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Revaluing brutalist architecture

Jeanne Gang

The events of the past year have led people from around the world to re-evaluate history and the built environment with a sharpened critical lens. Here in the United States, the pandemic and the movement for Black lives have together foregrounded the inequality in our nation and cities, and the racist systems that perpetuate it. At the same time, unprecedented wildfires and winter storms have demonstrated the vulnerability of our existing infrastructure and communities in the face of climate change. What exactly have we inherited, and how should we deal with it if we want to move forward?

This moment of reckoning has special resonance for architects. Many of us are more motivated than ever to address the urgent social and environmental issues now thrown into high relief, and it is exciting to see the range of efforts underway - from student advocacy and community-minded practice to larger organizations refocusing their missions and reworking their systems. In this essay, I hope to make available one path forward for practice and research that seems particularly potent. This is to reassess our inherited concrete architecture, the 50 to 60 year-old class of buildings often called Brutalist, and to open up our role as architects in determining their future. Until now, these matters have largely been left to historic preservationists, but the vast scope of the issues involved, and the sheer amount of action and creativity it will take to conserve and reimagine these buildings, demands additional players and talents. Designers have agency in deciding how to consider this work of a previous generation, and it is especially relevant to do so now, in this time of greater reassessment.

Brutalist architecture of the 1960s and 1970s has been enjoying a renaissance of attention over the past decade or so, featured in a spate of surveys, exhibitions, books and social media. Celebrating its photogenic Instagramability, unpacking (or rehashing) its theoretical origins, and warning of its endangered status and vulnerability, these projects have brought this era of buildings out of the seminar room and into wider recognition. The recent attention is evidence that architects and others admire Brutalism, seeing something in this work that speaks to our contemporary sensibilities. It has not, however, secured the fate of most concrete architecture that is nearing or past 50 years old.

Some buildings - those considered distinguished and historically significant and designed by well-known architects - have been saved and restored, such as Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center at Harvard University in Cambridge (1963). But many other Brutalist exemplars have either been lost to the wrecking ball, like Bertrand Goldberg’s clover-leafed Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago (1968), or remain threatened, like Hilario Candela’s dramatically cantilevering Miami Marine Stadium (1963). Brutalist architecture’s heightened risk of demolition is partially due to its negative perception by the general public, which - despite recent publicity - still tends to see it as, well, brutal. In addition, in many geographic regions, these buildings represent a strong political point of view that is reflected by their program (commonly governmental or social housing) and are bound up in destructive histories of urban renewal. These associations complicate the aesthetic appreciation of Brutalist structures and can constrain their ability to be reimagined and adapted. Finally, there is also a host of practical challenges that can tip the scales toward demolition. These include the need to address the often-invisible degradation of aging reinforced concrete, upgrade or replace failing building systems, and attain code compliance for accessibility, energy efficiency and life safety. Further, there is the relative difficulty of adapting large-scale, purpose-built interior and exterior spaces for new uses, and combatting the charge of obsolescence levied against existing structures that sit on desirable land.1

Historic Preservation or Carbon Preservation?

So recognizing these challenges, why should we advocate for keeping this era of concrete buildings? What do we find worth saving about them? And what role can architects play in making decisions about any building’s fate? Behind our advocacy for Brutalist structures there is certainly respect and some nostalgia for their boldly-defined philosophical and social agenda. There is also no denying they provide a welcome antidote to the glass banality of so much contemporary work. But up to now, by far the most common justification for their conservation has been their historical value. While this is certainly an important consideration, centering these structures’ worth so strongly on history restricts the debate about Brutalism’s future to a small handful of buildings and the question of whether they should be strictly preserved or more liberally adapted. It ignores the rest of the vast, diverse landscape of concrete architecture from this era - and one universally crucial reason for conserving it: climate change.

Today the modern building industry’s outsize role in generating greenhouse gas emissions is widely known, with concrete as public enemy number one due to its massive carbon footprint. When seen through this environmental lens, David Fixler’s powerful statistic that “between 1945 and 1980, roughly as much was built globally as had been constructed throughout all prior history” 2 takes on a somber tone. Our buildings from this period - especially those that use concrete so prominently - are not just a set of cultural and technical artifacts. They also tell the story of the Anthropocene. And beyond the symbolic, they literally embody an enormous amount of carbon, the sum of which was released into the atmosphere when they were built. To demolish and replace them compounds this pollution and our present crisis. Choosing instead to renovate and reuse them saves a great deal of embodied carbon emissions, generally between 50 and 75%.3

Indeed, the need to conserve Brutalist architecture - and all existing buildings - is only growing. Not just because we are rapidly approaching the global temperature threshold that will trigger catastrophic events for people and the rest of nature, but also because regulations are evolving to meet the crisis. Spurred by the Paris Climate Agreement, many new policies have been introduced, but most have been aimed at driving down operational carbon, the greenhouse gas emissions that come from buildings’ energy consumption. But embodied carbon, the emissions that arise from building materials and construction, also represents a significant portion - at least one quarter - of all building industry emissions.4
More and more policies aimed at reducing embodied carbon are coming online, including those that require architects and owners to assess existing buildings as resources and to consider the waste and circularity of existing materials.5 There is not an easy path to disassembly for existing cast-in-place concrete buildings. Reusing them at the architectural scale will therefore be the major design challenge at hand.

