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Friday, September 29, 2023
Arch-i-text: Brutalism was true to its name
The Ontario Science Centre, which has an exceptional Brutalist design, is threatened. Moriyama Teshima Architects, Toronto, Ontario

The prefix “neo” is derived from the Greek word “neos,” which means “new.”

It is often used to indicate something that is new or modern. For example, the neoclassical style of architecture is a revival and modern interpretation of a classical style.

While recently perusing one of the architectural journals I subscribe to, one article entitled “Exploring the New Trend in Neobrutalism” caused a shiver to run up my spine.

Could it really be true that there were architects that wished to revive what was, in my opinion, one of the saddest episodes in 20th-century design expression?

As I read the article, and then conducted further investigation, it became obvious that there were, in fact, a number of designers who were championing the resurrection of brutalism.

To provide some historical context, brutalism was a relatively short-lived post-war architectural style which was completely abandoned by Western architects in the early 1970s.

Although the style claimed to have roots in international modernism, it was, in truth, a rejection of that modernism as no more than “shallow aestheticism.”

The proponents of brutalism proudly proclaimed that architecture should directly reflect the highest levels of one’s goals – call it existential weight – and that a building should not be the result of reasoning but of ethical action, their maxim being: “An ethic, not an aesthetic.”

Now, it is important to understand this style had its start in the war-devastated lands of Europe and these architects believed their designs should assume a new role in society.

In the simplest sense, it would be a non-political role focused on human needs for shelter and work. Many, if not most of these architects believed in egalitarianism and their interior designs generally characterized that philosophy in repetitious spaces of similar size and configuration.

They chose to employ exposed materials (pipes, boilers, mechanical equipment, etc.) and the unrelieved rough texture and colour of poured concrete to construct buildings that appeared massive – even those with a relatively small footprint – with reoccurring modular components conjoined into what were often awkward compositions.

This can be illustrated in the description of Paul Rudolph’s 1963 brutalist Arts & Architecture building at Yale University by Dezeen Magazine’s columnist Alexandra Lange as “strange and quirky and difficult.”

Further, brutalist architects made no attempt to integrate their designs into either the landscape or the existing streetscape.

On the contrary, most of these buildings were intended to sit on the land, rather than in it, and dominate their surroundings; a brooding dominance actuated by their massive, monolithic appearance, rigid geometric lines and unremitting gray concrete.

But, driven (I suspect) by the architecture critics’ glowing descriptions, in the 1960s governments, corporations and institutions lined up to commission brutalist designs for office buildings, community hubs, student residences, public housing, and the like.

Certainly, Canada was no exception to jumping on the bandwagon, with the result that virtually every city in this country has examples of brutalist architecture.

While the critics praised the buildings, the general public loathed them.

In the mid-1970s, students at the University of Guelph variously described the brutalist South Residence as “depressing,” “ugly” and “confusing” and ascribed its design to an architect who specialized in penitentiaries – a myth that still persists to this day.

In 2001, the BBC invited their audience to vote on the country’s ugliest building: The Tricorn Shopping Centre in Portsmouth, a 1963 brutalist design by Rodney Gordon, was elected by a landslide.

A building praised by architecture critic Jonathan Meades as “fecund, rich, untrammelled” and the product of “genius” in 1963, was described by the then Prince of Wales in 2001 as “a mildewed lump of elephant droppings.” The building was torn down in 2004. 

By the mid-1970s, brutalism was yesterday’s news in Europe and North America. Only in the Eastern Bloc countries did it continue to be a viable architectural style, becoming almost synonymous with common building design in the Warsaw Pact countries until the fall of the Soviet Union.

Still, to be fair to brutalism, there are examples which rise above the vast majority of these designs. However, almost invariably, the architect responsible veered away from brutalist criteria to accomplish this feat.

Consider Ron Thom’s work on the Trent University campus wherein he abandoned the “dominance” criteria and integrated brutalist elements into the surrounding landscape, something that Arthur Erickson also did at the University of Lethbridge.

Similarly, in Toronto, Raymond Moriyama not only integrated brutalist architecture into the city’s river valley setting but also introduced curved elements to soften the design of the Ontario Science Centre – a complex currently threatened with destruction by the Ford government.

Then there is the fanciful Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamps, France in which architect Le Corbusier introduced curves, strategically placed punctuated openings and white walls.

And, of course, we cannot forget the gorgeous work of Canada’s foremost Indigenous architect, Douglas Cardinal, in Red Deer, Alta.. St. Mary’s Parish is a tour de force of brutalist elements filtered through the screen of his heritage and softened by the site’s appropriate use of brick.

Mere words cannot say enough about a design that renders brutalism organic through the genius of this architect. Google the St. Mary’s church in Red Deer and you’ll see what I mean.

That said, a handful of exceptions, all a result of the architect not being true to the precepts of brutalism, amongst the thousands of buildings built in the style does not change my initial stance that this was a sorry episode in 20th-century design.

And, from what I’ve seen of the “neobrutalists,” the designs are certainly no better, particularly since several are directed at the residential market.

In this specific case, just call me a NIMBY.

Brian Marshall is a NOTL realtor, author and expert consultant on architectural design, restoration and heritage.

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