The Brutalist Architecture Conundrum

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Begun in the Greek Revival style in 1839, the Ohio Statehouse had seen many expansions and changes by the time Moody•Nolan, in association with Schooley Caldwell Associates, was called in to design and provide construction supervision for the Annex Facility. The firm also restored stone-and-brick former stables on the lower level for use as a museum space.

PRESERVE OR PULL DOWN? Completed in 1968 to a design by Kallmann, McKinnell, and Knowles, Brutalist-style Boston City Hall has been controversial from Day One: Some loved it, others loathed it. The building is not popular with city officials and people who work in it; they say it is expensive to heat, and the floor plan is confusing for employees and visitors alike. There are plans afoot to move city operations into a more commodious building. However, alarmed at the prospects of its possible demolition, some architects and preservationists are fighting to get landmark status for the structure to ensure its survival.

Nothing divides the preservation community more than Brutalist architecture. And the building that dramatizes the Brutalist conundrum more than any other structure is Boston City Hall (see photo).

Personally, I find Boston City Hall a monument to architectural hubris, an inhumane construct that is despised both by many of the workers who use it every day, and by most passersby who encounter it face to face. Because of its lack of civility, disdain for ordinary citizens and scorn for its urban context, I would happily swing the first sledgehammer to begin its demolition. However, many preservationists disagree.

For instance, my blogging colleague, Kim O’Connell, a preservationist whose insights I respect highly, said in her January 20th posting that she’s just signed up with the Brutalism Appreciation Society – whose goal is to preserve Brutalist icons like Boston City Hall. And many historic preservationists are on her side.

The fact that I disagree with the Brutalist-savers made me examine a key question: What does it mean to be a “preservationist”? To “preserve” means to keep in a perfect or unaltered condition. But the key question is what shall we preserve? That issue involves value judgments and made me realize there are several different types of preservationists -- differentiated by what gets their preservation juices flowing. I’ve identified below three major types of preservationists, with some obvious overlaps:

Type I’s are the Architectural Icon Preservationists: They believe that a building which exemplifies an important architectural theory, style or movement is worthy of preservation – regardless of current judgments about its aesthetic merits. The Type I’s are leading the charge to get Boston City Hall declared a landmark.

Type II’s are the By-The-Calendar Preservationists: As soon as the calendar says a building is 50 years old, the Type II’s can create a rationale for the building’s preservation, regardless of architectural or aesthetic value. Since Boston City Hall is nearing the 50-year mark, many Type II’s will join the call for its preservation.

Type III’s are Context-Sensitive Aesthetic Preservationists: They are most concerned with preserving elements that contribute visual richness and humane values to our surroundings. Type III’s tend to focus on the classical ideals of harmony, beauty and proportion in the built environment. And Boston City Hall displays none of the virtues that we Type III’s value.

Even though I am Type III, I can understand that there are other viewpoints. But being a preservationist (of whatever stripe) frequently requires one to spend time, money and emotional energy fighting for one’s “cause.” And we each have limited amounts of those three resources. So just don’t expect me to spend one minute, contribute one dime or shed one tear for endangered Brutalist architecture. To me, Brutalism’s technological thrust does not enhance the human condition; it has no civility!