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The Beauty in Brutalism, Restored and Updated


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Apr 23, 2007
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FEBRUARY 25, 2009

The Beauty in Brutalism, Restored and Updated


For a maverick movement begun by little old ladies in tennis shoes fighting bulldozers in the urban renewal demolition wars of the 1960s, historic preservation has achieved some astounding successes, from the passage of landmarks preservation laws and the establishment of the National Trust for Historic Preservation to the recognition, restoration and reuse of an impressive part of this country's architectural heritage. Guidelines have been established for a wide range of buildings, from the monumental to the vernacular -- repair first, restore second, rebuild last; make clear what is new or added, and honor the original materials and construction.

But when the vernacular expanded to the popular and kitsch joined high art in the pantheon of taste, nothing, potentially, was unworthy of serious consideration and a good argument could be made for almost any building that had survived. The new cultural ideals were inclusive and pluralistic. Objective scholarship was sidelined for subjective, emotional associations fueled by partisan passions. Familiar standards simply fell apart, and so did the comfortable operating consensus of the preservation movement.

It was at this moment of disequilibrium that modernist architecture came under attack, its aging landmarks threatened with destruction. These buildings broke with every convention of design and construction, but beyond disagreements about criteria, there were the failed experimental technologies of a now historic avant-garde. Preservationists were faced with a whole new set of problems.

Yale University has a singular collection of iconic modernist monuments, all in need of serious repair. Demolition was never an option for buildings by Louis Kahn, Eero Saarinen, Gordon Bunshaft, Philip Johnson and Paul Rudolph, and an ambitious restoration program began with the exemplary renewal of Kahn's University Art Gallery two years ago. Work was recently completed on Paul Rudolph's Art and Architecture Building, one of the most famously controversial landmarks of the 20th century.

The Rudolph building, designed and constructed from 1958 to 1963, shares a vertiginous history with another important mid-20th-century landmark, Boston's City Hall, a competition-winning design by Kallmann, McKinnell & Knowles also built in the 1960s. Initially celebrated and subsequently reviled, both buildings are in the same Brutalist style. The name Brutalism -- from the French béton brut, the raw concrete used by Le Corbusier and favored by modernists -- is more commonly used today as a term of opprobrium by a public that profoundly dislikes the style's rough textures and powerful forms.

Boston detests its City Hall. Attacks on the beleaguered building include calls for its demolition by a mayor determined to get rid of it and a public persistently unconverted to modernism and particularly hostile to the Brutalist aesthetic. (Déjà vu, anyone? Its predecessor, Boston's Victorian City Hall, was similarly detested and eventually saved and successfully recycled. Tastes change as surely as the seasons, only it takes a little longer.) The current City Hall is being systematically and willfully destroyed by abusive neglect, aggravated malfunction, and spreading bureaucratic blight.

In conspicuous contrast, Yale's building has been sympathetically and beautifully restored and updated for use by the architecture school. Rededicated on Nov. 8, 2008, 45 years to the day of its grand opening, it has been renamed Paul Rudolph Hall in honor of its architect (1918-1997), whose reputation has also suffered wild swings. The trip from Boston to New Haven might as well be measured in light years as in miles; Boston remains obdurately clueless.

Rudolph's building was never trouble free. Too small from the start, it was a terrible fit for the painting and sculpture departments crammed into it. There were no climate controls. Unsympathetic remodeling sabotaged the architect's vision. According to Robert A.M. Stern, the dean of the architecture school, who initiated and championed the restoration, the building was in such a terminal state of dysfunction and disrepair that only the high cost and extreme difficulty of demolishing solid concrete saved it.

The most controversial part of the project has been a new addition housing the Jeffrey Loria Center for the History of Art and the Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library. Both the restoration and the addition are the work of Charles Gwathmey, of Gwathmey Siegel & Associates, and while the restoration has received critical praise, the addition has been judged harshly. The Gwathmey design is intentionally restrained and recessive. But next to Rudolph's brilliant, virtuoso performance, its more conventional modernism has a disappointingly generic blandness. That is both inevitable and irrelevant. It doesn't compete, nor is it meant to, because nothing can. There is just no contest with that powerful, one-off masterpiece. And there's no point in adding up the score.

The first rule in such a charged architectural situation, as in medicine, is do no harm; the addition honors that directive and does what it is supposed to do very well. The new construction provides superior research and teaching facilities with daylit offices on single loaded corridors with views. It skillfully incorporates the upgraded services that could not be threaded through the old solid concrete walls. A shared entrance and circulation core afford a transition that works smoothly, although the change subverts the strong focus and balance of the original entrance and plan. Rudolph's building is pure, theatrical drama. Mr. Gwathmey's is cool, neutral efficiency.

