Wednesday, December 30, 2015

It's Heroic, Not Brutal

Government Service Center, 1962-71
Paul Rudolph
Boston, Massachusetts
Hello Everyone:

Brutalism, Blogger believes, is a genre of architecture that get very little respect.  The structures are graceless, massive, concrete blocks built by concrete enamored architects.  They are emblematic of the post-World War II urban renewal phase, that misguided attempt to revive cities.  However, Mark Byrnes, in his CityLab article "The Case for Calling Brutalism 'Heroic' Instead," interviewed a trio of Boston-based architects and designers: Mark Pasnik, Michael Kubo, and Chris Grimely who want to re-frame this not so loved style as heroic architecture.  Messrs. Kubo, Pasnik, and Grimely were spurred into action in late-2006 when then-Mayor Thomas Menino first suggested razing Boston City Hall  t  The trio compiled years of research, interviews, and staged a popular exhibit on the subject Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston.  Perhaps it is time to rethink Brutalism as "heroic" genre of architecture, on par with the much loved pre-World War II Moderne.

Peabody Terrace, 1962-64
Sert, Jackson & Associates
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Photograph by Mr. Ducke
The exhibit is an thorough retrospective of the forces that shaped shaped Boston's revival between 1957 (the year the Boston Redevelopment Agency was established) to 1976 (the year Quincy Market was revitalized).  Mr. Byrnes writes, "Heroic is an important addition to the growing conversation about Brutalism-or, as the authors prefer, 'Heroic' architecture."  Messrs. Kubo, Pasnik, and Grimely co-authored the accompanying book, Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston (, which tells the story of urban American's concrete architecture.

Although there have been many well-known examples of these buildings that have fallen to the wrecking ball, and inspite of Boston's new mayor's efforts to preserve City Hall, many of Brutalist buildings are still endanger of demolition as they age.  Mark Byrnes writes, "The trio behind Heroic doesn't expect to change the minds of traditionalists, but they do want these buildings to get a fair shot."

Boston City Hall in 1981
Kallmann, Mckinnnell & Knowles
Boston, Massachusetts
 Polemic buildings like City Hall and the partially completed Government Services Building by Paul Rudolph reflect the ambition and the confidence of their clients. They are emblematic of a unique era in American history where cities were re-imagined by governments and brought to life by the students of post-war European daring designers.  They have faded into a culture that still has no respect for them, "...but while Heroic buildings promised so much-sometimes more than they should have-they are hardly brutal and anything but evil."

CityLab recently sat down with  Messrs. Kubo, Pasnik, and Grimely to talk about their efforts to rehabilitate this much maligned period style.

Cecil and Ida Green Center for Earth Sciences, 1959-64
I.M. Pei
Boston, Massachusetts
"Why 'Heroic' instead of 'Brutalist?'"

Chris Grimely: "Brutal" is not a good brand....With "Heroic" there's a nice trajectory from Reyner Banham to the Smithsons to that word,  But them at the same time we love the connotations of a hero, and the notion that you're doing your best to create something to fix the problem at hand..."Brutal" is fundamentally a negative, whereas with "Heroic," some people take it as a rah-rah but we see it as a much more nuanced phrase that complicate the project in a number of ways....

Mark Pasnik: There's the legacy of Brutalism being such a negative term.  It begins the conversation with negativity about these buildings, and this, falls into the misreading of them as harsh....The name plays into that mischaracterization that's grown around a lot of them.  I think "Heroic" is a better title for what their actual aspirations were...One the one hand, Brutalism encourages a misreading.  On the other hand, I think it's historically inaccurate for the work that is in our book.  The term grown out of a British tradition and was applied to many of these buildings but all of the architects we spoke with in the book would say that's not what they thought their work should be called.  They believed in some of the aspirations of Brutalism but they didn't believe that their work was Brutalist...

Paul Rudolph standing in front of the Yale University Arts Complex, c.1963
New Haven, Connecticut
Mark Pasnik went onto say that the trio's invention of the term "Heroic" came from a two-fold interest.  First, there was the work of British architects Alison and Peter Smithson, who are partially attributed to coining the term.  The trio wrote the book as a sort of to arms to return to the aspirations of early modernism  was called The Heroic Period of Modern Architecture, so "heroic" was being used by the originators of Brutalism as a call to arms to return to the basic principles of modernity.

Mr. Pasnik added that it was Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown that used it in a negative context.

...They contrasted what they called "heroic and original," against the "ugly and ordinary."  They always used Paul Rudolph projects to indicate the former while arguing architects should pursue the latter...For us, "Heroic" has this kind of duality-it's an aspiring term but there's also a critique in it...

Blue Cross Blue Shield Building, 1969
C.F. Murphy & Associates
Photograph by Orlando R. Cabanban, Inland Architect
Chicago, Illinois
What were people calling these buildings when they were new?

