Why People Hate Brutalist Buildings on American College Campuses

Many Amer­i­cans receive their intro­duc­tion to the style known as Bru­tal­ism in col­lege. This owes less to cours­es in twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry archi­tec­ture than to uni­ver­si­ty cam­pus­es them­selves, which tend to have been expand­ed or even whol­ly con­struct­ed in the decades imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing the Sec­ond World War. As Vox’s Dean Peter­son explains in the new video above, its vet­er­ans returned home eager to receive the ter­tiary edu­ca­tion to which the G.I. Bill enti­tled them, which “neces­si­tat­ed that uni­ver­si­ties build new facil­i­ties to han­dle bal­loon­ing admis­sions. And with so many new build­ings being need­ed, what did archi­tects of the day turn to? Bru­tal­ism.”

“Not just a style of archi­tec­ture but an entire aes­thet­ic ethos,” Bru­tal­ism had devel­oped through inspi­ra­tion from the work of Charles-Édouard Jean­neret, bet­ter known as Le Cor­busier. While oth­er archi­tects had employed con­crete before him, he was the one to make the bold choice of leav­ing it exposed on the sur­face in its raw form: béton brut, to use the term that gave the move­ment its name.

To qual­i­fy under the rubric of this “new Bru­tal­ism,” as archi­tec­tur­al his­to­ri­an Reyn­er Ban­ham (lat­er to become famous for his ultra-mod­ern view of Los Ange­les) referred to it, a struc­ture should demon­strate “mem­o­ra­bil­i­ty as an image,” “clear exhi­bi­tion of struc­ture,” and “val­u­a­tion of mate­ri­als ‘as found’ ” — in con­trast to the nine­teen-fifties’ pro­lif­er­a­tion of seem­ing­ly fea­ture­less glass-sheathed sky­scrap­ers designed by mod­ernists like Lud­wig Mies van der Rohe and his many imi­ta­tors.

“Bru­tal­ist build­ings strove for hon­esty in their mate­ri­als and struc­ture,” says Peter­son. “They showed you how they were con­struct­ed.” Though acclaimed in their day as built state­ments of a break from the staid past into a whol­ly reimag­ined future, many cam­pus Bru­tal­ist build­ings in the Unit­ed States sub­se­quent­ly fell into dis­re­pair, owing to the eco­nom­ic down­turn of the sev­en­ties and the resul­tant laps­es into “deferred main­te­nance” — which, deferred long enough, shades into planned demo­li­tion. Such has been the case with Evans Hall, the sta­tis­tics, eco­nom­ics, and math­e­mat­ics build­ing at Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, which, since its con­struc­tion in 1971, played an impor­tant part in the his­to­ry of com­put­er sci­ence, not least as the node through which the whole of the west coast con­nect­ed to ARPANET, the mil­i­tary-built pre­cur­sor to the inter­net.

Today, objec­tions to Evans Hal­l’s Bru­tal­ist aes­thet­ics, as well as to its loca­tion in front of the San Fran­cis­co Bay and its poor earth­quake-safe­ty rat­ing (that last being fair­ly com­mon among UC Berke­ley’s struc­tures), have led to its being emp­tied out with an eye toward replace­ment. Though it may be too late for Evans Hall, much of Amer­i­ca’s Bru­tal­ist her­itage can still be reha­bil­i­tat­ed. “Be patient,” says archi­tec­ture pro­fes­sor Tim­o­thy Rohan (author of a study of Amer­i­can Bru­tal­ist Paul Rudolph). “Just because you find some­thing unfash­ion­able at the moment does­n’t mean you should erad­i­cate it.” This is not, per­haps, advice par­tic­u­lar­ly well-suit­ed to col­lege stu­dents, but giv­en the like­li­hood of their expo­sure to Bru­tal­ism not just on cam­pus but also on Insta­gram, they may turn out to be its best hope yet.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Every­thing You Ever Want­ed to Know About the Beau­ty of Bru­tal­ist Archi­tec­ture: An Intro­duc­tion in Six Videos

Why Do Peo­ple Hate Mod­ern Archi­tec­ture?: A Video Essay

How the Rad­i­cal Build­ings of the Bauhaus Rev­o­lu­tion­ized Archi­tec­ture: A Short Intro­duc­tion

The World Accord­ing to Le Cor­busier: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the Most Mod­ern of All Archi­tects

A is for Archi­tec­ture: 1960 Doc­u­men­tary on Why We Build, from the Ancient Greeks to Mod­ern Times 

An Espres­so Mak­er Made in Le Corbusier’s Bru­tal­ist Archi­tec­tur­al Style: Raw Con­crete on the Out­side, High-End Parts on the Inside

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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