Friday, January 9, 2009

The Rawness Of Concrete

I know very little about architecture and art in general, and I never bothered to study aesthetics in school or on my own, but I still have strong feelings as a mere witness to architecture. How some styles repulse me, and yet other styles I find they stir sudden, positive feelings in me. I couldn’t quite tell you why because I am not entirely sure of the reason other than a few uttered glimpses of the revealed in the swirling, dark-water sub-consciousness that comprises an emotive response.

I’ve realized that a specific architectural style induces the strongest response in me out of any other style: brutalism. For the sake of ease and clarity, I will speak of brutalism as a general aesthetic in architecture without much thought of the distinctions between brutalism and new brutalism, and the individual interpretations of the style by separate architects.

Brutalism, like any piece of art, is best described by its own being rather than words:

Boston City Hall
(Taken From Wikipedia)

The aesthetic principles of brutalism are, firstly, large, angular and abstract shapes mostly made of all concrete. The sheer size and large forms of the buildings seem totally indifferent to the size of the human occupants and to the context of the surrounding area. Brutalism, secondly, breaks the tradition of concealment in architecture. Brutalism reveals its functions and services (e.g. stairs, elevators, division of rooms). These functions can be clearly seen from the building’s exterior; if you look at other architectural styles, the functional components are usually hidden within the interior of the building or encased in embellishments. The end results of brutalism is a giant monolith with inorganic, systematic shapes that are unforgiving in their silent, grey hardness.

Doesn’t sound very appealing, does it? The popular opinion on brutalism, from both the layperson and the professional, is unanimous disgust. I’ve found this very distressing because I have uncovered in myself an intense “love” of these buildings and their style; however, it is not really love, for when we say we love something we are bolstered and wish to be possessors. Love and beauty are inseparable, and to love something is to deem it beautiful and to desire. Many buildings are beautiful and desirable; this is a guiding aesthetic principle for most people, and it is why they choose to consume various pieces of art that are simply little beauties (everybody loves beach landscape paintings!). Brutalist buildings are almost entirely the opposite, whether or not this was the intention of the architects or an accident, I do not know. They are unlovable; they are not beautiful; they are monstrous hunks of concrete; it spurs no desire to own, to be a possessor. It says to you “you are not and cannot be a possessor.” It is an experience of the sublime. Usually, the sublime is associated with the expanses of Earth and space, such as when one looks out on the ocean, from a mountain peak or into the night sky. It is the intensification and culmination of the human condition’s powerlessness in a brief, emotional incident. These buildings are sublime. I use this term in the sense of awe-inspiring. Brutalism makes one feel small, insignificant and powerless when faced with the imposing, inhumanness of giant concrete slabs. It is perhaps a man-made, accidental reminder to what extent social gatherings, buildings, infrastructures, industries, the silent, deep structures of our world are produced free of the individual and his small beauties. That is why I appreciate them so much, because they are ugly, sublime revealers in total concrete indifference.

Being a New Englander and previously a college student, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to encounter brutalist buildings. The school I attended, Clark University, had a library designed in the style; many universities have brutalist buildings from the 70s and 80s because of the affordability of an all concrete, embellishment-free style.

Goddard Library
(Photograph by Mary Ann Sullivan)

Goddard library is not an appreciated building, suffering dilapidation from Worcester’s weather and generally being seen as an ugly building. Many Clark students never step foot in the building more than once or twice a year, usually only to have frightened sex in some hidden study nook -- a proud tradition. As of 2008, they began renovations on the building, compromising much of the initial brutalist principles in the design of the building. Clearly brutalism was not appreciated by Clark University to the point of demolishing part of the original structure. In this same vein, Boston City Hall, as featured above, is another hated brutalist building. I believe, though I do not have the quote on hand, that Mayor Thomas Menino has suggested moving city hall, demolishing the building and selling the large plot of land.

I was perhaps one of the few students that truly enjoyed the building. I have very fond memories of climbing the senselessly-wide stairwell that seemed to be built for giants rather than humans to the top floor to enjoy the sun bleeding in through the large window panes onto the bleached carpet. The light contrasted by the coolness of the grey concrete, repeating its blocky shapes over and over again down the study cubicles without communicating a word. The exterior of the building and the interior of the building were inseparable and connected by the striking concrete blocks that simply traveled from the outside straight into the building with mechanically placed windows to withhold the occupants. It produces a unique quality of feeling connected to the entirety of the building, and being unable to forget that the room you occupied was one space of a larger network that made up the building. The building refused to let you ever stop thinking about it.

As I have cursorily expressed, brutalism is a maligned style that will probably disappear in the coming decades for more approachable styles. Many of its prominent examples are being torn down or made more “contemporary.” The two I’ve had most connection to are in total jeopardy. I find it upsetting, but I do understand it. What I’ve said about the buildings must be somewhat truthful if people are having such intensely negative reaction to them. Most hate the sublime, and spend much of their lives devising ways to avoid the terror of feeling insignificant or powerless. Psychological delusions or religious postulates are just two of the many ways to write off the sublime, to make the sublime meaningful to humans and thusly destroying it. Brutalism is too sublime, so it must be destroyed and replaced with the warmth and comfort of little beauties that distract us with the delusion of being possessors.

