Sunday, September 30, 2012

Beanish Brutalism

(Note: Now with pictures!)

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (last November), I took a number of pictures of City Hall. Pictures that, of course, have dissolved into the digital ether. But, when I took them, I intended to use them to corroborate City Hall’s ranking as the world’s ugliest building. Because, yes, in appearance the building is a bit drab, and especially on a rainy day it does have some extra gloom about it. But, ultimately, I would argue that it is far from a heaping of building materials and concrete, as alluded to in at least one article.1 

Why the misconception? Because the building is a beacon of brutalism. Yes, that architectural style has a name.

Of brutalism, the milieu has been called -- many times over -- an eyesore. On the other hand, a member of the World Monuments Fund explains, “We haven’t gotten far enough from that moment in history [when brutalism debuted] to appreciate all that it meant.”2 

What it comes down to is the style provokes a gut response. Put in literary terms, it’s a gut reaction where the search for a happy denouement overshadows the struggle of ascending conflict. And what is architecture if not storytelling in brick and steel (or, in this case, concrete)? As such, we have particular expectations of a building’s aesthetic -- in the same way that we have particular expectations about how a fairy tale should end. Each building that we see, in turn, tells us a little something about its architects and authors, its purpose and story.

Consider this excerpt from H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, narrated by the protagonist after he discovers ancient ruins lodged in the peaks of the Antarctic:

“It was composed mostly of prodigious blocks of dark primordial slate, schist, and sandstone – blocks in many cases as large as 4 x 6 x 8 feet – though in several places it seemed to be carved out of a solid, uneven bed rock of pre-Cambrian slate. The buildings were far from equal in size, there being innumerable honeycomb arrangements of enormous extent as well as smaller separate structures. The general shape of these things tended to be conical, pyramidal, or terraced; though there were many perfect cylinders, perfect cubes, clusters of cubes, and other rectangular forms, and a peculiar sprinkling of angled edifices whose five-pointed ground plan roughly suggested modern fortifications.”3
Lovecraft, H. P. At the Mountains of Madness and Other Tales of Terror. New York: Ballantine, 2007. 46-47. Print.

Whoah. The architecture that Lovecraft describes punctuates the beats of his story. Not just pyramids, perfect ones. Cones and cylinders without flaw. Lovecraft describes the evidence such that his readers can draw only one conclusion: Intelligent pre-human beings once inhabited Antarctica (par for the course with the author). Of course none of this is historically accurate, and though Lovecraft was an author of pulp sci-fi and horror, his descriptions ring true. Architecture is drama.

Subtract the specifics on the stone used, along with the pyramids, cones, and cylinders, and readers are left with an uncanny portrait of Boston’s City Hall. Like Lovecraft’s Mountains, the City Hall structure exudes power and will – it just isn’t smashed into a gigantic mountain range in the Antarctic.

During the 1960s, brutalism was the architectural style, meaning – unlike Mountains City Hall is not ancient. Read that Wiki page again. Among architects, City Hall was loved at the time of its design. Why? Because baroque was old, classicism was old, even neo-classicism was old. The debut of a brutalist building in the Bean made City Hall a story-in-progress, an architectural style to be written about in the present tense. Fresh and modern, the use of brutalism was meant to convey that City Hall was renewed for the contemporary day, working for Boston.

Pulp novels like Mountains of Madness are not the only apt parallel. Of all things, Legos also provide us with some insight into brutalist architecture. Michael Chabon, author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, writes :

“Abstract, minimal, ‘pure’ in form and design, they [Legos] echoed the dominant midcentury aesthetic, with its emphasis on utility and human perfectability… In their limited repertoire of shapes and the absolute…Lego structures emphatically did not present – and in playing with them, you never hoped for – the appearance of reality… It was an idealization, an approximation, your best version of the thing you were trying to make.”
Chabon, Michael. Manhood for Amateurs. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009. 53. Print.

For its era, Boston’s City Hall (and brutalism as a whole) reflected that same “best version” of “utility and human perfectability” in the sphere of public buildings that Legos mirrored for entertainment. Both achieved this with their modern, contemporary aesthetic. That midcentury vision, then, did not show its optimism in detail or opulence, but in its dedication to effort and industry, story and present-tense drama.

Brutalism, however, is no longer a present-tense style, which is probably why so many people’s gut reactions are so negative. But now I kinda like it.

Til next time!

1: Mason, Edward. "Boston City Hall Named World's Ugliest Building." Boston Herald. Herald Media, 15 Nov. 2008. Web. 30 Sept. 2012. <>.
2:Than, Ker. "Pictures: 12 World Monuments at Risk." National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 18 Oct. 2011. Web. 30 Sept. 2012. <>.
3: Lovecraft, H. P. At the Mountains of Madness and Other Tales of Terror. New York: Ballantine, 2007. 46-47. Print.
4: Chabon, Michael. Manhood for Amateurs. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009. 53. Print.