The Brutalism Truth

News Review

Supporters of Boston’s hulking civic Brutalism say it exemplifies the
Courtesy Monacelli Press

Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston
Mark Pasnik, Chris Grimley, Michael Kubo
The Monacelli Press, $32

Concrete architecture is currently enjoying a revival with young creative types. Social media is buzzing with feeds of concrete buildings from twitterati like @BrutalHouse and @brutalust, tumblr sites like f*ckyeahbrutalism, research blogs like #SOSBrutalism, and the support of Jonathan Meades—the doyenne of the British architectural avant-garde—who even wrote a two-part television documentary on it last year, Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness.

Heroic is part of this revival, born as a research project in 2008, in response to the call for the demolition and/or sale of Boston City Hall by the city’s then-mayor, Thomas M. Menino. The architectural community curated an exhibition of Boston’s concrete buildings at pinkcomma gallery, which has now been turned into book format thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign. The middle section of the book, “Buildings,” is still very much in exhibition format, consisting of 25 concrete monstrosities/icons (according to taste) built in Boston between 1960 and 1977. For concrete fanboys and postwar architectural historians like me, this is a great contribution to our trans-Atlantic database. I enjoyed the photographs and occasional construction drawing more than the rather arid factual accompanying text—perhaps it’s best to describe this as an introductory reference rather than a racy blockbuster.

 

All the key buildings, whether demolished or extant, are here: The Boston City Hall by Kallmann, McKinnell and Knowles, the Government Service Center by Paul Rudolph, Harvard’s Carpenter Center by Le Corbusier, and the Aquarium by the Cambridge Seven Associates, alongside other lesser known but equally adventurous works like Mary Otis Stevens and Thomas McNulty’s Lincoln House and Studio, now sadly no longer with us. The story of The Architects’ Corner on Brattle Street was news to me, as was the existence of the Boston Architectural Center—“the first modern building in the United States designed and built exclusively for the professional study of architecture”—constructed predictably and appropriately from the misunderstood material that excites architects and alienates the public in equal measure.

 

On either side of the exhibition are words: Five essays on concrete and Boston historically situate and introduce the book, and seven abridged interviews with the main protagonists complete it. These are all good reads. Joan Ockman is always insightful, and almost entirely correct in saying that "no other twentieth-century architectural –ism has been such a moving target." However, while it is true that Brutalism as a movement has been appropriated and re-appropriated by architects and critics both for and against it, without even a whisper of Post-Modernism, this quote is uncharacteristically sweeping. Ockman uses the B word to ground Boston’s new concrete architecture in the British context of the 1950s, but we should not simply conflate concrete with Brutalism. In fact, the editors of the book are careful to translate the British bombast of Brutalism into the more optimistic Heroic. Like the strong silent protagonist in a Hollywood movie, concrete can indeed be characterized as heroic, although Stevens complains that the term is “too loaded,” “feeds the critique by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and others,” and is monumental. She prefers the polar opposite term anti-heroic. This is more in line with Alison and Peter Smithsons’ more ethical definition of Brutalism, closely related to the everyday, although the British couple themselves would, I think, aspire to heroism. The Smithsons’ ethical dimension of Brutalism has been largely ignored in favor of Reyner Banham’s more picturesque aesthetic. As Ockman astutely points out, “an image travels faster than an ethos.”

 

Lizabeth Cohen then narrates the story of the Boston Redevelopment Authority: In 1960, John F. Collins became the mayor of Boston and recruited the rising star of urban renewal, Edward J. Logue. Peter Chermayeff explains that it was “bewilderingly exciting” for young architects to be handed the opportunity to rebuild the world in their image—the real apogee of modern architecture. Working with and still having the confidence of politicians, they cast a “New Boston” out of concrete—the material of heroes and a move away from traditional brick and stone. Concrete represented progress, democratic monumentality, and confidence in the future. Boston City Hall was the jewel in the crown, but many other heroic structures followed, both governmental, and at the famous universities of Harvard and MIT, where many of the architects trained or taught. These links were crucial, and the roll call of architects is relatively tight—many, like Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, or Sert, Jackson and Associates, or The Architects’ Collaborative, were handed repeat commissions. Indeed, it was claimed that during this period in Boston, “These aggressive concrete buildings are sufficiently plentiful to be considered a local vernacular.”

The interviews of the third section offer a rare and welcome reflection on the period—real “memoirs of a survivor” and often different to historians’ tidy narratives. Henry Cobb, a partner with I.M.Pei, is damning of his own Harbor Towers, for example, and rejects the Brutalist tag. And Tician Papachristou of Marcel Breuer’s office, talks frankly of the “burden” that concrete became. In the late 1970s concrete fell out of fashion with magazines and the general public, and became too expensive and risky compared to steel. And as modernism waned, people’s interest in heroism waned too, and architecture went to sleep… until woken by an MIT postgraduate and his mates who turned the material into a book.

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