Brutalism

A SERIOUS THINKER TAKES ON "BRUTALISM"

The exterior of the main hall of the    Kyoto International Conference Center    in Japan, designed by Sachio Otani. Kate Wagner uses a photo of this building in the introduction to her new series of articles, in which she considers Brutalism and other key issues in architecture. A detail of a photograph by    Daderot   ;    photo courtesy of Wikipedia   .

The exterior of the main hall of the Kyoto International Conference Center in Japan, designed by Sachio Otani. Kate Wagner uses a photo of this building in the introduction to her new series of articles, in which she considers Brutalism and other key issues in architecture. A detail of a photograph by Daderot; photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Who Doesn’t Just Love McMansion Hell ?

You know it— McMansion Hell, Kate Wagner’s smart, funny, pointed, and insightful blog-website about what’s wrong (and occasionally right) with architecture, urbanism, and the environment. It’s most well-known for her “comedy-oriented takedowns of individual houses”, in which she shows, in her clear-eyed opinion, some of the most egregious “McMansions” and hilariously points out what’s false, ostentatious-without-taste or sense, or just dumb about them.

An sample, from a recent entry on the McMansion Hell blog, of Kate Wagner’s sharp analysis of a “McMansion”. This one is from June 13, 2019, which you can read in-full    here   .

An sample, from a recent entry on the McMansion Hell blog, of Kate Wagner’s sharp analysis of a “McMansion”. This one is from June 13, 2019, which you can read in-full here.

Hmmmm. Maybe the only people who don’t like McMansion Hell are those who market such pretentious flab. If you aren’t a regular visitor to McMansion Hell, we recommend you do so—it is a constant eye-opener—and if you want a rich education, also explore the site’s archive.

More Than Satirical

Yes, via her sharpshooter aim at flatulent architecture (and its boosters), she does evoke hilarity (tho’ one that has an authentically public-spirited purpose). But it’s really worth underlining that she’s a penetrating and careful (and caring) thinker—one of the most articulate on the scene today. Her writings take on vital issues, and she readily and clearly (with delightful power) points out what’s full of pretension, hypocrisy, obscuring and inflated language, or just muddy thinking.

An Approach to Brutalism—One That’s Needed, NOW

Here at the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation, it got our attention when Kate Wagner announced that she was commending a 5-part blog series on Brutalism. That term— “Brutalism”—has been used against Paul Rudolph like a demolition battering ram—and, less frequently, as a term of praise (tho’ sometimes bafflingly, to those outside intricacies of the debate.)

The opening page, image, and paragraph of McMansion Hell’s    5 part series on Brutalism.    We’re delighted that she starts off with a image of one of Paul Rudolph’s most fascinating projects: his campus design at UMass    Dartmouth   .

The opening page, image, and paragraph of McMansion Hell’s 5 part series on Brutalism. We’re delighted that she starts off with a image of one of Paul Rudolph’s most fascinating projects: his campus design at UMass Dartmouth.

She explains the need for a thoughtful approach to the phenomenon (and built works) of Brutalism, explaining:

I’ve been a spectator to this debate since I first lurked in the Skyscraper City forums as a high school freshman, ten years ago, when Brutalism itself sparked the interest in architecture that brings me here today. I have, as they say, heard both sides, and when asked to pick one, my response is unsatisfying. Though my personal aesthetic tastes fall on the side of “Brutalism is good,” I think the actual answer is  it’s deeply, deeply complicated. 

And insightfully adds (and questions): 

Brutalism has a special way of inspiring us to ask big and difficult questions about architecture. “Is Brutalism good?” is really a question of “is any kind of architecture good?” - is architecture itself good? And what do we mean by good? Are we talking about mere aesthetic merits? Or is it more whether or not a given work of architecture satisfies the purpose for which it was built? Can architecture be morally good? Is there a right or wrong way to make, or interpret, a building? 

 She declares the need to approach this topic with the subtlety it deserves—and the urgency it demands::

I have bad news for you: the answers to all of these questions are complicated, nuanced, and unsatisfying. In today’s polemical and deeply divided world of woke and cancelled, nuance has gotten a bad rap, having been frequently misused by those acting in bad faith to create blurred lines in situations where answers to questions of morality are, in reality, crystal clear. This is not my intention here. 

