I live in New York City and we’re surrounded by scaffolding everywhere, in which people are repairing brick façades or stone façades with great care because they accept that their buildings need to be maintained. Yet concrete gets a bad name—I don’t know why. It must be maintained for the same reasons as brick or stone, and when it’s not, everyone points to it as a material failure. People felt that concrete didn’t need any maintenance—which is not the fault of concrete, of course. It was a misunderstanding of the material over time.
Concrete, as it cures, develops small cracks, and Breuer accepted the visual imperfections by losing them in his strong patterns of joint and formwork. He was a great craftsman, brought up on wood, and used board-formed concrete for his aims as a sculptor. Others use concrete as if it was plaster, looking for purity and smoothness, but they pay an eventual price in patching cracks and surface spalling. Breuer learned a lot about concrete working with his great friend Pier Luigi Nervi on the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris. For the IBM France Research Center at La Gaude, a project I worked on and know well, Breuer invented several things. One, he called the “tree-column”—a way of supporting the outside wall at different points—and another, a deep “folded” concrete façade that provided raceways for mechanical services and resulted in a deep shadowed grid of great beauty. At the time, he left its construction up to the contractor from whom he learned much about modular precast concrete. He told me once that IBM France was his favorite project.
Breuer was not known as a Brutalist architect. For one thing, the term was not used at the time—certainly not by us in the office. It was applied later by English and American critics—badly translated from béton brut, or “rough-formed concrete,” and badly used to describe a whole range of buildings. Paul Goldberger, Hon. AIA, in his long obituary for The New York Times, never once called Breuer a Brutalist architect. He did, however, identify him as a “Bauhaus architect,” a label that Breuer hated because he felt that it reflected his early schooling, not his mature work. The Whitney Museum of American Art wanted a building that would put it back on the map as, at the time, it had been lost in the shadow of the Museum of Modern Art for too long. Breuer imagined the inverted ziggurat form perched over Madison Avenue right from the start, even though his engineers said he’d have to use steel rather than his beloved concrete for its structure.
Of course, the building is iconic now, but at the time, I remember going up Madison Avenue with Breuer in a taxi, and we drove right by the Whitney just after it had been completed. The driver took one look at it and said to both of us, “What the hell is that?” Breuer loved that question. He turned to me and said, “That’s exactly the kind of reaction I was hoping for.”—As told to William Richards