The Softer Side of Brutalism

The Softer Side of Brutalism

The J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington, D.C. Credit: Wally Gobetz on Flickr

Brutalism is what it sounds like. While most kinds of architecture are designed to be inviting to visit or beautiful to look at, Brutalist buildings dare you to enter them and discourage you from getting too comfortable. Characterized by cold materials, heavy massing and rigid, rectangular forms, Brutalism found a limited audience in the 1960s and ’70s, when American experimentation in everything from art to drugs reached its apex.

For these very reasons, Brutalist structures are pretty unpopular today, and many are threatened with demolition. Brutalist buildings, now middle-aged, are often hard to renovate, causing them to fall into disrepair. And ironically perhaps, because of their structural and material simplicity, Brutalist buildings tend to house government entities, giving people a bad association (i.e. jury duty) with these hulking, unfriendly structures.

A prime specimen of the form is the J. Edgar Hoover Building, which until recently served as the headquarters for the FBI. Located in downtown Washington, D.C. amid other corporate headquarters sheathed in glass and supported by steel, the Hoover building is an outdated fortress at a time when organizations of all types signal their transparency and forward-thinking approach through architecture. Writing in the 1970s, architecture critic Paul Goldberger said of the Hoover building, “This building turns its back on the city and substitutes for responsible architecture a pompous, empty monumentality that is, in the end, not so much a symbol as a symptom — a symptom of something wrong in government and just as wrong in architecture.”

It’s no surprise, then, to hear that the building’s owner, the General Services Administration (GSA), wants to dump it. Renovations to the building in 2011 were estimated to cost $1.7 billion, while demolition and building a new structure on the site would cost $850 million. Shrewdly, the GSA announced last week an RFP for developers to build the agency a new headquarters in exchange for the sunk cost of the Hoover building.

The Roundhouse. Credit: It’s Our City

No one know if this scheme will work, but it most likely will result in the demolition of the Hoover building. Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, activists and students are protesting the impending demolition of the Roundhouse, a former police headquarters. This building, designed by Geddes, Brecher, Qualls & Cunningham and built in 1962, will likely be replaced by condos.

There are other high-profile examples of preservation debates, such as Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago. Many others lack support from the public or media and die off silently.

Should we care that Brutalism’s history is being erased, piece by piece? For all the reasons I’ve mentioned above, Brutalism no longer has a place among our architectural values. But there are many reasons it should.

If we lose most of our major Brutalist buildings, we will lose the history and the lessons that came along with them. Brutalist buildings represent some of the major innovations in architecture. Here, the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia explains the significance of the Roundhouse to the city:

The building was assembled from individual precast panels that fully integrate the building’s structural and mechanical systems. The building’s construction in the early 1960s was a watershed moment in the redevelopment of Center City Philadelphia and was championed by Richardson Dilworth and Edmund Bacon. Its iconic curved forms are repeated throughout the building’s interiors, where even the elevators and exit signs are round.

Brutalist buildings are a reminder about the importance of risk-taking and emotional architecture. The Whitney Museum in New York City is one successful piece of architecture that politely refuses to engage in the social contract between city and street.

The Whitney Museum. Credit: Dom Dada

Set on Madison Avenue where pedestrians and storefronts are ordinarily in constant conversation, the Whitney presents a blank wall to passersby. Floor-to-ceiling windows are unexpectedly placed at the basement level, evoking a style similar to Modern townhomes that have private sunken gardens. Its radical geometric style symbolizes the Whitney’s provocative collection, while the windows with tiled sills keep visitors inside focused on the art, making it hard to look out while light flows in.

Ada Louise Huxtable, writing for the New York Times in 1963, wasn’t sure what to make of the Whitney’s design, but said at the very least, “it will not be cheap, thin, tinny, thoughtless, dull, facile, shoddy or routine, and that is more than can be said of most of the city’s current construction.” Fifty years later, this bears repeating.

Our tastes change. The Whitney is now, for the most part, another beloved piece of architecture in New York. Were the Roundhouse a museum instead of a police headquarters, or the Hoover building a private-sector building instead of a government one, I imagine that their outcomes would be different.

One need only look a few blocks from the Roundhouse to the Society Hill Towers, a collection of I. M. Pei buildings that once housed low middle-income people but now cater to the upper class. These government structures need mainstream champions to find new life. Alice Tully Hall in New York was beautifully renovated, creating a layering of history and modernity. The renovation kept building’s strong materiality but exchanged its distant attitude for a more welcoming one.

Let’s hope that someone has a similar sense of vision for the Hoover building. The last thing that D.C. needs is more of the same.

Diana Lind is the former executive director and editor in chief of Next City.

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Tags: cultureeconomic developmentwashington, d.c.architecturehistoric preservation

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