This is where the vast number of everyday concrete buildings of the 1960s and ’70s, long overlooked for their lack of prominent authorship and rare qualities, suddenly present themselves anew. Why not see them as a palette of possibility, a prompt for design speculation that keeps carbon in place and allows for exciting approaches to reuse? Liberated by their “ordinariness” from traditional preservation approaches and concerns, they can become a worldwide infrastructure of experimentation - demonstrating how 21st-century environmental imperatives can unleash a new era of creativity and design innovation.

Concrete Architecture

This vision for these buildings’ future has a resonant parallel in their history. In the French context, Le Corbusier was a key protagonist in the use of concrete in architecture. Realizing the difficulty of achieving a pristine quality with the concrete production and casting methods of his time, he embraced the roughness of the surface and named it béton brut.

Writing from England in 1955, Reyner Banham described the “New Brutalism” as having the following qualities: the building must be defined by a formal legibility of its plan; possess a clear exhibition of its structure; be immediately apprehensible as a visual entity; and should value materials for their inherent qualities “as-found”.6

It is important to remember that Brutalism developed in a time of global recovery from the emotional and physical devastation of World War II. Speculating on the movement’s psychological origins, Beatriz Colomina suggests that it came out of the shock of living through a time of air raids, fear, and destruction.
A concrete architecture was a subliminal way to protect oneself and turn inward.7 At the same time, we can also imagine that architects in post-war Europe, where so many buildings had been reduced to rubble, were forced to deal in depth with the question of what to do with waste in the form of building materials. Much post-war architecture incorporated materials from former buildings into new ones. The walls of Le Corbusier’s own chapel at Ronchamp (1955), for example, are famously filled with rubble from the previous chapel on the site, which had been destroyed by Nazi bombs.

Today, a different kind of worldwide destruction - climate change -
is threatening our survival, and again our architectural response can be centered on reuse. Thinking forward, it is interesting to note that Banham never specified Brutalism as being about concrete architecture. In fact, the first example he put forward was a steel building, Alison and Peter Smithson’s Hunstanton School (1954). According to Banham’s definition of Brutalism, concrete as a material would actually be difficult to qualify - as a liquid that takes on the character of its formwork, it does not really possess an “as found” state. This slippery terminology invites us to re-examine current perceptions of Brutalism, which have shifted and hardened since Banham’s time, eventually taking on negative connotations associated with impenetrable, fortress-like structures of concrete.

Recycling Whole Buildings

There is much to be gained by researching and acting upon existing concrete architecture. To recycle whole buildings into new ones could recapture the spirit we admire in Brutalism and its original “as found” descriptor. Perhaps applying design to as-found concrete architecture could even alter its remaining negative perception. Finding solutions for keeping more of our concrete assets, yet changing them to serve contemporary needs, will mean being more liberal about how we work with these buildings than pure historic preservation would allow. In some cases, radical forms of adaptation and transformation will be needed. Achieving this will take thoughtful, creative architects and designers who also possess technical ingenuity. What suite of tactics might be deployed in order to address Brutalist buildings’ insufficiencies, both perceived and real? How can these tactics assert themselves as constituting architecture in its own right?

Using a process akin to editing a text, designers can work over what is there by correcting, condensing and modifying the original concrete building. This can be done in a way that stays true to the voice of the original designer, so much so that it could even go undetected. The Smith (formerly Holyoke) Campus Center at Harvard University, designed by Josep Lluís Sert and completed in 1965, was edited by Hopkins Architects and Bruner/Cott Architects in 2018. As built, the Center’s arcade, which connects two major campus streets, was dark and unwelcoming. Yet original drawings showed a light slot and green space that was intended to animate the space, but never built. By examining the original drawings, the designers brought back what they thought Sert intended, transforming the building into something better, but connected with its original voice.

Sometimes edits are made with the purpose of highlighting the new designers’ removals or additions. We can think of this action as similar to the “track changes” function in a Word document - allowing the changes to be seen along with the signature of who made them. In 2017, a complex of industrial grain silos built in the 1920s along the waterfront of Cape Town, South Africa, was significantly edited by Heatherwick Studio into the Zeitz Musem of Contemporary Art Africa. The design strategy cuts into the fabric of the cylindrical silos to create new geometries that define and transform the space. The addition of new, faceted windows cut into the upper building are composed with an entirely new language nowhere present on the original storage building, making human occupation both possible and experiential.

Another interesting strategy is to leave the original building intact and create what could be called a twin adjacent to it. Lacaton and Vassal brought this technique to Dunkirk, France, in 2013, where they kept a 1949 concrete storage building largely as-is and designed a new building - of the same height, form, and dimension - alongside it to house the specific programmatic needs of the FRAC Nord-Pas de Calais contemporary art collection. The architects’ ability to see the potential in the original hall, and their decision to maintain it for large-scale exhibitions, perhaps follows on their experience renovating the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. But at Dunkirk, their addition of a contemporary building, this one clad in translucent polycarbonate and connected to the original by an interior street, demonstrates the effectiveness of twinning. This approach allows for both an extreme sensitivity to the old and a refreshing liberation to create something new, employing contemporary materials with their own design sensibilities.

