An architectural style called Brutalism? Just what were they thinking?
Without a trained eye, Brutalist buildings are aptly named. Hard concrete walls, minimal windows, harsh lines and a scarcity of decoration are hallmarks of the style. Greensboro has several notable examples of the style, including the Governmental Plaza (image, upper right), arguably the best example of the style in North Carolina, if not the southeastern United States.
But an architectural style called Brutalism? Just what were they thinking?
The origins of the term “Brutalism” might be a bit tongue-in-cheek. The architect who championed the style in the late 1940s, Englishman Peter Smithson, had a noble facial profile that resembled that of an ancient Roman…to the extent that his school friends nicknamed him “Brutus” after the Roman emperor. So, Brutus’s architecture became Brutalism.
On the other hand, a Swedish architect coined the term Brutalism to describe a similar style of voguish architecture that Smithson was quick to adopt, so the term gained more momentum. In the end, the name does describe the style quite well.
Architects such as Smithson and others who preceded him such as Le Corbusier (who employed a béton brut – or raw concrete – construction method) were not seeking to develop a design form that would impose cruel and inhuman structures throughout our cities. Instead, they saw themselves as architectural ethicists who encouraged honesty and integrity in design. If a building was to be structurally supported by concrete, let the concrete shine. If buildings were to have electricity, let the conduits show. It was frivolous, from their perspective, to design a modern structure of concrete, only to exert energy and money into making it look like a Roman temple or a Victorian train station. They would reason it is better to let the building’s materials be articluated in its design.
Early buildings were interesting exercises in architectural honesty, such as a secondary school in the new town of Hunstanton in England (image, right). The 1949 building features exposed structural materials such as steel girders and heavy masonry walls in what many consider the worlds first Brutalist building.
Later buildings gravitated to concrete construction, including the Boston City Hall of 1963-68, and the Guilford County Governmental Plaza of 1968-1972. Eduardo Catalano of Cambridge, Massachusetts, the architect of the Plaza, was head of the Department of Architecture at the North Carolina State University, where he constructed a house that House and Home magazine named the “House of the Decade.” His Greensboro commission features all the bells and whistles of Brutalist architecture, including hammered concrete walls, geometric massing separated by tinted glass voids, cantilevers, hanging gardens, and even matching abstracted concrete park furniture and bus stops.
To serve downtown Greensboro’s growing parking needs, the city commissioned local architect J. Hyatt Hammond to design a massive new parking deck at the corner of South Greene and West Washington streets. Hammond mirrored the new Plaza project by choosing the Brutalist style for the deck. True to its concrete structure, the Greene Street deck features concrete panels and minimal decoration. Its ground floor was reserved for streetfront rental space, although the city currently reserves that space for convenient parking.
Without the cultural context of Brutalism’s architectural integrity, citizens of Greensboro sometimes view the city’s inventory of concrete buildings with loathing. Concrete has lost its popularity as a finish material for use in building facades – it has been replaced by traditional products with human scale such as brick and stone. Urbanists today struggle with what to do with Brutalist buildings that appear dated in downtowns that celebrate engaging and colorful facades in a nod to historic preservation.
One solution in Greensboro is to decorate austere Brutalist buildings! The concrete facade of the Greene Street parking deck is the recipient of applied art this summer through a commission by The Cemala Foundation. Burnsville artist Ron Fondaw has developed a series of pieces that illustrate transportation through the centuries. Transportation has been a theme in the growth of Greensboro since Governor John Motley Morehead pushed the North Carolina Railroad through the city in 1856.
The art, entitled “Moving Ahead,” is a gift to the city in honor of its 2008 Bicentennial.
This effort to reposition Brutalist buildings in our downtown could work in two ways. The artwork could (finally) humanize an architectural style that has never been at ease among downtown Greensboro’s Romanesque and Italianate storefronts. On the other hand, the addition of the artwork could be seen by some as an intrusion (albeit reversible) to the philosophy of the style that is intrinsically devoid of decoration and color. To-date, the art has been received as a welcome addition to the city’s streetscape.
The architectural style called Brutalism? What do you think?
Brutalism, while not my preferred style, certainly has its place & should be celebrated for what it is. The only example I’d like to see razed in Greensboro would be the Lincoln Financial printing facility on Church street, simply because its modest one story scale so emphasizes its unhuman element, resulting in what is essentially a one block raised finger to pedestrians.
At least structures such as the Govt Plaza & Greene St deck convey a sense of purpose, if not an air of “concrete jungle.”
While not opposed to dressing up our Brutalist structures, I must say with all respect to the artist & those who gifted the installation, that the art on the Greene St Deck does NOT work in my opinion. It seems very tacked-on and clashes with the building’s design elements, rather than compliment & enhance them. The whimsical swirls of color simply do not mesh with the crisp monochrome lines so prevalent throughout the structure. The result looks clownish; as though someone set out to put lipstick on a pig rather than humanize what was already there. Inject bold color? Do it in linear fashion. Add more organic shape? Then do so using subdued or complimentary shades. The fact they took the word “park” off the side of the parking deck pretty much tells you that the art is not harmonious with the structure.
It’s great that Greensboro has such good examples of the style. I would hope that artistic embelishments are left to a minimum on the Governmental Plaza. It’s form follows it’s function perfectly. No need for fluff, as people go there for specific tasks, not to hang out and be dazzled by art or dated embellishments.
Great points. We don’t really have an inventory of modern architecture (including Brutalism)…yet. If we could figure out what we have, and what has value, then we might be able to determine what we can give up for public art projects or even demolition. Similar discussions have been profiled on PreservationNation, in Boston: http://www.preservationnation.org/magazine/2009/march-april/boston-city-hall.html
…and in Washington, DC: http://www.preservationnation.org/magazine/2008/november-december/brutalism-dc.html
I think authentic Brutalist style detracts from street life. Aesthetically, I don’t mind the overall look of Brutalizm, but there is generally no room for people in Brutalist designs — typically there are few streetfront uses (like retail stores, etc.) and just barren plazas where no one wants to hang out.
With that in mind, I think the art on the Greene Street deck is not successful in highlighting the beauty of the Brutalist style. I think cool colored uplighting and artistic elements (like murals or something)in the vertical recesses would nicely emphasize the architecture without looking tacked on.
Long-term, the deck should be reworked to incorporate some sort of street-level retail (like the Bellemeade deck across from Center City Park).
All to say, I don’t think all Brutalist architecture should be wiped from our cityscapes, but I don’t think its mistakes should be left un-altered for eternity.
PS — I’m a former Greensboro-er living in DC now and enjoy periodically peeking in to see what you write about.
Thank you for info ! The Brutalist buildings is looking very good by architecture. And I also don’t think Brutalist architecture should be wiped from our cityscapes. By picture, It is looking very attractive and neat and clean from inside.
Brutalist buildings usually are formed with striking repetitive angular geometries.
This architecture is looking great.
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