Addendum 2013:
This post is by far the most viewed on my bric-a-brac philosophy blog.  Mostly because people are searching for Brutalist images through google image search, hopefully maybe they read at least a paragraphs until they are lulled back into the cacophonies of sensory inputs and return to their google image search vision quest.

Brutalism has been the mute, slate spectre in the background of my life.  From spending countless hours in the dilapidated Goddard Library at Clark University, the interior with broken clocks, impossible geometries reminiscent of The Shining, to graduating and moving to Boston where the focal point of my adventures did orbit around the behemoth known as Boston City Hall, I find these buildings plodding in my life -- somehow with watchful quiescence.  There is now one more addition.  I was married at Boston City Hall in 2013.

And as with most things these days, we live in the shelled-out dreams of Modernity, a civil marriage "ceremony" without religion, "ordained" by the state and an architectural style that abuses the very notion of embellishment.  Perhaps they are both in a mode of entropy, but still they are more bare, honest and in touch with the pragmatic, material and always sublime realities of life -- the enduring gift of Modernity.


Thomas said...

Hey Brandon,

I also graduated Clark University and attended during the years that included the later planning, ground-breaking, construction, and opening of the the Goddard. I have a very deep attachment to the building and wrote about it for a psychology course.

I recall the Goddard had problems from the beginning. They underlit some of the study areas. To solve that initally, they removed the plastic diffusers from the fixtures. I think that was better remedied with brighter fluorescent bulbs. The HVAC system had balancing problems. It was hot on the upper levels.

They closed off the open space between "the box of books" and the balconies of study carrels (sp?) on the first floor circulation/reference level with panels of transluscent glass. I've forgotten whether this was done to reduce sound transmission or help the HVAC problem. The drama of the interor of the building was lost, because you lost the view from the first level to the top of the building. I think this was done under the administration of President Apley, who had little love for the structure.

I had the opportunity to watch the actual original construction, when you could see how the stacks, or "box of books," was an independent structure from the outer part of the building on concrete piers that held the study areas.

I visited the campus last January when the renovations had been more or less completed. Little doubt that the campus needed a more utilitarian space, but the resulting dilution of the original design is rather painful to observe.

The Goddard is--or was--possibly John Johansen's best building. It may have been the best example of Brutalist architecture of that period (mid-sixties to mid-seventies). But now we can only appreciate that in photographs.

You have to wonder--by comparison--would Harvard University ever modify LeCourbusier's Carpenter Arts Center to get more space. Probably not. That all-concrete structure pre-saged the Brutalist era and is a landmark building.

John Johansen is still alive and in his nineties. I'm saddened that he lived to see the Goddard modified to this extent.

Oh, just as a footnote, the Goddard Museum on the ground florr, whose exhibit space was designed by the Smithsonian Institution, seems to have been turned into offices for some department or other. The window in the cab of the elevator has been removed. It was fun to observe the campus as the elevator went up and down, but that's gone too.

Over time, those of us who remember the Goddard as it was will fade away; and except for photographs, little will be remembered of the original building. And the experience of the original building will be totally lost.

I had to look up sublime to be sure of the meaning of the word. It WAS a sublime building in its elegant, Brutalist way.

Really enjoyed your blog post on this.

Tom Norris '69

Brandon said...

Thank you very much for posting a response. Your perspective is very enlightening; you have a much more expansive frame to compare the work that has been done on the building. I consider this response a crucial, technical and historical amendment to the original blog post.

I was deeply attached to the Goddard building. I spent most of my studying time in the building for 4 years of college, and I explored most of its spaces. I also happen to work in the mail room so I would deliver mail to the library and have full access to the two elevators in the building.

I also recently visited the building though with limited access as it was during a holiday so the stacks were closed, but I got to see most of the newer renovation they had done.

Clark seemed like it was deeply uncomfortable with the responsibility and the burden of that piece of art, as it was much more a piece of art that followed through on quite wonderfully idealistic principles than it was a functional building. By my fourth year in 2008, though much longer before that, the building had reached such a point of dilapidation that most of the structure on the top floors had water and sun damage, nothing was replaced, fixed or reworked to keep it alive. All the clocks were broken and graffiti covered everything. Clark wanted the building to fail so it could safely justify the entire abandonment of the original artistic idea, putting forth a much more sell-able, swanky, functional building that appeals to the small, utilitarian minds of college applicants and the equally small, money-hungry minds of administrative faculty.

The building is no longer in existence as far as I'm concerned as the entire spirit and meaning of the project was completely abandoned and lost. In its place is a very typical, contemporary piece with bright lights and open sterile rooms that have a slight hospital-feel to it.

The original Goddard building was built on higher ideals and was stunning and exciting. Maybe in a couple decades, people will come back around again.

Thanks again for your contribution.

Brandon Rucker '08