Should We Demolish Or Cherish Brutalist Architecture?
When most people consider architecture, if they consider it at all, it is typically viewed through the binary lens of aesthetics. Like, don’t like. Love, hate. The line between can be subtle.
Some prefer gables, while others like straight lines. But when considering the concrete-based style known as Brutalism, the general public is sharply divided.
A modernist style prominent from the 1950s through the ‘70s, Brutalism was often employed in civic buildings and added large, striking, and sometimes jarring structures to an architectural context dominated by wood, brick and steel.
Brutalism brought concrete boxes, upside down ziggurats, fortress walls and hulking behemoths.
And for all the architects and modernists relishing this break from tradition and the development of a new form of building, just as many people are confused or upset by such a sharp transition away from the normal buildings they had become so accustomed to.
Brutalist architecture seems to have drawn a hard line between those who love it and those who hate it.
Many of these structures—now 40 to 60 years old—are facing uncertain futures as the two opposing viewpoints battle to decide whether the buildings should be saved or destroyed.
The latest flashpoint in this aesthetic debate is the Orange County Government Center, in Goshen, New York.
Designed by architect Paul Rudolph in the 1960s but shuttered in 2011 due to damage related to Hurricane Irene, the building of stacked concrete box forms, tall pillars, and large, wall-sized windows is edging closer to a partial demolition and substantial remodeling, despite many calls to preserve and reuse the structure.
Though legislators in Orange County voted earlier this year to demolish the building, a lawsuit filed earlier this month has delayed a final decision about its fate put off demolition until July at the earliest.
As it has sat in limbo for more than four years, the Orange County Government Center has come to represent the contentiousness of an entire genre of architecture. And as this limbo drags on, the conflict raises the question of exactly why this style of building can be so hated.
In Goshen, 50 miles north of New York City, the opposition to Rudolph’s building, officially, centered around leaks, mold issues and climate control costs.
In 2010, then-Orange County Executive Edward Diana proposed demolishing the building and replacing it with a new, $114 million complex.
That proposal flopped, but just over a year later, the landfall of Hurricane Irene exacerbated the leaking issues. Though many argue that poor maintenance is the true cause for the building’s problems, the post-hurricane damage prompted Diana to shutter the building.
“I’m a pretty modern type of person when it comes to architecture and paintings,” Diana told the New York Times in 2012. “If the building functioned in the right manner and was effective and efficient, I’d leave the building right where it is.”
A $75 million renovation and partial demolition was proposed, which would replace the building with a contemporary rectangular building somewhat reminiscent of a suburban office park.
In his final months before leaving office in January 2014, Diana shepherded the proposal towards adoption.
Meanwhile, preservationists and architectural historians had come to the building’s defense, arguing in public hearings and, more often, in articles that the building is historically significant and must be saved.
Manhattan architect Gene Kaufman then offered to buy the building, restore it, reuse it as an artists’ residency and exhibition space and design a new building to house the county’s offices, all for about $27 million less than the renovation proposal.
Kaufman had the money, the proposal and the experience to save the building; his architecture firm, Gwathmey Siegel Kaufman, had previously renovated the Rudolph-designed Art and Architecture Building at Yale University.
But in January 2015, Diana’s successor as county executive, Steven Neuhaus, vetoed a bill that would have allowed officials to consider selling the building to Kaufman. Then, in early March, they voted in favor of the demolition and renovation plan.
“It surprises me that people don’t just understand it and appreciate it as being such a sculptural form,” said John Shreve Arbuckle, president of the New York/Tri-State chapter of DOCOMOMO, a group focused on “Documentation and Conservation of Building, Sites and Neighborhoods of the Modern Movement.”
“It’s a very dynamic building, it’s a very exciting building,” Arbuckle told The Daily Beast. “I don’t see why one would have to be trained as an architect or understand architectural principles to find that form exciting.”
“It’s really kind of a pity,” he said. “It’s the best modern building that they’ve got in the entire county and they want to tear it down.”
In fact, it’s one of few such buildings remaining in the area.
Less than 10 miles away, in Middletown, another of Rudolph’s signature Brutalist buildings, the John W. Chorley Elementary School, recently lost the preservation battle.
Construction on a new school next door started in 2011, and the old school was demolished in 2013.
Across the country, concrete-based architecture in the Brutalist style is facing the wrecking ball, or has already been reduced to rubble.
Despite a long fought effort to preserve it, the Brutalist Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago, designed by Bertrand Goldberg, began demolition in 2013.
In Baltimore, demolition of the John M. Johansen-designed Morris A. Mechanic Theatre began last fall. Boston’s City Hall, a large Brutalist structure whose demolition has been suggested, is often called the ugliest building in America.
Many similar battles are also being fought and, often, lost in the United Kingdom. Just last month, a Brutalist bus terminal in Northampton—known by locals as the “mouth of hell”—was imploded.
Though calls to save these buildings have often been loud, and sometimes even successful, more often they are drowned out by complaints over style and demands for demolition.
“It’s a horrible-looking building,” one Goshen resident told the Associated Press, of the Orange County Government Center. “It doesn’t fit the right look of our village, or town, or area,” said another.
“Modernism is sometimes an acquired taste,” Germonique Ulmer, vice president of Public Affairs at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, told The Daily Beast.
“While the simple elegance of Modernist architecture can be breathtaking—places like Philip Johnson’s Glass House or Mies Van Der Rohe’s Farnsworth House—it is also true that some Modernist buildings like the Orange County Government Center are hard for some to love and remain divisive.
“Rather than judging these buildings on simple aesthetics or stylistic currency, we should also consider the innovation and architectural significant of these places and the ways in which they advance our understanding of building design.”
But for some, the appearance of the Orange County building is just too weird to handle.
Arbuckle said that people have come to expect government buildings to take a certain form—grand, strong facades, with tall, Corinthian columns. Rudolph’s stacked concrete boxes and large windows sharply diverged from that pattern.
“Brutalism is challenging from a preservation standpoint because I think the general public has a difficult time appreciating it,” Arbuckle said.
“A part of that has to do with the material. Somehow concrete has a lot of negative connotations. I think a great many people within the general public, just in terms of architecture, think of concrete as being bad. And I’m not sure how that came about.”
But it may just be a matter of time before the public comes around to the style. Arbuckle noted that many architectural styles have experienced early disdain only to come back into fashion and become celebrated pieces of history.
Victorian homes, he said, were once an eyesore to some in the same way Brutalist buildings are today.
When the public perception of concrete Brutalist architecture will change is hard to predict, but there is momentum.
The lawsuit filed earlier this month in the New York State Supreme Court aims to stop the proposed demolition and renovation, arguing that Kaufman’s proposal makes more sense—both financially and with respect to the significance of the building.
The judge in the case has called for concerned parties to submit arguments for and against the lawsuit’s claims by May 15. In the meantime, demolition will be postponed until at least July, if it goes forward at all.
Whatever ends up happening with the Orange County Government Center may not totally undo the public’s strong love-it-or-hate-it relationship with Brutalism.
But the longer the question of what to do with the building plays out, the more the line between love and hate will blur.