Ode to Brutalism

Beton Brut

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I've appreciated the thoughtful responses and memories folks have shared above.

Hard Modernism isn't for everyone. The way something is understood graphically is very different from how it's experienced spatially. Comfort, repose, and wonder are in the mind and body of each one of us, and are driven by ceiling height, wall texture, natural and artificial light sources, air quality, and even the sound of our footfall. All of these responses are at the very core of our humanity. I'm interested in understanding the spectrum of these responses, because in aggregate, these are the very qualities that separate us from "the beasts in the field" (and people who don't care about design).

Though modernism began seeping onto some university campuses a decade earlier, Wright may have been the first to create a unified master plan in his ambitious design for Florida Southern College. Though these buildings are largely concrete, highly expressive, and comprise a unified composition, I'd never refer to them as (proto-)Brutalist. That said, I do believe that Rudolph's UMASS Dartmouth campus was derived through a deep understanding of Wright's work at FSC.

Regarding my connection between the expressive kinship of architecture and music, does this resonate with any of you? It's something that I've considered for about 35 years, though my thinking has evolved from studying the creators' intentions to individual/social responses, what some academics refer to as phenomenology.
 

Blackdog

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Regarding my connection between the expressive kinship of architecture and music, does this resonate with any of you? It's something that I've considered for about 35 years, though my thinking has evolved from studying the creators' intentions to individual/social responses, what some academics refer to as phenomenology.
For my music tastes, I enjoy most music expect for a majority of country music. Grew up listening to what my dad like which was classic rock: Zeppelin, Floyd, The Doors, Sabbath, Boston, Aerosmith, Stones, Cooper(first concert), and many more. As I grew up and explored my own music tastes I learned I enjoyed faster and more aggressive music but music that needed hold a certain melodic aspect. Metal resonated with me and I started with 70s/80s and worked my way up from there, though I find myself listening to the 70s/80s the most. Bands like: Dio, Rainbow, Iron Maiden, Metallica, Sabbath, AC/DC, Megadeth, Slayer. RIP Dio, probably the biggest influence to my musical tastes.
 

Lrfox

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I've appreciated the thoughtful responses and memories folks have shared above.

Hard Modernism isn't for everyone. The way something is understood graphically is very different from how it's experienced spatially. Comfort, repose, and wonder are in the mind and body of each one of us, and are driven by ceiling height, wall texture, natural and artificial light sources, air quality, and even the sound of our footfall. All of these responses are at the very core of our humanity. I'm interested in understanding the spectrum of these responses, because in aggregate, these are the very qualities that separate us from "the beasts in the field" (and people who don't care about design)
Thanks, Beton. Do you think Brutalism would have been received differently if it became fashionable at a different time? I always think about this and I'm not sure.

It coincided with the rise of planning/developing around the automobile and "urban renewal." It's how we ended up with the State Services Center and City Hall Plaza among other notable examples, all of which are reviled almost as much for their mass and disregard for the pedestrian experience at ground level as they are for their design.

On the other hand, you have buildings like the Architectural College, Boston Five Cents, etc. which I think most would find to be, at worst, inoffensive. If all Brutalism came in packages like these, would more people like it? Is it a product of the urban renewal/autocentric wave of development, or did it simply coincide with that wave? Curious to hear your take.
 

bigpicture7

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By providing the following comment I by no means want to lower the elevated quality of discourse in the above comments (and thanks, BB, as always for what you do)...but...

I honestly think that a big part of the distaste for brutalism stems from the simple fact that the bare concrete just ends up looking like crap after a few years in the weather.
 

Beton Brut

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Thanks, Beton. Do you think Brutalism would have been received differently if it became fashionable at a different time?
In short, absofuckinglutely. There is no way to decouple the psychic connection between the industrial-scale vandalism of the Ed Logue Era and the misunderstood and maligned architecture that replaced Scollay Sq. and the West End. The havoc raised by Logue and his staff in Boston was far more damaging to the integrity and continuity of our urban environment than could be said about the misdeeds of his contemporary, Robert Moses, in NYC. That's because Boston is so much smaller than NYC, and because we didn't really have a Jane Jacobs to advocate for neighborhood preservation.

I was born in the sunset of the 60s, so the buildings I often defend were fresh on the landscape when I was a kid. Had I been born only a decade earlier, I may have grown up hating them. As it is, my feelings about City Hall and the State Services Center are complex - having taken the time to study history, I hate how they came to be, but believe very strongly that they're a crucial part of Boston's architectural heritage, and and deserve thoughtful curation and enhancement, pulling them forward into the 21st Century. I really believe that these buildings are mutable, that they can be further "sculpted" to meet today's needs from the perspective of the occupants and the greater urban form. It's about imagination, will, and effort.

As I grew up and explored my own music tastes I learned I enjoyed faster and more aggressive music but music that needed hold a certain melodic aspect. Metal resonated with me and I started with 70s/80s and worked my way up from there, though I find myself listening to the 70s/80s the most. Bands like: Dio, Rainbow, Iron Maiden, Metallica, Sabbath, AC/DC, Megadeth, Slayer. RIP Dio, probably the biggest influence to my musical tastes.
Hell yeah! The clear, teleological drive of "hard" music (in particular New Wave British Metal and the American acts that took up the cause in the ensuing years) is analog the repeated linear and "percussive" elements of this strain of modern architecture. I'd love to have a glass of wine with Maynard James Keenan and talk about the buildings he likes.

