Boston City Hall

BRUTALISM AND BEAUTY

Wikipedia defines Bru-tal-ism as: An architectural style of the mid-20th century characterized by massive or monolithic forms, usually of poured concrete and typically unrelieved by exterior decoration.
(Fine Arts & Visual Arts / Architecture) an austere style of architecture characterized by emphasis on such structural materials as undressed concrete and unconcealed service pipes Also called new brutalism

Webster’s abridged definition of Bru-tal-ism: A style in art and esp. architecture using exaggeration and distortion to create its effect (as of massiveness or power)

Brutalism, in a nutshell, is a celebration of the naked.

In architecture, when structure and finish are one and the same, it is TRUTH made manifest. There are only three materials that can do that and reinforced concrete is one of them. It is on par with stone and brick but gets little respect with a past in bunkers, low-income projects and a name like “Brutalism”. If Truth is Beauty then Brutalist buildings should be attractive and popular, but they rarely are.

We are surrounded by steel skyscrapers although what meets the eye is is a metal veneer reiterating the encased steel structure. Amazingly, steel is less resistant to flames than timber and must be covered. For example, if the Eiffel Tower were to be residential the steel lattice would be fire proofed. There are coatings that would allow steel to read true but no one has dared.

Exposed reinforced concrete needs no such treatment and that is the attribute that typifies Brutalist aesthetics. The Whitney Museum (1966) by Marcel Breuer on Madison Avenue in NYC would have been an excellent example if not for its exterior stone cladding…but the interior is textbook.

The chemical admixture that is concrete requires great care every step of the way from pouring to curing—that attention should be apparent on the skin. It is similar to a cake that skips the icing to show the imprint of the pan as part of the presentation. Once the formwork is removed the work is done.

Unfortunately, concrete’s affordability over steel is often more curse than blessing because the rough and ready appearance encourages sloppy formwork and the public is none the wiser. Adding to the financial gain with cheap formwork is penny wise and pound foolish but in the business of maximum profits penny wise is often the shareholders choice.

The use of carpenters unaware of the nuances of following the flow of forces is the biggest assault on the aesthetics of concrete. Veneer treatments can hide the sloppy workmanship but the cover-up will cost more in long-term maintenance than any initial savings. In naked Brutalism, without a fake skin to probe and patch, repairs can be spotted and nipped in the bud.

The idea of an unfinished finish is a radical innovation that brings enormous savings to the owner but it comes with the understanding that “naked” has an obligation to be pleasing especially because concrete is enduring. It is not that hard to do. Beauty is in the formwork just as it is on a Grecian Urn.

Beauty follows formwork but talent means a lot. Even the best workmanship is no guarantee of eloquence. For instance, Boston City Hall (1968) spared no expense in its formwork but compared to Carpenter Center (1964) on the Harvard campus, it is a looming hulk. Perhaps it’s Corbusier’s ease with nudity which enabled him to master the medium. His rendition of Brutalism is the antithesis of the ponderous affectation by the architects of the City Hall who were his ardent followers but bashful to a fault.

Materials determine styles…and all styles are variants of two prototypical systems: Trabeation (a.k.a. post and lintel, unique to stone slabs and perfected in the Parthenon, 447 BC) and Arcuation (a.k.a. arches, unique to brick and celebrated in the Pantheon, 126 AD). Both systems predate the Greeks and Romans but were refined by them to suit their philosophy and cultural status. Trabeation with its elemental purity, embodies the philosophical notion that Truth is Beauty…and Arcuation, invaluable to the legion engineers, is another manifestation of Truth echoing the power and span of the Roman empire.

It remained that way for trabeation and arcuation until the 20th century when they were joined by “plastuation” to form a divine trinity. Concrete at the apex for its plasticity and ability to assume the potters hand (as such, it should also be evaluated in the vocabulary of ceramics). Brutalism is but a variant of plastuation and there will be other periods to come for the system of unpolished refinement that speaks to truth and is exemplified by The TWA Flight Center (1962) by Saarinen.

Reinforced concrete is in the throes of establishing an identity. It was not until 1904 that the first concrete skyscraper went up in Cincinnati (15 floors) and to this day the Ingalls Building by Ernest Ransome waits for Father Time to strip away its robe of European tradition and reveal its true identity…the CBS (1965) and Trump World Towers (2001) in NYC will have to get in line. Not to mention the World’s tallest Building (2004) 165 floors above the desserts of Dubai. Who would believe that 100 years after the Ingalls building, architects would still be masquerading concrete as steel? When does the Ugly Duckling become a Swan?

Brutalist fundamentals, it should be noted, can extend to other materials and events but I discounted wood because it is perishable. The Ise Shrine is as old as the Parthenon due to a ritual that rebuilds it every 20 years, nevertheless, the bare wood evokes a Brutalist pragmatism similar to wearing clothes inside out when comfort trumps appearance. Glass too can be made to exhibit Brutalist transparencies and reflections. Puritanical disavowal of decoration is somewhat brutal in spirit and the boredom of prefabrication along with anything dark and gloomy, brings Brutalism to the fore.

Concrete is germane to walls. Hoover Dam’s massive concrete wall (1936, and still in the process of curing) divides a once raging river into a struggling stream on one side and a lake to excess on the other. Vegas is a product of that wall and Gaza could learn from that.

Every dreadful concrete wall is a potential to be exploited. Walls not only separate they can also unite. Concrete has shown its versatility from Roosevelt Island Soviet, to NYU’s Sylvette (Picasso, 1968) and if Gothic Architecture can overcome its barbaric name, then someday Brutalism will be beautiful.

…to be continued.

Corbusier Nude

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