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The Beauty in Brutalism, Restored and Updated

Limestone can look pretty hideous once the city grime of decades covers it, and stone faced buildings are no prettier after a rainfall than concrete structures - both can look equally drab and dreary.

As with any material, it depends on the expressive talent of the architect who works with it. Concrete presents infinite possibilities for moulding and colouring.

The other day I was delighted to see that the expressive concrete 'fins' of 77 Elm, that great heritage structure that our City has listed as significant, have been undergoing some sort of refurbishment, though I don't know when it began or when it will be fin-ished.

March 19, 2009
Rethinking Postwar Design in London
LONDON — The most polarizing issue in architecture today is no longer whether celebrity architects are ruining the profession. It’s what to do with the leftovers of postwar Brutalism.

For an older generation of architects these buildings embody the absolute nadir of the welfare state. Destroying them would be an act of mercy. But for younger architects the aggressive concrete forms that gave the movement its name are a welcome antidote to the saccharine Disney-inspired structures of today. Their demolition amounts to urban shock treatment, an erasure of historical memory that substitutes a sanitized city for a genuinely complex one.

Central to the debate is the future of Robin Hood Gardens, a sprawling East London housing complex designed by Alison and Peter Smithson in the 1960s and built in the early ’70s. Preservationists hold it up as a signal cultural achievement; the British government has judged it a failure and wants to demolish it. As is so often the case, insights emerge from the sparks that fly when two opposing ideologies clash.

Just traveling to the complex can be an unwelcome lesson in failed urban policy. On my trip the Docklands Light Railway train from central London broke down, requiring me to board a garbage-strewn school bus and then two trains to reach my destination. The long walk from the station was even worse: a retrospective of failed public-housing design through the decades.

By the time I got there my enthusiasm had dwindled. My first view of Robin Hood Gardens was from across a busy roadway. The complex is surrounded by a ring of forbidding concrete walls tilted outward to block out noise. Just beyond this ring, ramps lead to underground parking, forming a kind of moat between the buildings and the street. The facades are in decrepit shape. Even on a rare sunny London day the project’s famous concrete walkways, which the Smithsons called “streets in the air,†look gray and melancholy. The rows of concrete mullions, a play on Mies van der Rohe’s steel I-beams, give the facade the aura of a medieval fortification.

Inside, tenants of Robin Hood Gardens ride claustrophobic elevators to reach their apartments. When the elevators break down, they climb a dank, airless stairwell. A barrier that runs up the center of the staircase makes it impossible to see what’s around the corner, so you worry that you are about to get mugged each time you reach a landing. The experience only reinforces the isolation of the mostly poor immigrants who live here.

Still, you do not have to be a hard-core Modernist to notice a higher form of architectural intelligence at work here. All you need is to suspend your aesthetic prejudices. The tough exterior, as it turns out, protects an inner sanctuary: a large courtyard centered on a big mound of grass. And the mound itself is a gorgeous, haunted space. It evokes both a primitive burial mound and traditional Georgian gardens.

The buildings framing it on either side are slightly bent, as if the space was being held between two cupped hands. One is several stories lower than the other to allow in southern light.

There are also wonderful details to be found above if you know to look for them. The walkways’ rails are fitted with glass panels to allow more light into the apartments. Doors are set perpendicular to the walkways to provide an element of privacy. The duplex apartments themselves are laid out according to a complex system developed by the Russian Constructivist Moisei Ginzburg and popularized by Le Corbusier, with entries set on alternate levels so that each apartment has an entire floor with windows on both sides.

Elements like these may not justify a meticulous restoration, but they certainly suggest that they can be transformed into humane, even exhilarating, housing without completely stripping them of their soul.

The obvious starting point would be to redesign the entry blocks at the end of each building, creating bigger, airier spaces. Apartments could also be opened up by knocking down interior walls and putting in bigger windows.

But a more meaningful approach would be to allow an imaginative architect to tackle the entire complex. Introducing a tension between new and old is only likely to make the Smithsons’ design more poignant.

The advantage to this strategy is partly environmental. Construction is one of the largest single producers of carbon dioxide. In the age of global warming, deciding to tear down and rebuild rather than think through whether a project can be salvaged has obvious ethical implications.

Yet an equally important issue is how we treat the cities we inherit and the memories they hold. Condemning an entire historical movement can be a symptom of intellectual laziness. It can also be a way to avoid difficult truths.

Architecture attains much of its power from the emotional exchanges among an architect, a client, a site and the object itself. A spirited renovation of Robin Hood Gardens would be a chance to extend that discourse across generations.
I really like most Brutalist structures as I attach a certain nostalgia for a time I never lived in to them. They seem both futuristic and ancient. Messes with my head a touch which I find strangely endearing. (What does that say about my relationships? :D )


The beauty of concrete
Young architects say there’s much to love about city’s ‘heroic’ buildings


By Robert Campbell
Globe Correspondent / January 3, 2010

Big, gray, aggressive, muscular buildings, like Boston City Hall?


