Monday, October 21, 2013

Were Brutalist Buildings on College Campuses Really Designed to Thwart Student Riots?

Chances are good that if you went to college in the United States after, say, 1975, your campus featured at least one imposing, bunker-like concrete building in the architectural style known as “Brutalism.” Colorfully translated from Le Corbusier’s purely descriptive term béton brut (or “raw concrete”), Brutalist architecture—as it was developed and practiced during the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s by architects like Alison and Peter Smithson in the U.K. and Paul Rudolph in America—favored heavy, solid shapes cast in intricately textured reinforced concrete , sharp angles, and a general sense of what architecture historians describe as “heroism” or “monumentalism.” Along with the contrastingly sleek vocabulary of glass and steel articulated by Mies Van Der Rohe, Brutalism is what probably comes to mind when people are presented with the term “High Modernism” in the context of architecture.

During its heyday, Brutalism was both big and big, especially at universities eager to demonstrate their modernity bona fides. The 1960s and early 1970s saw venerable institutions across the country building these hulking structures to house performing arts centers, libraries, or other departments; in some cases, entire campuses were conceived in the style. Yet the Brutalism boom started to crumble even as it approached critical mass—very quickly, students, faculty, and community members came to a widely shared (and rare) consensus that the new buildings were, in a word, ugly. That judgment is a matter of taste, of course, but Brutalism’s reputation has never quite recovered from the insult.

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