Architecture, Style, History (Part One)
1. The Brutal and the Nasty
I have the distinct sense that the world has swerved in the last fifty years from brutal to nasty and that architecture both reflects and sheds light upon that shift. Therefore, let’s start the New Year comparing and contrasting three buildings: one an iconic example of the extremes of Brutalism; the second, an evolution of Brutalism so extreme it set new standards for Brutalism; and the third—built fifty years later—just plain Nasty.
First, what do I mean by Brutal and Nasty?
Brutal is large-mannered, assertive (to say the least), unapologetic—call it overbearing—at its best exhilarating, at its worst cold, uninviting, impenetrable. Brutal confronts, engages and defines surrounding space. Nasty ignores surrounding space. Brutal dominates; Nasty diminishes. Brutal is serious. Nasty is glib, mercurial and untrustworthy. Brutal plays to win, and takes no prisoners. Nasty takes hostages. Nasty has a neurotic relationship to power, feeding upon schadenfreude, Brutal thrives on independence and self-sufficiency.
Architectural Brutalism uses basic materials confidently in their unadorned state—concrete, stone, glass, and steel—preferably oxidized. Nasty architecture communicates no apparent love of its materials, merely their effect. It uses glass, steel, aluminum, titanium, bronze, copper; whatever, wherever. Le Corbusier is the patron saint of Brutalism, along with some brilliant acolytes—Paul Rudolph, Gordon Bunschaft, Moshe Safdie, Kevin Roche—to name a few.
Nasty? Its collective patron saints are all the deconstructivist “starchitects” who turn a blind eye to the neighborhoods, where they build what they will just because they can. Nasty’s acolytes are all those who regard the world as mere backdrop to their inventions without regard to scale or context or, more precisely, what on a small scale may pass as a local folly (Frank Gehry’s residence in Santa Monica, right), becomes on a large scale a neighborhood bunker bomb (Frank Gehry’s Cleveland Clinic Revo Center for Brain Health, on the left).
Approaching architecture as a form of sculpture without regard to scale or context, Nastiness is capable of hair-raising originality at one extreme and jaw-dropping inappropriateness at the other. (Consider, in addition to Frank Gehry, Coop Himmelb(l)au, and Zaha Hadid, to name a few.)
Yes, I realize that this Manichean taxonomy might better be applied to politics or personal pathology. But I want to identify architects in this schema because architecture is the most political of the Arts, impacting real, often public, spaces, and because its practice has consequences in the polity. Architects are subject to civic codes, beholden to local approvals, obligated to safety and environmental standards–not to mention that they and their builders employ thousands in fulfilling their plans. But far more important, a building’s public influence can last sometimes centuries, defining space, place, and the community. That’s a long half-life for Nastiness and its practitioners.
2. The Brutal
I have lived through the entire Age of Brutalism—that is, architectural Brutalism—one reaction to the aridity of Modernism, and the source of many brooding, dark and windswept corners where trash collects in American cities. I’m thinking of some near-by examples in New Haven, Connecticut, arguably a center for Brutalism. Numerous buildings come to mind including the Kevin Roche’s Knights of Columbus World Headquarters (still standing), next door to his equally Brutal New Haven Arena and Parking Structure, now merely a vacant lot in New Haven’s long-suffering downtown.
Kevin Roche, Roche Dinkeloo Associates, Knights of Columbus Headquarters (background), New Haven Coliseum and Parking Structure (foreground), New Haven, Connecticut
But the two buildings that truly define the esthetic limits of Brutalism were, coincidentally, completed in the same year (1963), and each was a commission by Yale University. One is Paul Rudolph’s intricate (if that’s a word I’m permitted to use in connection with Brutalism) Art and Architecture Building (A&A), which has survived since its opening , frequently renovated and recently restored at great expense to Yale. The other is The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library designed by Gordon Bunshaft, then of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.
The Brutalism of the 114,000-square-foot A&A was nothing if not hard-won. The concrete was poured into wooden forms, but the finished slabs lacked the jagged textures Rudolf had envisioned: instead, a uniform ribbed surface remained. This brought a team of masons hoisting themselves over the exterior and interior walls hammering away at the concrete until the perfect texture was produced.
This was only the first of many setbacks that dogged A&A throughout its history; for example, in 1974 there was a costly purge of exposed asbestos, which Rudolph had used, reportedly, as much for its flaky texture (unfortunately the flakes would fall like snow) as for its thermal properties. But an even greater scandal involved the designated users of the building.
