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It’s Not Easy Being Brutalist

Right now, I am surrounded by brutalism. Weird, spaceship-like buildings vomit themselves from the ground everywhere I look. I am staying in what should be termed the “Brutalist District” of this city.

I do not understand brutalism. I think I should climb into my Starship 007 or my x-wing fighter and blast it all to smithereens. It really is that ugly, all rock-laden concrete scored ickiness, mixed with Kermit the Frog.


After spending hours gawking at the Boston Public Library, brutalism is not what I wanted to come home to. Even if the view out of my window looks like Kermit.

Too Much is Just Enough: Architecture Lessons


37 Comments Post a comment
  1. Lou Mello #

    Yep, ugly is easy to see and pronounce as same, they may try to call it “Heroic”, but, it just does not pass the eye test.

    I enjoy a building with some uniqueness to it, whether it be shape or color, but, it has to have some pleasing attributes and pass the “whoa” test. If I see a building and it makes me go “whoa” because of its ugliness, then there is nothing that can be written to make it better.

    Have fun in Boston and DC, keep those Instagrams flying.

    April 10, 2011
    • I understand why it is called Heroic architecture, because it looks like outer space, and that is much of what we were obsessed with during that period. I have to say that I never confuse that period with another. It is that distinctive.

      April 10, 2011
  2. It attacks my senses.

    April 10, 2011
    • It really is hard to decide what to look at first on one of those buildings. Everything seems to compete for attention.

      April 10, 2011
  3. that first one is kind of frog-ish

    April 10, 2011
    • MTM thinks my ideas on architecture are hilarious sometimes.

      April 10, 2011
  4. I didn’t know that was really a term or a style. I guess everyone likes something and there is no accounting for taste. You are right in that it belongs in StarWars or some other equally unpleasant totalitarian future.

    Now, what the heck are you doing in Boston? Tina Arnoldi is up there this weekend too for a conference. I hope the flowers are blooming in the Public Garden for all of you.

    April 10, 2011
    • I told you at breakfast I was coming up here. MTM was invited to give two talks at the American Planning Association conference here, and I couldn’t resist tagging along with him. I am very proud of him. He is a featured speaker in the program. 🙂

      April 10, 2011
      • Lou Mello #

        MTM is the Archi-King!

        April 10, 2011
      • Don’t swell his head, Lou.

        April 10, 2011
      • You didn’t tell me. I would have remembered. Probably. Well, most likely.

        Congrats to MTM on the notable speaking engagement, and to you for tagging along!

        The birthplace of Unitarianism in the US!

        April 11, 2011
      • Any special Unitarian pilgrimage you want me to make?

        April 11, 2011
  5. Molly Bourne #

    But Andra- …most buildings from that time have really amazing concrete finishes and craftsmanship that nobody does well anymore…they are brutal in their mass but I like their skin

    April 10, 2011
    • It is hard, because those buildings were probably the last time we invested in buildings as a society. Everything now is cheap. I once had a very wealthy businessman brag to me that he built his company office building – something that could’ve been a statement – for $23 a square foot. I don’t have to tell you that’s how it goes these days, because you know that better than I do. I do like how solid those buildings look if I unfocus my eyes and stare at it as a whole.

      April 10, 2011
  6. At the risk of being booed off the page, I have to say that I enjoy a mix of the Heroic style with my Corinthian columned granite government buildings. One of the best examples I know is the Louis Kahn Library at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, NH. (BTW–you are only 55 miles from it and should go see it!)

    Exeter NH is a very quaint town, full of typical NE architecture. PEA has one of the most beautiful campuses in the world. It’s buildings reflect the eras of the academy’s history.

    Each era has a visual/artistic/architectural language and to erase any decade’s language is in my mind tantamount to a Holocaust type effort.

    So, I agree with Molly, I love the skins, I love the mass of them. They were part of a time when we were seeking new ways of being. When the Interstate Highway was a miracle, when we were hopeful of colonizing the moon, when we believed that rational thought would help us unite nations, triumph over wars and arise victorious in the age of advanced technology.

    One of my pet peeves in Charleston is the desire of so many to delete all types of architecture (other than references to Hellenistic and Roman) from the vocabulary of our civic landscape. I may be one of the few who find some of the more hated buildings in Charleston refreshing, interesting and worth keeping.

    (Bet you didn’t know that when you posted this that I’d haul out a soap box!)

    When I was a board member of the Junior League of Charleston, I chaired a committee on the Arts…and I put together a panel discussion of architects to discuss the place of contemporary architecture in Charleston. It was a very interesting panel…that was in the early 1990s.

    So here’s to the variety of life as represented by the buildings of each era.