MP: A lot of them talked about "New Monumentality."  I don't think they would call themselves Brutalists or New Monumentalists or anything like that.  I think they were just "modern architects," but they were seeking a monumentality out of the modern vocabulary that hadn't existed.  A lot of them were constructing the work to be post-Miesian, post-International Style, which was lightweight and repeated...and had a corporate image...I think they were looking for a different king of language that would reflect civic society...concrete was a way to get at that monumentality, that permanence, all the kinds of things that weren't associated with the International style.

What made Boston so ripe for a concrete architecture boom?

MP: Boston had previously been a city where the political and economic classes would not work together, and it was really a legacy of mayor James Curley...The bankers who had money wouldn't invest in the city because of what they perceived as a corrupt administration.  And Curley use his power to serve his neighborhood and his constituents.  That, along with the depression and the world wars meant that by the 1950s, Boston had built almost nothing new in decades...Drastic action using federal funds jumpstarted the city thanks to the formation of the Boston Redevelopment Association...under Ed Logue and then-Mayor John Collins.  They came together and proposed a series of initiatives to create federal investment in the city and the goal was to spark larger investment and more growth...

Washington Hilton
Washington D.C.
When Logue took over the BRA in 1960, very little had been built, but suddenly there was this flood of money coming from the federal government.  Log came out of New Haven where he had previously don a lot of urban renewal...He, as did many architects in Boston at the time, seemed to like concrete as a way to both reflect the weightiness in the presence of historical buildings but also indicate a vision of the future.  It allowed architects and...Logue to feel like they were connecting to this historic importance of the masonry city while also being a new language that could reflect optimism about the future...There were suddenly new opportunities, new investments, and the need for upgrading and modernizing the whole city at once...

Boston City Hall Plaza, 1991
Boston, Massachusetts
CG: The big thing going on architecturally here during that time was that so many ex-students of Corbusier had arrived; Josep Lluis Sert, Araido Cossutta.  Walter Gropius founded The Architects Collaborative.  What they provided was a somewhat European-but mainly civc and cultural-sensibility about the use of concrete...there's a serendipitous moment where this architectural language come to the city at the same time as the public and private sectors bring in a remarkable amount of reinvestment.

Were these buildings well received at first?

MP: City Hall is probably the most recognized one and from its very beginning there was controversy about it.  Many people saw it as a symbol of "the new Boston"...But a lot of other people felt that something like City Hall didn't reflect the traditions of Boston...In 1964, Architectural Forum did a special issue dedicated entirely to Boston because of how innovative it had become, seeing it as a case study, a new model for urban renewal...There were mixed reactions to this kind of work  Some deeply believed that Boston was a historic city that shouldn't change but many others were very optimistic about those changes.

Boston Government Services Center construction photograph
Was there a specific Heroic project that's seen as a sign of the period's peak?

MP: I don't think people saw any one of these particular buildings and said "it's time to do something different," but Paul Rudolph's Government Center might be a good case-in-point of that shift, because it was really designed in '63 or '64 but it opened in '71.  It was designed when Rudolph was at the height of his game...There was a lot of enthusiasm for it earlier but when it actually opened it was a big government building opening in an era of government cutbacks.

CG: The rear view of history would point to City Hall, but that's a much longer narrative.  Even though there's an interest in the history of Boston, there a real lack of nuance.  People just associate everything from urban renewal and concrete architecture with top-heavy government that didn't care about the people and wanted to exert its will over the population,  It's become the de facto narrative...

Quincy Market
Boston, Massachusetts
The book uses the redevelopment of Quincy Market to mark the end of the Heroic period.  What does that project symbolize?

MP: It is a symbolic shift.  The end started to appear earlier than that, but it was a good moment to end the book.  As we looked at the dates of when concrete was being used it was really into the '70s but not beyond the mid-'70s.  That also reflects the shift nationally towards Postmodernism and the reassessment of historical forms as  reinvesting in historical architecture...

It marks the end when even the BRA is shifting its attitude towards the resuscitation of existing buildings rather than the creation of new ones...In our conversations with Tad Stahl, he always attributed it to shifts in energy markets.  After the oil embargo the cost of doing concrete rose substantially.  He also attributed it to the shifts in the construction industry that went from large construction organizations...towards a sub-bidding process.  He felt that shift meant construction companies could no longer afford to create experts in high-quality, architectural grade concrete.

Quincy Market Plaza
Boston, Massachusetts
Public opinion is certainly a factor, too.  I think the countercultural movement started to tarnish these buildings, which were meant to be public and engaging.  The shift started to see them more as Big Government...What's always curious to me is that it's both the liberal and most conservative forces that came together to undo these buildings as part of the popular imagination...

