Balfron Tower, London, by Erno Goldfinger.
Sascha Pohflepp/Flickr Creative Commons license Balfron Tower, London, by Erno Goldfinger.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t: Just when you thought the inexorable reevaluation of all that was once damned would make us realize the beauty in even the most despised behemoth, we now realize that all we are doing is, as the Brits are now calling it, “artwashing.” By the very token that all that was once ugly and industrial is now pretty and lofty, that same transformation is hiding the image and reality of production, forcing out those who produced, and exacerbating class divisions.

It’s nothing new, of course. The older term was gentrification. That transformation of working class neighborhoods into homes first for gays and hippies (the Castro in San Francisco; Greenwich Village in New York), then the younger members of the middle class, and then those for whom Making is a sport or hobby (Brooklyn), has been going on for half a century in the United States and several decades in Europe. It is now even reaching into Asia.

That socio-geographic movement—inspired by the differential between what former industrial buildings were worth and the demands for housing in growing cities—produced an aesthetic: Industrial Chic, a term that dates back to the 1970s. By now we all know that concrete is cool, freight elevators are so much nicer than passenger ones, and distressed wood or and brick are as comfortable as well-worn blue jeans.

The Standard, New York, by Ennead Architects
© Jeff Goldberg | Esto The Standard, New York, by Ennead Architects

What has changed in recent years is that the same logic that once conquered factory buildings has now moved on to office structures from the 1960s and 1970s. These forms are less heroic, yet we seem to have developed a fondness for even imitation-Mies curtain walls. We now go so far as to build new versions of 1960s office blocks, like New York’s Standard Hotel, in the manner that we have been building faux lofts for decades.

Orange County Government Center, Goshen N.Y., by Paul Rudoph
© Jeff Goldberg | Esto Orange County Government Center, Goshen N.Y., by Paul Rudoph

The latest subjects of rehabilitation are low income housing and what we used to think of as drab institutional buildings, from the Structural Expressionist Amsterdam Municipal Library, now an Andaz Hotel, to—we hope—the Orange County Municipal Building, designed by Paul Rudolph. New Brutalism is not only being reused, but is also cool, as a blog devoted to it shows with great enthusiasm.

It is the rehabilitation of this last category of buildings to which the British are applying the term artwashing. It seems those structures, such as London’s Balfron Tower and Barbican are so heroic in form that all you have to do is to change the filter of your perception, clean them up, and present them as beautiful building blocks for yuppie living for them to seem grand. They are washed both literally and perceptually.

We have moved on, in other words, beyond the change from a production-driven society to one that is consumer-driven. We’ve moved beyond the reuse of tools and spaces of making to scenes and implements of use (think of the kitchen and its newly chic industrial appliances that we use to make gourmet meals on weekends), to a kind of Zen state in which the abstractions architects and artists once offered as the true destiny and meaning of modernization are now emblems of fulfillment. If even the most aggressive statements of rationalized and institutionalized power rising—again, both literally and figuratively—out of the industrialized revolution and floating on the blanket of the welfare state, can now be icons of achievement, then modernism has truly won. We have reached a comfortable place where, if not all that is solid is melting into air, at least all is being washed by art.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.