It's cool to be a blockhead
There is a debate going on in Birmingham, England, about the fate of its famously ugly central library. The English Heritage organization is recommending that the concrete mass be "listed," or designated as a building of historic significance. The Twentieth Century Society, a British group devoted to preserving the architecture that best characterizes the past century, whether beautiful or commonplace, is also campaigning for its preservation. The city council has been planning for some time to have it demolished and replaced. This conundrum - the choice between glorification and total destruction - is typical of discussions going on around the world about the value of brutalism, that utopian postwar architecture that it was so chic to disdain about 20 years ago. Brutalism is back.
The Birmingham Central Library was built in 1974, designed by John Madin, toward the end of the vogue for hulking utilitarian concrete design in Britain. (Madin's other famous bunkers were built in the 1950s and 1960s; many of them have been demolished.) The library is an inverted ziggurat: That is, its upper floors project outward and loom over the street below. Prince Charles, one of many to voice rebellious thoughts against late modernist architecture in the 1980s, said the Birmingham library looked "more like a place for burning books than keeping them."
Interestingly, its design was inspired by that of Boston City Hall, another famously hideous building, built 10 years earlier. And the same debate is happening over that one, with newspaper columnists demanding it be torn down and preservation societies springing to its defence.
Originally, the term brutalism was humorously pejorative: It was coined by architecture critic Reyner Banham in punning reference to the French bÃ©ton brut (raw concrete), the material Le Corbusier said he liked best.
Banham was primarily attacking the work of the British husband-and-wife team Peter and Alison Smithson, who were responsible, in the fifties and sixties, for many failed housing projects and authoritarian public buildings. The funny thing was that all these disciples of Le Corbusier were socialist idealists; they believed that social progress would come from experiments in communal, vertical living. There was something puritanical about this ideology too, as if comfort and beauty were bourgeois.
Why brutalism became the style of choice for North American university campuses isn't so clear, but it's in university buildings - libraries, in particular, for some reason - that one finds the most amazingly awful examples of the genre. For example, the library of Ryerson University, in downtown Toronto, is a square block so featureless it appears from the outside to be solid concrete all the way through. And it still doesn't rival the University of Toronto's Robarts Library for gaudy inhuman unpleasantness.
But I am sounding very uncool by saying this now, as hipsters all over the educated world are singing the praises of concrete. Books and articles are coming out monthly on the most influential concrete structures of the fifties through the seventies, and societies are developing to fight for their preservation.
In Berlin a few years ago, I saw a number of books and games on sale in intellectual bookstores devoted to pictures of plattenbauten, the dreary apartment blocks of the former East Germany. Those buildings were made with precast concrete plates and often ended up with strange geometric patterns covering their faÃ§ades. Close-ups of the patterns look pretty cool in photographs, like the op art of the period (although I still wouldn't want to live in one of these buildings). A lot of them are being torn down, which is indeed reckless. Victorian architecture was also once considered ugly and silly, and many interesting examples were torn down in the 20th century. Now, we miss them.
But it's hard to tell if the fashionable affection for communist housing is slightly ironic, or if it's simply another form of ostalgie, the yearning for East German kitsch. Interestingly, a lot of the people singing the praises of brutalist university libraries are baby boomers who spent their undergraduate years on these campuses. I suspect there is some nostalgia at work there too.
Trellick Tower, a high-rise apartment building in London, built in 1972 as public housing, was notoriously crime-ridden. But now that real estate is worth as much as diamonds in London, a one-bedroom apartment in it sells for $500,000. The concrete boxes of Moshe Safdie's Habitat 67, also conceived as affordable housing, are now similarly sought after. And it has always been chic to live in a Le Corbusier building, cramped and slab-like as they may be. This is understandable: His designs are still startling, and there is a majesty to such bold ugliness on such a scale. There is a thrill to be had from the huge and menacing; if there weren't, we wouldn't listen to amplified electric guitars and drums.
More importantly, it's probably the optimism of the era, the belief that the future would all be geometric, that is worth preserving. The gaudiest and strangest of brutalist designs are therefore probably the ones that are most historically significant.