Two of the most famous Brutalist buildings in America are still provoking strong emotions in New England decades after they first reared their heavy concrete heads.
The massive buildings – Boston City Hall and Rudolph Hall -- are appropriately in Boston and New Haven. Both places are key to the development of modern architecture.
The modernist architect Walter Gropius fled Nazi Germany in 1937 and came to Boston when Harvard invited him to join its faculty.
In New Haven, Yale President Whitney Griswold undertook a building campaign from 1950-1963 that had an outsize influence on modern architecture. Glass-and-steel International Style office buildings are known as Yale Boxes.
Like much New England architecture, Brutalism came from Britain. The British didn't love it much. Prince Charles called a Brutalist shopping center in Portsmouth, England, a 'mildewed lump of elephant droppings.'
Many Brutalist buildings were part of urban renewal programs and, like urban renewal, were born of idealism and quickly viewed as a big mistake.
Brutalist buildings got shabby fast as concrete aged faster than the architects thought. They turned out to be unfriendly to pedestrians and difficult to subdivide.
When Michael J. Lewis entered architecture school in 1980, Brutalism was ‘unlovely, irrelevant, a universally acknowledged historical blunder.’
And now it’s coming back.
Nikil Saval, in the New York Times, wrote in October 2016, that enthusiasm for Brutalist buildings is taking hold.
“Preservationists clamor for their survival, historians laud their ethical origins and an independent public has found beauty in their rawness,” he wrote.
Brutalist buildings can be found throughout New England. Here are examples of six for you to love or hate. If you know of others, please mention them in the comments section below.
Rudolph Hall, Yale University
The Yale Art and Architecture Building was the crown jewel of Yale President Whitney Griswold’s modern building program in the aftermath of World War II. Under Griswold, nearly a dozen new buildings were designed by such leading modernist architects as Louis Kahn (the Art Gallery), Eero Saarinen (two colleges and the Ingalls Rink, aka the Yale Whale), Gordon Bunshaft (the Beinecke Library) and Philip Johnson.
It was called ‘the most provocative American building of the decade.’
Rudolph, then chair of Yale’s architecture department, created a heavy concrete structure with 36 (or 37, depending on who’s counting) levels within seven stories.
There were problems from the start. Art students threatened to picket the dedication ceremony. Then during the ceremony itself, 2,000 people heard architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner condemn the building as oppressively monumental.
And yet it appeared on the cover of every major architectural magazine, and New York Times critic Ada Louise Huxtable raved about it.
Inside, the building had bright orange carpets, incandescent lighting and plaster casts of Classical artworks.
Sculpture students were consigned to small, dark studios in the sub-basement. The rope curtains didn’t keep out sunlight.
“It ignored about two-thirds of its users,” said Mark Simon, an architect who had to use it. Richard Benson, who taught in the building for 18 years, called it ‘awful.’
“It’s difficult to be in a building where if you stumble into a wall you may end up going to the hospital with skin abrasions,” Benson said.
A spectacular fire raced through the building on June 14, 1969, not five years after its dedication. It was widely believed (though never proven) the fire had been set by student architects forced to use it. The building was remodeled, the interior space cut up into a ‘depressing rabbit warren of white-walled rooms.’
But Yale didn’t tear down the building. Instead, it spent $126 million to restore and expand it. When the renovation was finished in 2008, the New York Times called it, ‘a masterpiece of late Modernism.’ The building was renamed Rudolph Hall.
Hillside, Colby College
The problem with Brutalism, wrote architecture critic Michael Lewis, was that people 'could not be made to see that the problem with modern architecture was that it was insufficiently surly.'
Corporate and commercial clients wouldn't buy it. Only administrators of academic institutions, government and the occasional church seemed to like it.
In Waterville, Maine, Colby College administrators were among that select group. The college hired Boston architect Ben Thompson, a partner of Walter Gropius, to design dormitories. He came up with a network of five interconnected dorms called Hillside.
A confidential student guide to Colby describes them as ‘ugly.’ “But they have their charm, including spacious common rooms, that cozy small-dorm feeling, and their own parking lot… Plus, "I live in Hillside" can be another point of bonding-- bonding through adversity, hah.”
