Et tu, Brutalism?

On a campus full of stately brick collegiate neo-Gothic buildings, I can think of no more universally hated place on campus than the sole Brutalist structure, our Science Center. For four years, it was my academic home base and so I  have a special place in my heart for this inside-out building but from the vehement conversations with classmates, it seems I am one of the few that feels any sort of tenderness for it.

Countway Medical Library at Harvard Medical School (1965)

Brutalism was an architectural movement during the mid-2oth century as an offshoot of the Modernist movement of the preceding decades. The moniker was coined by British architectural critic Reyner Banham to describe the building material of choice-breton brut or ‘raw concrete’, which is the crux of the Brutalist aesthetic. Prior to this period, concrete was primarily a foundational material rather than one that we would see on the facade of a building. Although many Brutalist structures do also employ this textured concrete, the term could also extend to the feelings of stolid austerity that most  of these buildings imbue in the viewer. In many cases, these buildings could be considered a re-imagining of Classical Greek monuments. They are light-colored (usually grey or off white) and massive, looming over all other buildings in the vicinity. Brutalism is also intrinsically linked to the progression of science and technology and industry. During the 1960s and 1970s, many universities (especially here on the East Coast) were undergoing expansions so many of them employed this style du jour so many academic institutions (Harvard, MIT, Wellesley, UMass Dartmouth) have at least one Brutalist building on campus if not more, depending on how closely the institution wanted to align themselves with technology and engineering.

Dewey Library MIT
Dewey Library at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1965).

It is easy to see why someone might be put off by Brutalist architecture. While its creators thought that it would become the architectural poster-child for research and innovation, the Brutalist aesthetic is also incredibly intimidating. Simply put, Brutalist architecture is not welcoming or warm (let alone aesthetically pleasing). The use of grey industrial concrete on the facades of buildings removes it from the natural world entirely. Not only is there no natural building materials (like wood) present at all, these structures also do not allow for the infiltration of light into the interior of the buildings. It is as though we are to be encased entirely in  concrete, isolated from all traces of the outside non-urban world. The line between a testament to modern Engineering and oppressive, heavy architecture is a thin one indeed and Brutalism enjoys skirting that line time and time again.

Having moved into the city of Boston, it has become increasingly apparent to me that Brutalist buildings absolutely dominate the city skyline but it has an incredibly bad reputation with the everyday passerby. Sure, we have a lot of schools here but what about the other buildings? Why does Brutalist architecture predominate many different sectors of Boston’s infrastructure rather than just academic buildings? The answer to this is actually quite simple: the prevalence of Brutalist architecture in Boston is a relic of the mid-century urban renewal of the city. By the 1950s, Boston was failing economically, with many factories in the area moving to cheaper areas of the country. The city’s most valuable assets(banks, hotels, universities and hospitals) just simply were not that valuable on the national stage. This prompted policymakers to enact many urban renewal policies to revive Boston’s industry, notably to demolish and rebuild historic neighborhoods and to replace them with municipal government buildings, new housing and expansions of existing hospitals. Displacing many families from the ‘West End’ was hugely problematic, however it helped to revitalize the city and give it a second chance and put it back on the map.

First Church of Christ Scientist, (1972 extension) Boston, MA

I will admit that I myself do not consider the Brutalist aesthetic among my favorites, and it is highly unlikely that I ever will. In many ways that it marketed cutting-edge technology in its time, it looks dated, heavy and borderline oppressive on a gloomy day like today. Many would argue that we should simply demolish these old ‘eye sores’ and simply build newer, more cost-efficient, energy efficient and graceful buildings in their stead. I cannot disagree-for institutions like our schools and our hospitals, how can we show that we are progressing if our buildings show that we are stuck in the 1960s? But as I have gone through the libraries, hospitals and research laboratories it has become abundantly obvious that these old buildings (though ‘ugly’) do not hinder our progress in any way and in fact, their construction laid the foundation (metaphorical, financial and academic) at a critical time in history and allows us to do the work we do today. So while I will never commission my own house in the Brutalist Style,  I do have an immense amount of respect for the way that it reinvigorated the city that I love and allowed it to build the medical, scientific and academic institutions that  today make Boston strong.

Cover image: Government Center (1962) by Paul Rudolph, Boston MA


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