CG: Quincy Market happened during the Bicentennial year in 1976 and the beginning of that kind of reinvestment in the history of Boston.  Thirteen years before that there was an insert published by the Boston Globe that was talking about the future of Boston and the city developed a '65-'75 masterplan.  The rate of change that came with it allowed the city to become viable again...Because the city had been revitalized there was this  idea now that if tourist were going to come, they weren't going to come for all the new these new buildings, they'd come for the history which would then drive the next part of the renewal.  With opening of Quincy Market, you begin to see a reinvestment in the history of the city for better or worse.

Boston University skyline
Boston, Massachusetts

Which Heroic buildings in Boston are at risk today?

MP: There have been a few.  The MLK elementary school by Sert was torn down last year.  It's very close to one of his most important complexes, the Peabody Terrace building at Harvard.  City Hall was a big risk under the last mayor but the new mayor initiated an evaluation and study for making City Hall and the plaza around it better, which will be done over the next year.

The Government Center parking garage is slated to be demolished and replaced with a high-scale residential towers..,we understand it's a megastructure parking garage in downtown that cuts the city in half...The institutions around Boston are looking at thoughtful strategies for how to reuse these buildings.  Peabody Terrace was carefully renovated and upgraded.  The Boston University law [tower] by Sert is just about finished with a major renovation and addition that was sensitive to its original nature.  And Harvard is now looking to transform the Holyoke Center...

Holyoke Center, Harvard University
Sert, Jackson & Associates
Cambridge, Massachusetts
I'm a little more optimistic than I was a couple of years ago when a lot of these building were talked about for substantial negative changes.  Many institutions and even the city seem to be handling them with better care now... but with City Hall, when Menino was very negative about the buildings. It probably encouraged locals to think negatively about all of these buildings.

I think there's been more national attention on Brutalism and on its character in the last couple of years.  High-profile cases in Chicago, Washington D.C. and Orange County {New York], have brought people to the foreground to argue for them.  I also think the economics usually make more sense to save the buildings and invest in them some people are deciding between demolishing them or completely rebuilding them with all new systems and bringing them up to code...

Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, 2013
Photograph by © Lee Dykxhoorn
Cambridge, Massachusetts
CG: No one batted an eyelid about losing Sert's MLK school.  Thankfully, a few years ago, with the Boston Preservation Alliance and significant efforts from other parties we managed to get the Christian Science Plaza landmarked...Of all the buildings here, losing City Hall would be our "Penn Station moment."  As they're won't to say, it would take a controlled nuclear device to bring it down, so at least we have that on our side.  There's a study out right now for the plaza and the building to really investigate its use and its usefulness...Even Michael Mckinnnell, on of the architects of City Hall has said on numerous occasions that he's eager and willing to see the building modified and reused.

Interior staircase Government Services Center
Paul Rudolph
Boston, Massachusetts
Other than City Hall, what Heroic Building in Boston is the most misunderstood?

MP: We call City Hall the third rail of this building type because it just sets people into a storm.  The Rudolph one is probably equally disliked and sometimes people confuse the's a tour de force of brilliant design but it's also incredibly complex because it's a mental health services building, the programs aren't really suited.  It's corrugated, bush-hammered concrete.  It's a tough surface...

There's a story people talk about where someone lit themselves on fire...on the altar of the chapel by in all of my research, I've never seen any evidence of that nor have any of the other scholars I've spoken to that are focused on Rudolph...I worry that there's a lot of misreadings that happen in these buildings and their architects that paint a very dark picture...There are some big issues with code violation.  The handrails are all too low and they had to put a chainlink around these outdoor sectional moments where light was being brought down into a lower level via a reveal in the plaza.  Now it's all surrounded with chainlink so it looks terrible but they've come up wit a solution to permanently fix that...

Madison Park High Schoo, 1967-77
Photograph by Nick Wheel courtesy of the Francis Loeb Library Harvard GSD
Roxbury, Massachusetts
CG: Madison Park High School.  The people of Boston and even the design community don't even know about it.  It's Marcel Breuer's only institutional project in the city...It's a remarkable piece of work.  When you step into the interior courtyard of that space it's just epic...It''s in okay condition.  It definitely needs some investment, but the actual precast concrete pieces are in pretty good shape.

This book will naturally appeal to those who already like this kind of architecture, but what would you like everyone to get out of it?

CG: Even though we're unabashedly admirers of this kind of work, the project is as much of an aesthetic one as it is a cultural one.  We'd hope that the skeptic would not necessarily be swayed to like the buildings but to at least appreciate their existence in the making of a 21-st century Boston.  When start talking about destruction of epochs of architecture you really run the danger of erasing the culture and history of a place well before you're able to evaluate that history and its implications.  Preservation needs time and we're sprinting fast through the eras of the last 50 years to take down projects just for the sake of their "ugliness."  Legacy cannot be evaluated in time before these things are being torn down.  Thankfully, I think we're starting to see a shift.

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