Boston City Hall
Boston City Hall was part of the urban renewal program that demolished the immigrant West End neighborhood in the 1950s and replaced it with (among other things) the State Health, Education and Welfare Service Center, designed by none other than Paul Rudolph.
Mayor John F. Collins continued urban renewal with the New Boston program, which leveled the bawdy Scollay Square neighborhood.
Collins wasn’t careful enough for what he wished. When presented with the blueprints of City Hall, he is said to have gasped, and someone in the room said, “What the hell is that?”
It is easily the most hated building in the city. Boston’s late mayor Tom Menino wanted to tear it down. So did the current mayor, Marty Walsh. Boston Globe columnist Paul McMorrow agreed with them. "Its great crime isn’t being ugly; it’s being anti-urban," he wrote.
"The building and its plaza keep a crowded city at arm’s length. It disperses crowds, instead of gathering them together. It creates an island of inactivity, several blocks long and wide, in the middle of what is otherwise a bustling commercial district."
Some, though, view it as a masterpiece of Brutalist architecture. An American Institute of Architects poll listed it as one of the 10 proudest achievements of American architecture in 200 years -- including the University of Virginia campus and Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater.
Phillips Exeter Academy Library
The writer Tom Wolfe had little use for Louis Kahn, the architect who designed the Brutalist Phillips Exeter Academy Library in Exeter, N.H.
Wolfe, in his book From Bauhaus to Our House, described Kahn as a ‘shambles,’ who had deep within a ‘molten core of confidence.’ "Kahn would walk into a classroom, stare blearily at the students, open his mouth... and from the depths would come a remarkable voice: "Every building must have ... its own soul."
Kahn was hired in 1965 to design a home for the Phillips Exeter's 60,000 volumes. The collection has grown to 160,000 since the library opened in 1971. It’s the largest secondary school library in the world.
Kahn designed the library in three concentric squares. The brick outer ring includes the outer walls and the library carrel space, the concrete middle ring holds the stacks and the inner ring is an atrium with circular cutouts that reveal the stacks.
In 1997, the American Institute of Architects 1997 gave the library the Twenty-five Year Award, which recognizes architecture of enduring significance and given to one building per year.
On the Brutalism website, someone commented,
This is exactly how I imagine the library from A Clockwork Orange (book).
Knight Campus, CCRI
In Providence recently, admirers of the Brutalist style held a funeral for the John E. Fogarty Building. In mid-March, the monthlong process of tearing it down began. (Watch the video here.)
It’s the third Brutalist building torn down in Providence. Also gone are The Outlet parking garage on Friendship Street and the circular Gulf gas station off Broadway.
In Warwick, R.I., the Knight Campus of the Community College of Rhode Island still stands.
The building's architects, The Robinson Green Beretta Corporation, viewed the building as an educational megastructure. They rejected the traditional sprawling college campus with buildings separated by disciplines, and instead tried to promote diversity and interaction among students in a single, gigantic structure.
It was built on the former Knight Estate, a gentleman's farm owned by the founders of the Fruit of the Loom brand.
When the building opened in 1972, it was already considered outdated.
Cathedral Church of St. Paul
In 1971, a fire destroyed the Gothic Revival building that had been home for years to Episcopalians in Burlington, Vt. The city had undertaken a massive urban renewal project at the time, and offered to swap the old St. Paul's land for a large tract overlooking Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks. Though controversial, St. Paul’s took the deal.
The cathedral's leaders wanted to make a new architectural statement: the building would be home to the arts, lectures and discussion; it shouldn't be a museum. An international competition was held, and the winner was a local firm, now known as Truex, Cullins & Partners. The building was consecrated in 1973.
Images: Rudolph Building, Yale By Photographer: interrupt; - edit of flickr image, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11872101; Hillside (Sturtevant dormitory), By Colby Mariam - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49324860; Boston City Hall, By Daniel Schwen - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12229690 Phllips Exeter Academy Library, By Gunnar Klack - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57029474; St. Paul’s Cathedral, By Beyond My Ken - Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29111530