Days after the capture of Dzhokar Tsarnaev, one of two alleged planners of the attacks on the Boston Marathon that killed three people and injured more than 170, the details explaining his motives are still frustratingly elusive. In the absence of concrete facts, some members of the media have turned to speculation. Buzzfeed reporters have even linked the other alleged attacker, Dzhokar's brother Tamerlan Tsernaev, to a 2011 homicide—going on little more than rumors posted online.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the design press has not been immune to the draw of idle speculation. It was nevertheless a surprise to read James Russell's notes on the Boston bombings on Sunday. Russell, who is the architecture critic for Bloomberg News, took to his personal blog to ask whether Brutalist architecture might be to blame for the April 15 attacks.
Like Aaron Betsky, Russell spent Friday in Boston under orders to stay indoors as authorities conducted the manhunt that eventually resulted in Dzhokar Tsarnaev's arrest. The day before authorities asked Bostonians to stay indoors, Russell had visited the campus of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where it was later revealed that Tsarnaev attended classes. Reasonably so, Russell spent part of his time under lockdown dwelling on Tsarnaev's status as a UMass Dartmouth student.
Russell is no fan of the campus architecture at UMass Dartmouth. He describes the campus master plan, designed by Paul Rudolph and built in the 1960s and 70s, as "a gigantic eerie, dozen-building concoction of grim ribbed-concrete hubris." Russell is a fan of Rudolph's Orange County Government Center for Goshen, N.Y., but no matter. Plenty of people don't care for Brutalism. Russell is well within the bounds of reasonable debate to criticize Rudolph's public atriums, for example, or the Rudolph-designed Claire T. Carney Library that was renovated by the Boston-based firm DesignLab.
But here's where Russell oversteps:
"As I sat stewing under the lock-down order, my thoughts returned to the U Mass campus, which swarmed with students who looked much like Dzhokar Tsarnaev, the bombing suspect. Although it’s too early to know whether he was motivated to violence by political or religious fervor, that’s looking unlikely as I write this. He was a student at the Dartmouth U Mass campus, it turns out. He seems to have had many friends, but I wondered about the effect of such a deeply impersonal place. It’s isolated at the suburban edge and unintentionally expressive of the assembly-line education that’s become the cost-driven norm. Does such a place aid the alienation—or, at least, impede the forming of deep personal bonds—of even a smart, sociable kid?"
CNN has been widely ridiculed for many aspects of its breaking-news coverage last week. During one live segment regarding Tsarnaev's background, Chris Cuomo asked, "How can you be a good person and a terrible person at the same time?” Something about an inquiry into the paradoxical duality of man, delivered over the air by a cable-news talking head, has people laughing.
Russell's inquiry, on the other hand, is nothing to laugh at. First, the question implies that the UMass Dartmouth campus is universally reviled. Which is not the case: Boston Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell, who wrote about the DesignLab renovation of the Rudolph-designed library in November of last year, showered the project with praise. Russell further says that political or religious fervor probably played no role in Tsarnaev's fall. But no one knows what his alleged Tsarnaev's reasons were.
Say that architectural fervor did drive Tsarnaev to execute an attack on the public at large and that the public had some way of discovering this motive. What would Russell have us do with this information? Tear down Brutalist architecture wherever it stands, in the name of homeland security? The open-ended prescription implicit in the question is troubling. Say that Tsarnaev really liked Brutalism. Would that be an argument for re-thinking Rudolph?
Russell's speculation is, at best, deeply unflattering to UMass Dartmouth, DesignLab, and Paul Rudolph. It's hardly better for architectural criticism to seek confirmation of one's opinion in the actions of a madman.