    April 10, 2011
    • mtm #

      I have little to add to your astute comments, Cheryl. I think Lou and Carnell are waiting for me to swoop in with something pithy. Although Louis Kahn’s work is certainly in a similar heroic mode, his work has greater depth and subtlety than the coarse concrete examples that Andra has become expert at identifying. I will one day get to Exeter to see the library, and hopefully to some of his work in India and Bangledesh, but not on this work trip.

      And, having been subjected to Andra’s analysis, I can’t not see The Frog every time I look out the window!

      April 10, 2011
      • MTM, I agree with you. Kahn’s mixture of textures, surfaces, volumes and especially his use of light in the PEA library as the other element of his design, are those of a master.

        I bow to you and thank you for calling me *astute*. I love the built environment and all the motivations that cause we humans to craft dwellings in which we conduct our life/business.

        As words, buildings are symbolical constructs, conveying the essence of a community.

        FYI–I was a PITA when I was a City Tour Guide in Charleston. My tours had more architectural conversation in them than many preferred. ;-). From 1983-1995 I maintained a Guide’s License for historic Charleston, and was considered an *expert* tour guide by the Historic Charleston Foundation, providing walking tours of gardens during the spring house tours, and all manner of walking and step-on (buses and vans) tours as well. In addition I loved talking about architecture in all ways…and did so when I could. One of the talks that I gave on the bicentennial of the signing of the Constitution was a talk to the Preservation Society of Charleston on the buildings in Charleston associated with the signing of the Constitution of the US.

        April 10, 2011
      • The worst example of brutalism, and probably your first lesson on the genre, is in Montreal. Ick.

        April 10, 2011
    • MTM didn’t address this part of your comment, but I will.

      I agree with you wholeheartedly about Charleston. It is a shame that nothing can be built unless it looks old, rendering everything a stucco version of sameness that makes me sad. MTM fought very hard to save the Federal building on Meeting Street from demolition, and I am proud of his role in that fight.

      One of the most interesting things to me about a city like Boston is the diversity of the urban fabric, the feast for the eyes to be had by walking around and looking up. Some of it I like and some of it I detest, but it all invigorates me.

      If you haven’t seen the movie “My Architect” I will loan it to you. It is about Louis Kahn.

      April 10, 2011
      • I would love to borrow that film. I’ve never seen it.

        You and I are in 100% agreement regarding Charleston. One of the things that I’ve always cherished about living here is that it is a living city…however, with the folks who clamor for make-believe 18th C style design in the lead, we’ll rarely get architecture that is *real*. What we will get is design that if faux in all that the word really means. We’ll end up with a Disneyesque version of Charleston. Yuck!

        April 10, 2011
      • MTM does a great presentation on Charleston. Actually, he’s giving it here in Boston tomorrow night. It is on harmony in architecture and letting things that look different live together and compliment each other. He’s given it in Charleston a number of times.

        I’ll bring the movie to you the next time I see you. It’s a tear-jerker but really good.

        April 10, 2011
      • Cheryl, My Architect is on Netflix. I’ve added it to our instant queue.

        I’m not much of an architecture junkie, but I’ve seen ugly buildings in just about every style there is. Some people are just lousy designers. 🙂

        April 11, 2011
  7. BTW-my son went to school at PEA or I would never have known of this gorgeous building. Here is a Flickr photo set of the building

    April 10, 2011
    • I think Kahn was so unique. The movie his son did had several scenes in it that brought tears to my eyes. The building in Bangladesh in particular was simply stunning.

      April 10, 2011
  8. I must confess to total and absolute ignorance of all things to do with architecture. Cheryl had me doing a double takenwith her knowledge of suchnthings. There is no reason for booing her for sharing her opinions and knowledge. I am going to sit here quietly and wait for MTM to respond. I am sure to learn something on this topic.

    April 10, 2011
    • James, I love architecture. Would not want to be one, but do enjoy the fruits of the labors of those folks.

      April 10, 2011
      • I wouldn’t want to be one, either, but I have always surrounded myself with them, even before I met MTM.

        April 10, 2011
    • With MTM around, I am constantly learning.

      April 10, 2011
      • The dialog and learning must certainly be one of the reasons you love him.

        April 10, 2011
      • It has to be, though he will admit that he never saw Kermit the Frog in a building before yesterday. 🙂

        April 10, 2011
      • Kermit was the first thing I saw when the page opened in the browser. 🙂

        April 11, 2011
  9. Although I have always been fascinated with architecture especially when it comes to house plans. I have to agree that the frog is UGLY!

    April 10, 2011
  10. This isn’t the boston public library, it’s Boston City Hall…

    April 25, 2013
    • I’m sorry. I guess the post was not clear enough. I spent my days at the Boston Public Library and then came back to my hotel to look at Boston City Hall. Different buildings. I understand the difference between the two, but thank you so much for making sure that I got it right.

      April 25, 2013
  11. Here in Spain we call it “Satanic architecture: your life is gonna be a Hell”, architects building for themselves and their egos, and not for the people.

    May 5, 2013

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