade for Brutalism to a skeptical public but it is worth making the point that these buildings represent an important and influential cultural movement that cannot be forgotten by destroying its built projects. In fact, in time these Brutalist structures may not look so bad when compared with the commercial towers (slated for the Mechanics Theater site) and thoughtless bland boxes (on the Rudolph site) that will replace them.

In England where the movement began, the public has finally come around to an appreciation for what they once called "concrete lumps" and famously "carbuncles." The British architects Alison and Peter Smithson coined the term Brutalism around 1953 to describe the poured board-marked concrete with which they constructed many of their post-World War II buildings, such as the Hunstanton School. The expression gained wide currency when the British architectural critic Reyner Banham used it in the title of his 1966 book, The New Brutalism: Ethic or Aesthetic?, to characterize a recently established cluster of architectural approaches, particularly in Europe. The early Brutalist complex of cultural venues on London’s South Bank: The Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Hayward Gallery follows this by-now familiar trajectory of bright new future, critical condemnation, lack of maintenance and, finally, rediscovery and appreciation. The South Bank complex was constructed to represent the start of a new era of social and cultural progressivism that grew out of the popular exhibition, The Festival of Britain, in 1951 and then fell into disfavor and neglect. But now after a Rick Mather masterplan, it has become a glorious complex that fits into the London riverscape and skyline much as the slightly later Brutalist complex the Barbican Center has as well. The English capital has grown up around them, as if they had been there forever.

But this is exactly the point of Brutalism. It is an urban typology created to (re)introduce urbanism into cities bombed out due to wars or, as in the case of American cities, due to middle class flight to the suburbs. We must admit, however, that these Brutalist buildings pay little attention to their surroundings, gaining attention by standing out. In fact, they were conceived to be sculptural centers and emblems of an urbanism that barely existed in places like Goshen, Oklahoma City, and even Baltimore. The Mummers Theater was funded by a million dollar Ford Foundation grant to bring a theater into the center city and while its architecture was controversial from the start, it succeeded in creating a distinguished urban center for this prairie town. Likewise Rudolph’s Goshen government center, though it was also controversial, brought a sense of urbanism and dynamism to a county seat desperate to look to the future for answers to governance and daily life. Most of these buildings were primarily commissioned by civic groups and universities. Products of architectural individualism, they in fact operated as markers of communal values and cultural aspirations. Sadly, today’s local politicians and business leaders seem only to want to look to an earlier, pre-20th century model of governance and Brutalist buildings don’t fit that model.