Many of the preservation problems were due to Rudolph's "modernism." Boldly unconventional in concept, plan, materials and execution, the building's untested and experimental components had not only disintegrated beyond repair, but were inferior to subsequent advances in basic building technology. It made no sense, nor was it possible, to seek matching replacements. The structure was essentially stripped to its frame and rebuilt.

Because this degree of reconstruction skews our ideas about authenticity, it undermines a defining principle of preservation. For traditional restoration, old quarries can be reopened and old techniques revived to stay true to history. It is the retention or reuse of the original fabric that separates the genuine artifact from the Disney replica. For modernist buildings, the challenge and the process are disturbingly different. Replacement and reconstruction are increasingly necessary for obsolete materials and technologies. This requires unprecedented judgment calls, tailored to each individual structure.

As an example, the only way that New York's landmark Lever House could be saved was to completely remove its deteriorated curtain wall. Repairs were no longer possible, and the technology of glass, metal framing, and sealant had advanced beyond anything available in the 1950s; this required some compromises with the replacement parts to maintain the original appearance. Since curtain-wall construction is a defining characteristic of modernism, there is a paradox here: Take away the façade and you've lost the building, but once the façade has failed, the only way to keep the building's signal contribution and ensure its continued viability is to replicate and update the original skin -- a classic Catch-22. To treat it as an object of nostalgia achieves only a temporary stay of execution.

Yale's carefully stated goal was to "restore the building to its original intention," an acknowledgement of the dilemma and the impossibility of a faithful return to the 1960s. By now the original intention was hard to discern. The process was described as "a mix of literal restoration, interpretive renovation, and sensitive intervention." There were (or had been) 37 levels on 10 floors, focused on two spectacular central spaces that were partitioned, cut up, filled in, and otherwise mutilated over the years. Students expressed their hostility with jerry-built interventions, and in 1969 a studio fire of mysterious origin finished the job. It was the building everyone loved to hate.

The stepped levels, low walls and connecting bridges of the open plan were in violation of today's Americans With Disabilities Act and current building regulations; everything had to be brought up to code, from accessibility to performance standards. The glowing orange carpet that once blanketed the floors in vibrant contrast to the rough gray concrete has been reproduced from a surviving two-inch square. The dramatic central space has been reopened, and a copy of the giant statue of Minerva presides again over the soaring heart of the building. The rescued and revived structure is now described in Yale's official releases as "a masterpiece of space, light, and mass."

Nothing is the same when you reach the 21st century. Suddenly a 20th-century heritage is in crisis and in desperate need of a revised, realistic agenda to keep its landmarks useful and alive.

Ms. Huxtable is the Journal's architecture critic. She is the author, most recently, of "On Architecture: Collected Reflections on a Century of Change" (Walker & Company).

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page D7

Even if the Brutalism is Beautiful :D
Indeed, they named it Brutalism for a reason--beauty shouldn't lay waste to the soul, interesting though it might be.
Nevertheless, the parallel derivation from "brute" or "brutal" mustn't be discounted--so in the end, it really does depend upon whether you find raw, brute force and energy to be a source of beauty or not. IOW as something that stimulates, rather than lays waste to, the soul.

After all, Le Corbusier and others saw the raw, utilitarian concrete construction of grain elevators and daylight factories as beautiful--and then (and perhaps more ominously) there's Marinetti's saw about a roaring motor car being more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace...
If beauty and brutality didn't go together, then artists would have chosen Old Unionville over industrial lofts...
Well that's one of the most ignorant things to say about Brutalism, since the term is derived from the French term "beton brut", which means "raw concrete".

Though "brut (raw)" and brutal have the same etymological roots. Even in French, "beton brut" has connotations of coarseness and forcefulness.
Very nice to see the WSJ on buildings in my old hometown. New Haven has an absolutely wild architectural and urbanistic heritage, with a massively outsized impact on America's views on both for a such a small city. Definitely worth a visit whenever one is nearby.

I haven't been into the A+A building since the reno, but beforehand it was totally wacky. Made Robarts looks 100% sane.
I'm not a fan of brutalism in an urban context but put it in an open space where its form can be fully appreciated in a 'sculptural' way and I have little issue with it.
Brutalism can be quite nice taken in small doses. That said, concrete has an unfortunate tendency to age badly - of all the materials, I can't think of one that acquires a patina as ugly as concrete.

re: addition to Yale Arts Centre - from what I've seen, it looked pretty sh*tty.

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