It’s hard to find a more polarizing architecture—even among scholars it’s most likely to be described as “ugly,” “unloved,” or even “hated.” I’m talking about Brutalism, the blocky unfinished concrete style which used to be very common in cities around the world, but is now being demolished at an astounding rate.
Although you may rightly think that Brutalism got its name due to its “brutal”-looking exteriors, it’s actually derived from the French term for béton brut, or “raw concrete.” This is the material that Swiss-French architect and Brutalism originator Le Corbusier used in his genre-molding work during the 1950s. As a variant on the steel and glass of the Modernist era, these windowless bunkers with chunky facades make them feel like impenetrable, permanent sandcastles on the landscape.
And actually, Brutalism was popular in the 1960s and 70s for that very reason: The affordable, durable style could be easily implemented in places like urban plazas where architects were indeed worried about the possibility of civic unrest. (For more historical context on Brutalism, this guide is very good.)
Inside a courtroom in the Orange County Government Building in Goshen, New York, which preservationists are trying to save. AP Photo/Mike Groll
But unlike midcentury modernism, which has experienced a resounding cultural resurgence, Brutalism has not seen the same swelling of enthusiasm—or maybe it was never really embraced at all. One issue is that these buildings are not conventionally thought of as “beautiful,” like a frilly Victorian or Beaux Arts building might be. There’s the unfortunate fact that concrete became the material more commonly used for freeways and flood channels. But the problem is also technological: Over time it has been revealed that Brutalism is problematic because unfinished concrete requires exceptional maintenance to help it age well, aesthetically. Many concrete buildings suffer leaks and stains on the exteriors that are not easy to remove.
Anthony Paletta has been chronicling Brutalism’s disappearance over at The Awl. By last year three of the five structures he featured in a 2012 piece were already gone, including the Stage Theater in Oklahoma City and the Morris A. Mechanic Theater in Baltimore. Just since I started collecting examples to write this story, the Prentiss Women’s Hospital was demolished in Chicago in February.
So it’s extremely accurate to say that Brutalism might the one of the most endangered architectural styles on the planet. Here are seven Brutalist buildings with complicated pasts and uncertain futures.
Photo by Gryffindor
After attempts to expand the problematic site, this week the Whitney Museum of American Art vacated its former building designed by Marcel Breuer and Hamilton P. Smith in 1966. It’s not going to be torn down, of course—the Metropolitan Museum of Art is using it as extra exhibition space—but as a sign of changing sentiments, the Whitney left the premises in favor of a glassy box in the Meatpacking District.
Photo by Dave Pattern
Last year the FBI announced that it would be leaving their headquarters in DC, a 1964 building that almost everyone agrees will be torn down once they’re out. At CityLab, Kriston Capps argues that the unfriendly, hulking mass might have been part of the reason the agency’s had such bad PR all these years.
Photo by Mimi Zeiger
The government complex in the city south of LA was covered in verdant public gardens when it opened in 1978. A new plan to restore and reopen the gardens would dramatically improve its curb appeal and endear the structure to the city. At Re:Form, Mimi Zeiger writes that the rehabilitation of the gardens would undoubtably also help improve Brutalism’s image.
Photo by Sanyam Bahga
In a way, the buildings that launched the Brutalism movement are the most endangered. In the early 1950s Le Corbusier was tapped to create a master plan for the Indian city that resulted in dozens of gorgeous Brutalist masterpieces. But the concrete fared especially poorly in the humid climate and many of these structures are abandoned or in dire need of renovation. Plus, the building’s fixtures are so alluring to design fans that many of them have been plundered, their pieces auctioned off.
The signature plaza in downtown Minneapolis features a sunken amphitheater and blocky fountains. After a long legal struggle, the plaza was named to the National Register of Historic Places, which bolstered its case to stay. Deemed “saved,” now there’s a plan to rehab the plaza that will hopefully go through.
Photo by Dr Greg
One of the world’s largest bus stations (depending on how you measure it), the giant structure was completed in 1969. It was slated for demolition in 2012, and a 2013 campaign ended up saving the station. Earlier this year, a competition was launched to design a youth center inside the building.
AP Photo/Mike Groll
This government complex was designed by Paul Rudolph, who was also behind the Brutalist architecture school building at Yale. One of the latest victories in a long battle to save it came in the form of a lawsuit which delayed a decision by local voters to demolish the building. Now renovations have been proposed to preserve the facade.
Top image by gb pandey