The following is a guest post by Vyta Baselice, Architecture, Design & Engineering Programs Assistant, Prints & Photographs Division.
Brutalism is an architectural style that emerged first in Great Britain in the 1950s and soon gained popularity in the United States. It is easily identifiable by the buildings’ large scale, rectangular shapes, and extensive use of exposed concrete. Due to the low cost of the material, the style was often employed to build large government and institutional buildings, for example laboratories, libraries, and housing. Prints & Photographs Division collections contain many examples of the style, particularly as documented in the Historic American Buildings Survey, the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, and the Paul M. Rudolph Archive.
Despite its practicality and popularity, Brutalism came under significant criticism in the 1970s. Some people simply did not like the look of exposed concrete. Others treated such buildings as symbols of authoritarian rule, an attitude fed by the common use of the style by socialist and communist countries such as the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia for the construction of their built environments. For some segments of the general American public, Brutalism therefore came to represent the brutality of state policies and actions.
Although the association stuck, the origins of Brutalism had nothing to do with brutalities of the government or politics at large. Indeed, famed architect Le Corbusier coined the term in 1952 when constructing his Unité d’Habitation housing project in France. The term referred specifically to his use of untreated and exposed concrete — béton brut in French. Since then, English-speaking architects transformed the term into the style Brutalism, which signified their embrace of natural and untreated materials as both the ethic and aesthetic of design. These architects claimed that exposed concrete, iron, and wood communicated values of honesty and transparency — ironic, considering the later interpretations of the style.
The low cost of concrete also meant that the material could be used to construct housing for everyone in large, communally shared structures. British and American architects who embraced Brutalism therefore thought that the style could help build a more equal modernity.
As a result of the conflicting interpretations and impressions of Brutalism’s aesthetics, buildings constructed in the style have been in continuous danger of demolition. In most recent years, those that have fallen victim include Shoreline Apartments in Buffalo, New York, Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, as well as Paul Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center in Goshen, New York.
While the reasons cited for their demolition are significant – limited opportunities for expansion, exceeding costs of maintenance and upkeep, and poor construction quality – the issue of cultural heritage rarely takes center stage. It is therefore important to query, what types of histories and cultural lives do we lose when we demolish buildings we don’t like? By expunging the built environment of such structures, do we rob future generations of developing their own opinions about them?
- Learn about Paul M. Rudolph’s architectural contributions through these videos:
- Model City: Buildings and Projects by Paul Rudolph for Yale and New Haven, Timothy M. Rohan, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, December 16, 2008.
- Libraries: The Architecture of Community, Kenneth Breisch, author, American Libraries 1730-1950, April 12, 2018.
- A portion of the vast Paul M. Rudolph Archive has been digitized; explore digitized items through the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.
- Review the origins and accomplishments of the Historic American Buildings Survey, which has been documenting examples of American architecture since 1933, joined by companion surveys, Historic American Engineering Record and Historic American Landscapes Survey.
- Carol M. Highsmith has been documenting America and its built environment through her camera since the 1980s. Take regular tours through the online Carol M. Highsmith Archive, which is ever-growing.