There was a time when architecture could be Heroic. It wasn’t so long ago—half a century, give or take; the years before the decorated shed, the starchitect, the post-critical, the box and the blob, the supermodern, and all the rest. If today’s architects have often leapfrogged back to the roots of modernity, it has been from the shoulders of the Cold War era, a time when designers struggled with architectural problems that grew from the directions set by Modernism’s early masters.
After midcentury, Modernist U.S. architecture largely fell into two camps: glass-and-steel boxes (many of them corporate) that followed the legacy of the Miesian grid, or the so-called Brutalist concrete buildings (many of them civic) that were influenced by Le Corbusier’s late work. While the laconic qualities of the former have gained wide acceptance, the general public—and even many architects—routinely disparages the latter’s blunt physicality as socially and urbanistically aggressive.
Today, major examples of Brutalism—or what the three of us prefer to call Heroic architecture—are under threat of demolition or disfigurement, including Boston City Hall; Washington, D.C.’s Third Church of Christ, Scientist; and works by Paul Rudolph, Marcel Breuer, and Eero Saarinen. We feel the need to defend these buildings, to insist on their quality and value to all of us today. Here are our reasons.
They’re often misunderstood: “Brutalism” was a terrible label—an all-too-easy pejorative that suggests these buildings were designed with bad intentions. As the late critic Reyner Banham noted, at its best, Brutalism did have an ethic, one meant to reveal the messy realities of construction and building systems, and to forge a new honesty about architecture and its role within the postwar era’s broader social and urban transformations. Brutalist buildings tried to be rugged and direct—more Marlboro Man than Mad Men—in opposition to the gray-suited slickness of glass-and-steel Modernism. Concrete, the style’s preferred material, was used to create dramatic forms that were singular rather than generic, sculpted and heavy rather than thin and light, and, frequently, civic and institutional rather than corporate. It is for their ambitions that we label these buildings Heroic.
They’re examples of an era’s urban ideals: Heroic architecture represents a different cultural and political context. At the time they were built, these buildings were called authentic, noble, dignified—words that are hard to interpret today. They were authoritatively civic in the time of Kennedy-era optimism and the Great Society, before U.S. attitudes toward the public realm changed so dramatically that it has become hard to evaluate the aesthetics on their original terms. What was once regarded as positively monumental is now seen as bureaucratic, overbearing. Through their very durability, Heroic buildings remind us of our changing attitudes, for better and for worse.
They’re important parts of our built heritage: Cultures and tastes change. Just as New York’s Penn Station, originally lauded, was later seen as outmoded and then, tragically, demolished, many Heroic buildings have gone from praise to vilification in a generation. Why repeat the cycle of destroying what we might appreciate with a longer historical lens? Moreover, today’s criticisms of Heroic structures often lie less with their architecture than with their connection to the troubled legacy of urban renewal, something better remedied by sensitive urban design than by further demolition and rebuilding. Cities should be layered with the intentions of different eras; erasure is nearly always a mistake.
Heroic buildings can be tough to love. Fairly or not, many are perceived as hubristic or cold—sometimes literally—or overly aggressive. They’re not always cozy. And not all examples are of equal value or quality. But the best ones deserve careful re-evaluation. We believe that sensitive modifications could help make them loved once again.
The most meaningful examples of Heroic architecture have a richness and vitality that reward close study. The Christian Science Church Center in Boston, for instance, designed by Araldo Cossutta when he was working at I.M. Pei's firm, shows how, with proper care and stewardship, these buildings can be wonderful participants in an active urban setting.* At their best, they are powerful monuments of an ethic inspired by, but critical of, its Modernist past—an ethic that sought authenticity for its time and embraced the future wholeheartedly. It would be a shame if such qualities fell victim to a throwaway culture before these buildings hit their second stride. By learning to appreciate them, maybe, just maybe, we can be Heroic again. * Correction, April 26, 2010: This sentence originally and in attibuted the Christian Science Church Center design to I.M. Pei. We regret the error.