John Waters weighs in on Brutalism and “architectural defiance”

The Three B's

John Waters weighs in on Brutalism and “architectural defiance”

The Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore in 2008, six years before its demolition. (Andrew Bossi/Wikimedia Commons)

Filmmaker John Waters lives in a 1925 Mediterranean-styled house designed by the noted Baltimore architect Laurence Hall Fowler. But if he had his way, he says, he would tear it down and replace it with a work of Brutalist architecture.

That’s one of the revelations Waters makes in his latest book of essays, now out in paperback: Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder.

“I want to level my existing home and build my own brutalist dream house,” he writes. “The neighborhood association would be apoplectic, but what do I care? I want a house that everyone can hate.”

In the chapter “My Brutalist Dream House,” Waters shows himself to be both an admirer and a critic of Brutalism in architecture. He advises readers to demolish their older traditional homes and replace them with Brutalist buildings as well.

“Tear down your existing home,” he writes. “F*#& your past. Torch all those Chippendale heirlooms, that Jean Roger furniture, your midcentury antiques, that arts-and-crafts crap. It all goes out of style one day anyway. Take a flamethrower to your beautifully landscaped garden, too. You need to move beyond any kind of taste to a new level of architectural defiance. There’s only one way to start over. Brutalism. The new ugly.”

To make his point, Waters imagines hiring the “meanest, grumpiest” architect he can find to “go way over budget to design a fortress that would invoke fear and elegance, discomfort and sophistication.” He wants his house “designed to be unfriendly. Hostile. Cold and uninviting…Stalinist chic.” So foreboding that “a NO TRESPASSING sign would be totally redundant.”

The creator of films such as Pink Flamingos, Serial Mom, and Hairspray, Waters is an architecture buff, with residences in New York and San Francisco as well as Baltimore. All of his films were shot in and around Baltimore, in different neighborhoods, and all have a strong and often quirky sense of place.

In Mr. Know-It-All, Waters confesses that he’s unhappy that Brutalism is “making a comeback,” because that means he won’t be the only one living in a Brutalist house.

The cover of a blue book reading "Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder"
(Courtesy Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

“I’m distressed that this style of architecture has become cool,” he says. “I want the unsophisticated idiots to continue tearing down these classic but reviled buildings from the sixties and seventies so I can be the only one left with a brutalist home. Can’t somebody stop all these I Love Brutalism websites from celebrating this once-loathed style of architecture?”

Such provocative writing by America’s “Pope of Trash” has the potential to raise eyebrows and will likely be greeted with no small amount of skepticism. Architecture is just one of many subjects that Waters takes on in his book of “tarnished wisdom,” published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It also has chapters about the Catholic church, art, trendy restaurants, and first-class seating on airplanes.

But by devoting a chapter to Brutalism, Waters is helping contribute to its comeback by calling attention to the strong feelings people have about it. He is clearly knowledgeable about the subject. He discusses works by Igor Valikievsky, Didier Faustino, Gerhard Mayer, William Pereira, and Paul Rudolph. He even notes that some “brutalist groupies” now refer to it as “heroic” architecture—a nod to Mark Pasnik, Chris Grimley, and Michael Kubo and their 2015 book, Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston.

Waters has been promoting the paperback version of Mr. Know It All with a series of virtual talks organized by booksellers around the country. He recently met with a writer for AN at his non-Brutalist house in Baltimore and spoke about his interest in Brutalism and how it started. The following interview has been condensed for clarity.

An older man in a white suit
John Waters (© Greg Gorman)

AN: You write about wanting a Brutalist home, yet you live in a Mediterranean-style house.

John Waters: I would like to live in that house that I described. I never will.

Maybe you should have purchased the Ennis House by Frank Lloyd Wright. It sold last year for $18 million.

Which one is that?

A modernist house in California that William Castle used to film the exterior shots for House on Haunted Hill.

But I don’t want to live in Hollywood. You know what I should have bought? The Morris Mechanic [Theatre in Baltimore, a Brutalist building by John Johansen that opened in 1967 and was razed starting in 2014; the land is still vacant]. That was the most despised one. When they tore it down, no one hardly spoke up for it.

How did you get interested in Brutalism?

The reason this all started is because I was hired by an architectural conference that was in Baltimore to give a speech.

A talk for the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

And so, I researched [the subject] and looked into where Brutalism started. Now it’s trendy, Brutalism. It’s gotten very trendy, and I say that in the book.

Are you being tongue-in-cheek with your talk about building a Brutalist house?

No, because I do love Brutalism, and it does shock me, and some of it is so ugly that it’s truly amazing. I do find Brutalism hideous and great, and I’m really interested in it. So, no, I’m not being ironic about it. Am I going to tear down this house for real and do it? No, but I’m saying maybe I should. Because all this stuff I was raised with, my parents’ antiques and stuff, it’s worth nothing. No one ever thought they’d be worth nothing.

Experts acknowledge that prices for a lot of antique furniture aren’t what they used to be.

What you may think your heirlooms are worth, they’re worth nothing now. I hope you know that. It’s shocking to me. My parents would have been heartbroken. So, I was commenting on that. Do I really think everybody should tear their house down and do Brutalism? Maybe. Well, I think that they should know about it and consider it a possibility, at least.