Thursday, September 15, 2011

Brutalist Architecture: A Journey Back to Campus

Brutalism was the prevailing style of design for schools and government buildings in the 1960's and early 70's. Named after Le Corbusier's term beton brut, French for "raw concrete", it was an aberrant and diverse movement, informed by notions of modernity, functionalism, and the cold war. 

Regenstein Library, University of Chicago. Image: Wikipedia

My wife and I attended two universities with buildings of distinct Brutalist design - the University of Illinois at Chicago and Chicago's DePaul University.

The student center at DePaul, where I went to school nearly 20 years ago, consisted of all concrete construction and was slightly sunken below street level, conveying the sense of being in a post-apocalyptic bunker.

DePaul University, Chicago
DePaul University (Wikipedia)
The school's Schmitt Academic Center was like a battleship of concrete, and its slot windows like gun turrets. It seemed to tell us that we were defending the last bastion of true liberal arts education - and in some ways, thus, prisoners of that Alamo-like purpose. The UIC campus is probably the more famous example, due to its entire east campus being cemented in time with Brutalist architect Walter Netsch's notion of cold, rigid functionalism.

I often wondered how these designs would play out in time. On one hand they simply seemed like odd remnants of an awkward era of design, best to be forgotten. On the other they stood as bold, poignant examples of experimentalism in a pivotal moment in our culture.

UIC's University Hall. Image: Wikipedia
From what I recall, most people who attended UIC abhorred their campus design. City and university officials contemplated numerous ways to soften the hard look of its buildings. DePaul dealt with the flak by erecting unremarkable neo-Victorian style brick buildings alongside to lessen the visual impact of the stark modernist structures. I'm told the bunker-like student center is now gone, apparently unable to withstand a direct hit from the drop of a wrecking ball.

The latest edifice to make architecture's most endangered building list is Bertand Goldberg's futuristic Prentice Hall, which housed the Women's Hospital at Nothwestern University in downtown Chicago. For now, the building has been granted a temporary reprieve from destruction. Nonetheless, the writing is on the wall  - the proverbial Brutalist concrete wall, that is.

Meanwhile, back to my old campus - the university may very well have wanted to replace all the modernist architecture that seemed so anachronistic through time; I'm glad they didn't. To me this is the crux - we live in an era that is all about mixing styles. So while Brutalist architecture may seem fascinating to some, or just plain ugly to others, my hope is that it will be preserved to coexist and contrast with other styles, and serve as a historical marker in the complex continuum of design history.

Article updated from an earlier post.

Up next on Designer In Exile: An interview with Philly's acclaimed muralist Emilie Ledieu. Plus get a quick hit from Ignite Philly's innovative start-up pow wow at Johnny Brenda's on our new Tumblr site.
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  1. Good post. I've seen the Soviet/Yugo versions, though, so the 'diversity" argument wears thin for me. Visit Skopje sometime, the whole town was destroyed in the early 60s and largely replaced with this style, so no diversity and one ugly city center!


  2. I appreciate the comment, Andrew, as always. The style essentially lasted nearly three decades, so what was developed by Le Corbusier in the 50's does differ from Walter Netsch's work in the 70's. What might seem like a subtle nuance to some, can seem like extreme diversity to others - especially to design enthusiasts. There are a few websites such as Architizer that intimate a cultish appreciation for the style. I've always maintained ambivalence. The era's peculiarity is compelling, nonetheless.

  3. I understand how the style & time came together, I just don't like it given how much I've seen it in post-communist countries. NB I tend to have a real liking for Nouveu Arts and Secessionist styles, plus I kinda dig the pre-WWII Soviet impressive monstrosities.


  4. Point taken... It seems somewhat ironic to see modernists crying out for historic preservation, but I guess everything has its cycle.

  5. Would I be hedging to say I find Brutalist architecture ugly but still worthy of preservation for its historic significance?


  6. Thanks for the question, Lisa. I think there are a couple issues at hand here. First off, the dust and toxins released into the air from the demolition older, large buildings can be hazardous to the health of surrounding communities. That fact was especially brought to out in the aftermath of the 9/11 World Trade Center tragedy. Likewise, the EPA has recently developed regulations for contractors working on buildings with lead paint, which is now viewed as problem nearly as bad as asbestos was in the 1970's and 80s. They've found that the existence of lead paint on the building walls isn't necessarily a cause for alarm, it's when work is done on a building without proper abatement measures and the painted surfaces turn into dust, thus making toxic particles that can be easily absorbed by children, adults, and pets. See my previous post Detoxing the American Dream for more on this topic (

    Also, in terms of energy efficiency and building infrastructure systems, i.e., plumbing, HVAC, et cetera, keep in mind that we don't always have to build new structures to modernize such systems. The Empire State Building is a prime example - it's been retrofitted to an astonishing LEED Gold classification. The link on our sister blog, Home Science, highlights that accomplishment. (

    The other thought is about aesthetics in the historical perspective. Ironically, modernist architecture, even Brutalism at one time was a popular style. In the 1960's and 70s, many people saw Victorian and Prairie styles as simply old fashioned and outdated. Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House was leased out as a dorm to the University of Chicago in 1970 due largely because few people thought the design was worth preserving. It's hard to imagine that now. In Chicago, almost every bungalow owner wants their little Craftsman home to look vintage, with Wright inspired stained glass windows and more. So yes, I'd agree with you in that historical significance is an essential component for preservation - not to be dictated by the "mode du jour." Who's to say we wont be craving modernist styles in years to come after letting the wrecking ball swing so freely.

  7. I agree. The buildings at the downtown medical campus of University of Louisville are the same way. Huge hulking concrete structures from the
    60s. Never knew they was a name for the particular style. Cool to know.

    John W.

  8. You know, I find UIC's University Hall rather beautiful if not meditative in the repetition, the reduction to pure form that is inseparable from the material and it's "color." I'd even go on a limb and note a sentimental quality but perhaps that's more linked to the connotations of brutalist architecture.

    Obviously context informs as living in Chicago and being surrounded by glass and steel, the B. Goldberg's, the U of C Library, the MCA, from my perspective should be preserved especially because of their of high aesthetic quality.

  9. Great observation, Neil. The contextual relevance is certainly not to be overlooked, in terms of aesthetics. Chicago's cityscape certainly has an abundance of steel and glass buildings. I can see how the concrete minimalist "color" and style offsets the other.