The Other Modernism

These days, when architecture is supposed to be either pleasant or slick, it can be startling to remember that for a brief, brilliant moment, the reigning style, particularly for civic buildings, was something called Brutalism. It’s worth considering what we’ve gained and lost since that moment, especially with the passing away, reported at the end of June, of Gerhard Kallmann, one of the authors of Boston City Hall (1968), which represented perhaps the apex of that style in the United States.

When we think of modern architecture, two modes come to mind. The first is the sleek, planar, glass-and-steel style established by Mies Van Der Rohe and his interpreters at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and elsewhere, epitomized by Mies’s Seagram Building (1958). The second is heavy, sculptural steel-reinforced concrete, with much of its artistry in the treatment of the cast concrete surface, most closely associated with the late work of Le Corbusier. The architectural term brutalism is said to have its origins in Corbusier’s use of the phrase béton brut, or “raw concrete,” the brut connoting not brutality or brutishness (although critics would play up that association) but the decision to leave the concrete’s surface rough and unfinished, and often impressed with the wood grain, joints, and other irregularities of the boards with which it was cast. The concept of “the New Brutalism” was brought into being by the critic Reyner Banham’s 1966 book of that name, which highlighted the work of postwar British architects Alison and Peter Smithson.

In public housing projects and more corporate work, like the Economist’s London headquarters, the Smithsons developed their concrete modernism in a particular way. The finishes and details had a rawness and roughness that spoke not only to postwar austerity but also to a new ideal of social and political transparency in a society that was rebuilding itself. The detailing was deliberately modest, but the big picture look of Brutalist architecture was unashamedly the opposite: it was monumental and aspirational, expressive and expansive (and to its critics, bombastic, relentless, and insensitive to the scale of human activity). The Smithsons took it as a given that public housing should have the visual impact of a Gothic cathedral, and part of their invention, and struggle, was finding a set of forms and geometries that, without explicitly borrowing from the great historical styles, would be their equals in expressing the spirit of the age. (Their American contemporary in this search was Paul Rudolph, who as dean of the Yale School of Architecture in the 1960s turned much of New Haven into a landscape of moody cement, and who also designed government buildings for Boston.)  Perhaps the Smithsons’ greatest project, unbuilt, was a proposal to replace the bombed-out Coventry Cathedral with a single, massive, crushingly heavy concrete roof. Like a giant wing, it would have appeared to soar over the ruins, both sheltering them and, poignantly, brutally, leaving them behind.

Gerhard Kallmann’s competition-winning design for Boston City Hall, developed in collaboration with Michael McKinnell, embodied a similar idea of heaviness poised above lightness. The building is a brooding, fortress-like mass of concrete resting on fins and columns rendered in concrete and brick. The brick was also used for a stepped podium and vast plaza that physically isolated the monumental building from its surroundings but materially connected it to the federal and colonial architecture nearby. From some angles, the building looks like a cement spaceship perched on more firmly terrestrial landing pads. From others, it looks like a ruin almost Roman in its complexity, with a thousand cutouts and panels and skylights and landings and lines that speak both to its designers’ anxious virtuosity and their desire to produce something timeless. There is something deeply moving about seeing the words “Boston City Hall” incised over the uncompromisingly modern entry in lettering that would not be out of place on Trajan’s Column.

In the fifty years since its conception, the design has remained divisive. It was part of an urban renewal project that committed the familiar crime of destroying a piece of historic urban fabric and replacing it with a windswept plaza. And even its fans (myself included) must concede that it is not an easy building. It’s not always easy to look at or to find your way around, and from the perspective of a contemporary sensibility that favors Cupertino-inspired ease of interface and simplicity of form in all arts and artifacts, it’s not easy to see why any building, especially a public building, should be so hard. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino put forward a short-lived proposal in 2006 to move the city government out of the building. A New York Times article about the proposal included this quote from a citizen standing in line at the parking clerk’s window: “It’s prime real estate. Just nuke this and sell it. It’s such a waste of space.”

Nukes are to the point. In the popular conversation about architecture and design, modernism has been oddly domesticated by the term midcentury. As with the proliferation of the surname Eames as a catchall for retro-futuristic connoisseurship, midcentury reduces form-follows-function to form-follows-fun: it connotes the sophisticated yet familiar good taste you see in shelter magazines, all those chairs that are timelessly good to sit in yet somehow, in their charismatic profiles, make life seem smart and great. “Atomic-age” and “Jet-age” have become swingin’ signals for ring-a-ding-ding consumer goods made in swoopy and sexy plastic and chrome. And yet there is another side to this story, one in which the Smithsons are a kind of Yin to the Eames’ Yang, an eternally rainy Britain to their perpetually sunny California.

That other side is the cold war, in which atoms and jets had a different role and connotation. Think of the Mad Men episode in which Don Draper travels to California for a presentation by military contractors; recoiling from the high-tech apocalypse they describe, he retreats to a milieu of sybaritic lotus-eaters in an Eamesian house of steel and glass. There’s much to debate about that particular hall of mirrors, about one popular culture’s incarnation of another—but something about the juxtaposition of high stakes and high design rings true. While the Eames’ (who developed much of their bent-plywood technology for military contractors during World War II) supplied a stylish refuge from the era’s tensions and terrors, the Brutalists deliberately attempted a more ambivalent response to their moment.

The Smithsons, along with Reyner Banham, described their New Brutalism as “an ethic, not an aesthetic,” and that ethic can be said to have had two essential premises. The first was that tough and complex times called for tough and complex architecture. The ruins of World War II (and intimations of a World War III) inspired architecture so massive as to be nuclear-proof but also so special and soaring in form that it might transcend a fear-struck moment. The awfulness of the era called for awesomeness in its buildings. (“It will outlast,” New York Timesarchitecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote of Boston City Hall in 1969, “the last hurrah.”) The second premise was that buildings built by governments, from city halls to public housing, answered to a higher calling than those created by private development, which needed only to be efficient and entertaining. What exactly that calling was and is, and whether structures like Boston City Hall answered it, is a matter of perpetual debate—and that debate, and the notion that architecture can and must summon it, is thrilling.

It’s the same thrill and admiration one feels for the town council of Goshen, New York. In 1967 the Council built a Paul Rudolph design for its county government center, which in its intricately turbulent upwards-and-outward form, like a massive concrete coral reef, is quite similar to Boston City Hall. Today civic leaders in Goshen want to replace Rudolph’s building, now weather-beaten and unfashionable, with a gingerbread colonial pastiche. That replacement may be a much easier building, but it won’t be a better one.

So it’s worth asking about those Brutalist architects and the public servants who were their primary patrons: What did they know, and aspire to, that we don’t? The last word, for now, goes to Kallmann, who on the fiftieth anniversary of Boston City Hall told the Globe: “It had to be awesome, not just pleasant and slick. [It should] remind you of ancient memories, history. It’s not a department store. It’s not an office building. Come on.”

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