I honestly think that a big part of the distaste for brutalism stems from the simple fact that the bare concrete just ends up looking like crap after a few years in the weather.
No argument from me. Concrete was often sold to clients as being "maintenance free." This is, of course, preposterous.
 
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stick n move

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Im going to have to disagree completely. At the end of the day when you experience something in person, how you feel comes down to your interaction with the structure. I dont think anybody walks into some of these buildings and goes hmm, this isnt bad, but since its from the 50s that knocks it down in my book. It doesnt matter when it was built cold is cold.

Personal interactions strip all that away and its just you and the structure. In person is where all of that crap fades away and its all about in that moment does it work or does it not. And more often than not the scale, materials etc of brutalist structures dont. There are good examples like with anything, but the majority of it is better appreciated in pictures or from an outside perspective because in person they are cold, dark, closed off, and depressing. Umass Boston is another example. Everything there thats brutalist, is literally garbage on a day to basis of studying there. Historically its interesting how it ties into the other state schools, but in person its horrible.
 

Lrfox

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In short, absofuckinglutely. There is no way to decouple the psychic connection between the industrial-scale vandalism of the Ed Logue Era and the misunderstood and maligned architecture that replaced Scollay Sq. and the West End. The havoc raised by Logue and his staff in Boston was far more damaging to the integrity and continuity of our urban environment than could be said about the misdeeds of his contemporary Robert Moses in NYC. That's because Boston is so much smaller than NYC, and because we didn't really have a Jane Jacobs to advocate for neighborhood preservation.

I was born in the sunset of the 60s, so the buildings I often defend were fresh on the landscape when I was a kid. Had I been born only a decade earlier, I may have grown up hating them. As it is, my feelings about City Hall and the State Services Center are complex - having taken the time to study history, I hate how they came to be, but believe very strongly that they're a crucial part of Boston's architectural heritage, and and deserve thoughtful curation and enhancement, pulling them forward into the 21st Century. I really believe that these buildings are mutable, that they can be further "sculpted" to meet today's needs from the perspective of the occupants and the greater urban form. It's about imagination, will, and effort.
I'm a mid-80's guy, but I'm right there with you. I like the style, and the the issues I tend to have with certain examples aren't centered around the architecture itself. In many cases, the buildings have fallen into such disrepair that they're hard to love. In other cases, they're made into cold super blocks that turn their backs on the humans around them. But we can see that the design works. And even in the case of City Hall or State Services Center (I worked in the Lindemann for years and loved it - warts and all), I agree, they can be sculpted to meet today's needs effectively.
 

Beton Brut

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Im going to have to disagree completely. At the end of the day when you experience something in person, how you feel comes down to your interaction with the structure.
The intent of the second paragraph of the post at the top of this page was to allow for this sentiment.

Broadly, reaction is a visceral concept. Hard Modernism is a highly reactive strain of architecture.
 

Charlie_mta

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Still one of my favorite buidings of all time:



When I was a teenager I'd walk home from Cambridge High & Latin, and most days walk up that building's sweeping ramp, stop in and browse in the art and photography studios there, open to the public at the time. Just a poor kid from the Jefferson Park housing project in North Cambridge, but the experience of that building was inspirational for me. Talk about a spatial and sensory experience of a structure, inside and out, near and far.
 

bigpicture7

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Still one of my favorite buidings of all time:



When I was a teenager I'd walk home from Cambridge High & Latin, and most days walk up that building's sweeping ramp, stop in and browse in the art and photography studios there, open to the public at the time. Just a poor kid from the Jefferson Park housing project in North Cambridge, but the experience of that building was inspirational for me. Talk about a spatial and sensory experience of a structure, inside and out, near and far.
^Me too. To me, great brutalism invites curiosity and exploration...the nooks and crannies, the oneness with nature. It whispers: "there is more here than meets the eye, come explore"...

City Hall and its plaza doesn't work for me because it is SO in-your-face, bleak, eclipsing. But by contrast, this one @ Harvard absolutely does work for me.

And to me, the State Services Center is the ultimate heartbreaker, because it could have worked (not that it is perfect), but its stewards did everything exactly wrong. I think brutalism will fail if it's context/use case/maintenance are misaligned with the design intent. I suppose you could say that about any building, but brutalism seems particularly more fragile in this regard.
 

Beton Brut

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Still one of my favorite buidings of all time:

When I was a teenager I'd walk home from Cambridge High & Latin, and most days walk up that building's sweeping ramp, stop in and browse in the art and photography studios there, open to the public at the time. Just a poor kid from the Jefferson Park housing project in North Cambridge, but the experience of that building was inspirational for me...
Your story and mine aren't so different, Charlie; thank you for sharing yours. Life has taught me that great art rewards curiosity, and that curiosity is more valuable than any imaginable treasure.