Yale commissioned the building to house two of its professional schools. Without question, Rudolph did not hide the fact he favored the architects. The wonder is he favored them so crudely and disruptively. It was never surprising that the painters resented being squirreled away in the basement levels cut off from the natural light reserved for the architects above.
Indeed, when fire engulfed A & A in 1969 (there were few doors, and apparently no fire doors whatsoever), the painters used the fire (reported by some—probably falsely—as having been set by an Urban Planning student “in protest”) as an opportunity to demand improvements. They were never fully accomplished until 2008, when Yale completed both a renovation and an addition to A&A. But the controversy brought into sharp focus the Brutalist esthetic and psychology.
As Mark Alden Branch wrote in the February 1998 Yale Alumni Magazine:
“To them (the painters), Rudolph’s building epitomized all that was wrong with architecture—it was arrogant, aloof, divorced from history and from the buildings around it. Robert Venturi, who, ironically, began teaching at Yale under Rudolph, made a point in lectures and in print of condemning Rudolph’s ‘heroic’ works in comparison with his own humble, ‘contextual’ buildings.”
“Everybody regarded it as a tour de force, but its spirit was overbearing,” says Mark Simon, ’72MArch. “It was one man’s vision of how you were going to occupy it, a temple to architecture at the cost of function. It ignored about two-thirds of its users.”
The wonder is that the spirit of Brutalism can be stretched as far as it was in another building on the Yale campus. Completed the same year as Rudolph’s overbearing A&A building—Gordon Bunshaft’s exhilarating masterpiece of geometry and materials, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, just a five-minute walk from A&A.
The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University Exterior
Beinecke hovers over a public plaza. Its neighbors are the neo-classic Commons (where Yale Freshmen dine); Woolsey Hall; and the offices of the President and the Corporation of the University.
Beinecke is the very opposite of A&A—an implacable rectangular solid, rendered in white travertine squares framed by grey granite, floating over a band of dark glass, set on a slim pillar at each corner; it vibrates between simplicity and complexity, monumentality and breathtaking delicacy—evoking at once the scale of Brutalism and the poise of its neo-Classical neighbors.
Each of the 3/4” marble panels (which detractors, looking for trouble, have compared to television screens) is so thin that daylight shines through the stone, illuminating the interior in the caramel and ochre glow of the translucent marble; it references the marbled edges and leather bindings of the rare books shelved within a soaring clear glass cube rising as the central core of the interior. Pretty amazing.
I’m mentioning Bunshaft’s and Rudolf’s buildings together not only because they represent the extremes of Brutalist esthetic—one dangerous, the other relatively safe—but each is a considered building which gives us an opportunity for intimate engagement with the architect.
I am confident that Rudolph walked through every inch of his building, savoring its variations of light and texture, traversing the polished concrete floors and sinking into the plush persimmon carpeting, turning a corner from cozy alcove to expansive vista. All without benefit of computer graphics.
Notwithstanding Rudolf’s impolitic blunders, I am not surprised that the most recent transformationof (and addition to) his building by Gwathmey Siegel, have changed the critical tune.
Nicholai Ouroussoff, in his New York Times article (August 27, 2008), noted that “The result should stun those who have continued to deny Rudolph’s talent. Now seen in its full glory, his building turns out to be a masterpiece of late Modernism, one that will force many to reappraise an entire period of Modernist history and put Rudolph back on the pedestal where he belongs.”
More to the point, the Brutalist esthetic has been established as a major impulse of Modernism, embracing buildings as potently problematic as A&A and as sumptuously simple as Beinecke. Neither building is an obvious fit in its neighborhood, but each enhances the neighborhood, sets it in motion, invigorates it, like the Guggenheim did decades ago as it spiraled up on its street corner of the Manhattan grid.
Certainly neither is modest nor shy about its size. But just as Frank Stella could not have executed his monumental steel pieces in miniature to the same effect, size matters in Brutalism; the sheer weight of the materials often flirts with gravity, seldom shy about gravitas. This is serious architecture for serious people.
But where are the massive planes of yesteryear, the heart-stopping cantilevers and heroic architectural engagement of space and material? While its eyesores remain tenacious, its glories are being overshadowed by the Just Plain Nasty, which includes all of those buildings that have appropriated the aggressive forms of Brutalism without its soaring ambition and understanding of detail. Imagine Mad Max outfitted by Tommy Hilfiger.
More in the next installment, where we discover Nasty in our midst.