Existential questions aside, there are other reasons to write about Brutalism. First, while we’ve been hemming and hawing about it online, we’ve lost priceless examples of the style to either demolition or cannibalistic renovation, including Paul Rudolph’s elegant Orange County Government Center, Bertrand Goldberg’s dynamic Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago, and the iconic Trinity Square, Gateshead complex, famous for the role it played in the movie Get Carter. My hope is that by bringing up the nuances of Brutalism before a broad and diverse audience, other buildings on the chopping block might be spared. 

 And promises:

This is a series on Brutalism, but Brutalism itself demands a level of inquiry that goes beyond defining a style. Really, this is a series about architecture, and its relationship to the world in which it exists. Architects, as workers, artists, and ideologues, may dream up a building on paper and, with the help of laborers, erect it in the material world, but this is only the first part of the story. The rest is written by us, the people who interact with architecture as shelter; as monetary, cultural, and political capital; as labor; as an art; and, most broadly, as that which makes up the backdrop of our beautiful, complicated human lives. 

Yes, this series is going to be an absorbing adventure. Kate Wagner is not only examining Brutalism, but also taking-on some of the most vital questions around architecture—and we look forward to future installments!

BRUTMOBILE!

Wolf Vostell, Concrete Traffic, 1970. Campus Art Collection, The University of Chicago. Photo by Michael Tropea. Art © The Wolf Vostell Estate.

Wolf Vostell, Concrete Traffic, 1970. Campus Art Collection, The University of Chicago. Photo by Michael Tropea. Art © The Wolf Vostell Estate.

Wolf Vostell (1932-1998) might not be a readily-recognized name today, but - primarily from the 60’s -to- the 80’s - he was known as one of the world’s most creatively provocative artists. He often made stimulating & challenging visual statements by incorporating the products of industrial civilization - cars, motorcycles, planes, and [especially] televisions - into his work, and he’s reputedly the first artist in history to integrate a television set into a work of art.

Even if less known today, Vostell might be familiar to the generation of architects educated in the 1970’s, as he was co-author of the 1971 book Fantastic Architecture - a wonder-filled little compendium of artist-generated projects with architectonic flavor.

The simple-minded think that Brutalism is just about concrete - but we know that’s not even close to accurate. Even so, it is often-enough identified with concrete - and that’s where the intersection with Vostell comes in. The man had an intense relationship with both cars and concrete—and in a number of his works, he encased whole automobiles in the material.

One such example is his 1970 artwork, “Concrete Traffic”, now located in a garage in Chicago:  it is a 1957 Cadillac, to be precise, which is entombed in 15 cubic yards of gray loveliness!

It’s an extraordinary sight - Brutalism that looks like it’s about to speed off! - and additional views (and more) can be seen here.

A rear view of Vostell’s concrete car. Photo by Michael Tropea.

A rear view of Vostell’s concrete car. Photo by Michael Tropea.

Brutalism in Virtual Reality

Image: Moshe Linke

Moshe Linke creates beautiful art games in which you can freely explore Brutalist environments. Most of them can be downloaded here: https://moshelinke.itch.io 

Here are a couple of our favorite images from his work:

Fugue in Void

According to the developer’s description:

Explore all kind of mysterious places and dive into a world full of atmosphere. Let this experience unfold in your head.  Let it inspire you.

Brutalism - Prelude on Stone

According to the developer’s description:

Brutalism: Prelude on Stone was a rather small project for me under the theme "Forces".  It is a small installation art exhibition set in brutal environment. You can freely explore a huge brutalist building. Here and there you are going to find art installations. All the art installations deal with the elements and nature. With it comes a rich soundscape that plays perfectly together with the visuals. I wanted to depict a harsh contrast between the elements and brutalist architecture. In the future there is still erosion from water, wind and other forces.

Wonders Between Dunes

According to the developer’s description:

Travel through a wonderful mysterious world and explore huge brutal architecture. Stroll through deserts. Stroll through lush jungles. Walk deep inside the belly of concrete monsters and feel the enormous weight of the city above you. Discover wonders between dunes.

A almost dream like experience waiting for you. Relax and take a break from all those action packed games out there.

Image: Moshe Linke

Image: Moshe Linke

Brutalism, with its simple forms and dramatic environments, is a powerful experience in virtual space.

With virtual gaming getting more popular, we look forward to the day we can virtually walkthrough a Paul Rudolph designed space. Until then, we will sit back and try not to look too far over the edge of that staircase.