One of the all-time smartest commentaries about architecture comes in the form of a quip from John Huston, playing the amoral Noah Cross in the 1974 film Chinatown: “Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” Unfortunately, several buildings, by some of America’s most important late-modern architects, may not last so long.
In Chicago, Northwestern Memorial is keen to demolish Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital (1974) and replace it with a purpose-built lab. In Baltimore, a developer wants to tear down John Johansen’s Morris A. Mechanic Theatre (1967) and build two residential towers in its place. In Washington, D.C., a mayor’s agent overturned the landmark designation of the Third Church of Christ, Scientist (1970), designed by Araldo Cossutta while working for I.M. Pei. In Goshen, N.Y., county officials have shuttered the three-building Orange County Government Center (1967), designed by Paul Rudolph. And in Minneapolis, the city council has commissioned a scheme to replace M. Paul Friedberg’s Peavey Plaza (1973).
In each case, preservationists are rallying. The National Trust for Historic Preservation placed Prentice on its 2011 list of most-endangered historic places. The World Monuments Fund included the Orange County Government Center on its 2012 watch list. But to what end? Several of the cases expose the toothlessness of many municipal preservation ordinances. For instance, Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) recently recommended landmark status for the Mechanic, but the theater’s fate ultimately resides with the city council, which can choose to ignore the recommendation.
Larry Gibson, a lawyer and CHAP member, supported the majority in requesting landmark status from the mayor and city council for the Mechanic. But his vote didn’t reflect his personal feelings on the matter. “I was always convinced it was a bad idea, that building,” Gibson has said, according to the online news site Baltimore Brew. “Last month I turned 70 years old, and I’m having a little trouble regarding something built in the 1960s as historic.” He’s not alone.
The pendulum of popular taste has not yet swung back in Brutalism’s favor, despite a growing appreciation for the style among architects and designers and the rise of an international organization dedicated to preserving modern architecture: DoCoMoMo (the name being a combination of “documentation,” “conservation,” “modern,” and “movement.”)
There’s an increasing amount of love out there for slim-lined Mad Men Modernism—SOM’s Lever House (1952), for instance. Brutalist buildings are harder to love. They just haven’t been around as long; they’re less familiar. “Bunker” is an analogy one hears frequently.
Who wants to hug Boston City Hall (1968)? Who, that is, other than an architect? All in all, it’s a bad time to be a Brutalist building, especially one that has outlived its purpose, been subject to deferred maintenance, or proven expensive to adaptively reuse.
The term “Brutalism,” to the degree that the public is familiar with it, unfortunately reinforces the negative, Clockwork Orange–esque associations that have grown up around the style: urban blight, chronic unemployment, oppressive institutions, and class and racial tension. Never mind the true etymological origins of the term: béton brut, which is what Le Corbusier called the innovative and expressive “raw concrete” of his postwar buildings. It’s hard to imagine now, but Brutalism was synonymous with progress and social reform back in the day.
In Noah Cross’s worldview, age is a panacea for the conniving, hideous, and whorish. Could a building—or a whole style—prove so reprehensible, so repulsive, that it can never gain a fair place in the hearts and minds of men? The Orange County council has rejected a measure to demolish the Rudolph facility and build a replacement (for $114 million). Maybe the vote is a sign that Brutalism can be redeemed, a sign that the powers-that-be and the broader public have awakened to the value of béton brut. Alas, the margin of victory in Goshen was a slim 11 to 10, and the futures of Prentice, the Mechanic, et al. remain uncertain.
But there’s no need to lose hope. Victorian-era architecture was almost universally despised in 1931—the year that Lewis Mumford published his landmark apologia The Brown Decades: A Study of the Arts in America, 1865–1895. And it took decades more to promote Queen Anne gingerbread houses and Romanesque Revival libraries from eyesores to classics. The architecture of the period even has its own martyr, Richard Nickel, who liked to rescue decorative fragments from 19th-century buildings being demolished. The preservationist died in 1972 when, while climbing through Louis Sullivan’s ruinous Chicago Stock Exchange, part of the building collapsed on top of him. Let’s just hope that some enterprising member of DoCoMoMo doesn’t do anything rash in an effort to save Peavey Plaza. And let’s pray that public opinion awakens to the notion that Brutalism can be beautiful— respectable, even.