A bunch of young architects in Boston are singing the praises of a whole generation of Boston buildings made of concrete. They call it the “heroic’’ period of Boston architecture. It lasted maybe 20 years, from the late 1950s to the middle 1970s.

About one thing, they’re absolutely right. Love it or hate it, there really was a Boston Age of Concrete. It’s time we began to accept it as one of the historic periods of local architecture, just like Colonial or Victorian.

These architects, Mark Pasnik, Chris Grimley, and Michael Kubo are in their late 30s. All are associated with a design firm that calls itself “over,under,’’ which also runs a gallery in the same South End location called pinkcomma. Last fall, they curated an exhibit of concrete architecture at pinkcomma called simply “Heroic,’’ which they hope, eventually, to turn into a book. In doing so, they’ve raised an issue that deserves some thought by anyone interested in Boston area architecture.

They identified 154 buildings, in Boston and Cambridge alone, that qualify for inclusion in “Heroic.’’ Today the Age of Concrete is timely again for the simple reason that many of its monuments are in danger of being demolished. That’s most notably true of City Hall, the crown jewel of the era, which Mayor Menino hopes to get rid of.

A single statistic demonstrates how strong was the taste for concrete in that time, at least among architects. The Boston Society of Architects gives an annual award, the Parker Medal, for the “most beautiful’’ new building of the year. Between 1964 and 1976, 11 of the 12 Parkers went to buildings made almost entirely of concrete. Only the pink granite tower at 28 State St., in 1971, broke the string.

A list of the remarkable buildings of the heroic period would include the Carpenter Center at Harvard, by famed French architect Le Corbusier; the Christian Science Center, by I.M. Pei and Araldo Cossutta; Boston City Hall, by Kallmann, McKinnell and Knowles; the Design Research store in Cambridge by Benjamin Thompson; the State Services complex on Cambridge Street by Paul Rudolph; a series of buildings at Harvard by Josep Lluis Sert, including the Holyoke Center; and a series at MIT by Pei, including the Green Earth Sciences tower.

No other American city boasts as much noteworthy concrete architecture in as small an area as Boston and Cambridge.

Why did architects suddenly fall in love with concrete? Michael McKinnell, one of the architects of City Hall, was interviewed for the “Heroic’’ show. He gives a fascinating explanation of why he made the building almost entirely of concrete, both inside and out. He compares concrete buildings to what he calls “cosmetic architecture,’’ by which he means buildings with invisible steel frames that are given a fancy skin of some other material, often stone or brick.

Says McKinnell: “We were particularly interested in imbuing architecture with authenticity. . . . When you build in concrete, what you see is what you get. . . . The characteristic of concrete we enjoyed most was that one material could do so much. . . . I think if we could have done it, we would have used concrete to make the light switches.’’

Like rock fans, architects sometimes admire work that avoids conventional beauty. McKinnell remembers a comment by famed architect Philip Johnson, who said about City Hall: “Absolutely marvelous. I think it’s wonderful. And it’s so ugly!’’

“We thought that was the greatest praise we could get,’’ says McKinnell.

For its fans, concrete has many good qualities. It can be molded into any shape. It can symbolize permanence, as it does in Roman monuments like the Pantheon. It weathers over time, with stains and erosions that map its age like the skin of a person. In Boston in the 1960s, it symbolized a deliberate break with the past, a march into a new world and a reinvented city - “the New Boston,’’ as it soon came to be called.

For its foes, though, concrete is simply appalling. Partly, I think, that’s because we tend to associate it with unaesthetic constructions like highway ramps and tunnels.

The heroic age here ended abruptly. The oil embargo of 1975 made concrete construction more expensive. Steel was cheaper and faster. And the tide of taste changed. In the Bicentennial year of 1976, the Quincy Market opened, a restoration of an 1826 building. Boston was turning away from the future and engaging with its past. Of the 30 Parker Medals awarded since 1976 only four, by my count, have gone to buildings made primarily of concrete.

Human beings who pose as heroes can be pompous and bullying. So can “heroic’’ buildings. It’s foolish to save them all. I don’t think anyone is going to miss, let’s say, the Government Center Parking Garage when it disappears.

But architecture, like other arts, has a funny way of coming back into fashion after a period of neglect. The over,under architects may be a harbinger. There have been other signs of a renewed interest in modernism.

One is the great exhibition now at the Museum of Modern Art on the Bauhaus, the 1920s school in Germany that helped create the modern movement. Another is the fact that students and other young people seem typically to decorate with modernist stuff like that of IKEA, because modern furnishing goes well with information technology. Another straw in the wind, locally, was the recent celebration at the old Design Research store on Brattle Street, which is now once again filled (even though you can’t buy it) with the Scandinavian modern of its 1960s heyday.

The Age of Concrete was a brief chapter, but a fascinating one, in the history of Boston architecture. We don’t have to sanctify it, but we shouldn’t rip it all down either. The task today is to recognize that the era existed and that it mattered, and to begin the task of evaluating what was good and what was bad.