The Carpenter Center is like a compendium of Corbu's career, an assemblage of his ideas, theories, and priorities packaged for American academia. It's not his best work, but it's a "best of" his work. I've never visited Ronchamp, or Marseille, or Chandigarh, but my visits to Carpenter have prepared me.

This thread is going to strange places!
Are you even a little bit surprised?

^Me too. To me, great brutalism invites curiosity and exploration...the nooks and crannies, the oneness with nature. It whispers: "there is more here than meets the eye, come explore"...

...I think brutalism will fail if it's context/use case/maintenance are misaligned with the design intent. I suppose you could say that about any building, but brutalism seems particularly more fragile in this regard.
Some are sustained by challenges. Others disdain challenges. This is the story of Hard Modernism.

And thank you for pointing out the oddly conflicting truth about so many of these buildings. Concrete is strong, but it can be brittle, in fact and in spirit.
 

FK4

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Regarding my connection between the expressive kinship of architecture and music, does this resonate with any of you? It's something that I've considered for about 35 years, though my thinking has evolved from studying the creators' intentions to individual/social responses, what some academics refer to as phenomenology.
An extremely complex question is really being asked here, which is "Are there commonalities between different sensory, aesthetic, and cognitive experiences in terms of the negative and positive valences ascribed to them?" I think you are presupposing a "yes" answer and also are asking, "Is there a way to understand these relationships in a thematic, and possibly, quantifiable or at least qualifiable way, that, most importantly (what I think you're REALLY asking), can be understood in some consistent way across all individuals?"

I don't have an answer to any of those questions. A few years ago, I, despite having long had a skepticism toward objective science, still offered the answer that's been implicitly drilled into me, and everyone, by the Western/Newtonian-Cartesian thought system — I would have said, "Probably, we just need more granular understanding of cognition; all experience is scientifically quantifiable; we just don't have the instruments yet, but one day we will". More and more, these days, I'm not so sure that's true, and moreover, I have less of a passion for trying to figure out objective understandings of things like this, since they may be missing the more important aspects of what makes individuals, minds, perhaps souls, unique. As I write this, I am conscious that I am, to some extent, imposing a bit of my own existential phase-of-life material on your question, so apologies.

I have no architectural background, but am very sensitive to sensory experience and have a fairly synesthetic experience of things like this, or, at minimum, a strong emotional/hedonic valence connection to sensory experience. Music and architecture are so different to me, it's hard to find a simple connection between the two, and although I'm sure there is one, I can't find any rational way to simply connect my appreciation for song X to building Y. I have a very wide appreciation for music, for different reasons (some is beautiful, some is brilliant, some is just nice to listen to). For architecture, I feel most at home and held by more natural materials and traditional designs, but I am strongly drawn to modernist architecture in a way I can't quite describe. I don't think I would like to live in a modernist home, but I could enjoy myself very much, and be envious of some host for a night, enjoying cocktails and dinner in a hypermodernist, neo- (or not neo)-Bauhaus home perched on a cliff in Big Sur. But my roots and home feelings are colonial, New England, Atlantic. I don't know if there's music for that, but there probably is. Just my musing reaction, thinking it out loud.
 

Beton Brut

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FK4 - It certainly can be complex. Questions like this are deeply subjective, open to the interpretations of the respondents. Consider it an object in the landscape that changes shape as you walk around it - point of view defines what and how we see.

I’m a musical omnivore. I’m broadly interested in design. I’m interested in the disciplines and qualities of imagination that generate excellence in both mediums. Quite simply, I see architecture in some music, and hear music in some architecture. I’m not a cognitive researcher, but I imagine that there are receptors in the brain that plug into both forms of expression.

Take the concept of balanced asymmetry. I’d suggest that two of the greatest expressions of this concept (in Western thought) are Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House and Jean Sibelius’s 4th Symphony. Both are products of the first decade of the 20th Century, and share austere and highly linear aesthetics. The study of both works of art have enriched my life. Someone else might devote the same amount of effort to these works and come away thinking that I’m a fool.

Your mention of hypermoderism and Big Sur made me think of Mickey Muennig. This home is on the market - put in an offer!
 

Beton Brut

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Thanks for these photos, Charlie. It's notable that buildings like Carpenter come alive when lit up at night. It's all a bit counterintuitive. And for years, I suggested that City Hall would do well to be artfully illuminated at night; this is one of the rare occasions that it actually feels good to be right.

(Now about the Plaza...)

(Link fixed)
 
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Charlie_mta

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Beton, the link isn't active, but I agree, City Hall with proper lighting at night would be something to see.
 

chrisbrat

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Beton, the link isn't active, but I agree, City Hall with proper lighting at night would be something to see.
this comment realy confuses me. have you not been downtown at night for a few years? city hall has been uplit nearly every night for many years. google "boston city hall night" and the images that come up will give you plenty of examples of what "city hall with proper lighting at night" looks like.
 
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Charlie_mta

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this comment realy confuses me. have you not been downtown at night for a few years? city hall has been uplit nearly every night for many years. google "boston city hall night" and the images that come up will give you plenty of examples of what "city hall with proper lightint at night" looks like.
I don't make it into GC often, so thanks for the info.
 

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