Concrete buildings can also be surgically altered and carefully augmented to be renewed. Another project by Sert, the 1973 Harvard Science Center, was treated in such a way. The building was renovated and expanded in 2004 by Leers Weinzapfel Associates, who thought through adjacencies with precision so that their new addition, clad with glass plank panels, could sit side by side with the concrete wings of the original building. Even the constraint of construction in such tight quarters is met through the design.

Engaging in dialogue with the original building produces interesting and variable results. We also see examples of projects in which additions attempt no dialogue with the older building. These tend to seem oblivious or worse, self-righteous, and no one wins, like polarized political arguments that go in circles. When standing side by side with a concrete building from the 1960s or ’70s, it is best to find a subject about which a conversation can take place. An intriguing example is the addition to the 1963 Yale Art and Architecture Building by Paul Rudolph, which was renovated by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates in 2008 and renamed the Rudolph Building.

Gwathmey was once a student of Rudolph and understood his work. Gwathmey said at the time, “It would have been easy just to say, ‘Okay, this is the end of this building, here is a new site’, and not do the weaving. But you could not, because you had to maintain the integrity of this building, you had to acknowledge the next site, you had to configure the puzzle”.8

Imagining a total change in use can also be helpful in extending a building’s relevance. Eero Saarinen’s 1960 United States Embassy in London is currently being adapted by David Chipperfield Architects to become a 137-room hotel with five restaurants and a spa. This luxury upgrade is careful with the original architecture, finding ways to highlight the building’s notable façade and interior elements. In terms of staying close to the original use, it presents a quite radical departure. More radical still is the transformation of Saarinen’s 1962 TWA airport terminal in New York City into a hotel, completed by Beyer Blinder Belle in 2019. The jet-age concrete structure seems to have sparked the architects’ imagination for reuse and invention beyond the typical hotel program, leading to the creation of a rooftop “pool-cuzzi”, day stays, and runway-view rooms.

These are just a few examples that have begun to expand our design vocabulary in working with the concrete architecture that remains from this era. Their varied strategies teach us that there are many ways for designers to intervene to extend the life of buildings while exercising their craft, both intellectually and materially.

Taking up Agency

Surely many of these slightly stubborn, outmoded buildings were considered for demolition at some point. So while their survival is a victory, we must acknowledge that most of the above examples were Brutalist icons or located on prestigious urban sites. Their owners assessed their value and made economic calculations about whether to save and repurpose them, or to tear them down. What agency do architects have in helping to define the future of concrete architecture that we do not own?

For one, we can start to build a body of research about the
lesser-known concrete buildings that exist in our own milieus. “What is the story of that funny bank down the block?” can be the beginning of an interesting, and largely un-Google-able, investigation. We can also work to produce more aggregated data about these buildings, from basic figures like how many exist in a given location to comparative statistics about their prevalence. Finding engaging ways to communicate and disseminate this information can go hand-in-hand with research. These buildings have simply not been given enough attention and they sit like little chunks of carbon - diamonds in the rough - waiting to be polished and made wonderful again. Reinvention is critical to conserving them and curbing climate change.

This is not necessarily an argument for protesting a building’s destruction with organized marches and picket signs, because by the time these events can be organized, critical decisions have likely already been made and it can be too late. The idea is instead to
pre-empt the need for such protests - using the architectural imagination to project a different future onto buildings before they face being torn down. This is one form of designers’ special agency.

The research of my office and my Harvard Graduate School of Design studios over the past 15 years has addressed the issue of reuse in underutilized buildings. What are strategies that have yet to be explored for their reinvention? Could we imagine building above older buildings, like what was done in Rome, layer over layer, a palimpsest of architecture? How might this inform a vertical building? What about encompassing a small concrete structure as a ready-made theater or a meeting space within a new shell?

What kind of new dialogues could be constructed between old and new? Can we let concrete architecture speak, even when we might not agree with what it has to say? And how do we go forward with our new buildings, learning from the challenges of reversibility that these concrete buildings present?

Another line of inquiry could be: to what extent can architects use their knowledge of communities and creativity to approach the owners of buildings and offer ideas rather than waiting for specific assignments? In other words: reimagine a concrete building near you. It is engagement with our own communities, building trust, staying proactive, and advocating for the issues and buildings we care about that will allow architects to have an impact on the massive quantity of concrete architecture that populates our environments. Our reimaginings can be programmatic, formal, or aesthetic. Our collective initiatives, coupled with the impending external regulatory mandates that will require greater management of carbon, have the potential to bring on a new enlightened era in the development of our cities. When the game is carbon preservation, many new ideas become possible.

Conclusion

A forest is a carbon sink - so too is a city full of concrete buildings. By keeping them in place, we leverage our expanded understanding of their value to prevent further pollution and help secure our future. By using our design skills to usher in and shape their next phase of life, we honor the contributions of those who came before us and create a visible marker of the world to come - one where material limits and creative liberation coexist.

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