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Brutalism and Architectural Fashion

Entertainment building in a city, National Theatre, Lambeth, London, England

Interesting piece here about saving brutalist buildings in New York before it’s too late. If saving a brutalist building is worthwhile in the first place.

Architecture, which seems the most permanent of the arts because it appears solid and grounded, is the most ephemeral. When it’s gone, it’s gone. Imagine that every celluloid print and digital file of “Manhattan” had, this past summer, been burned or wiped; and all that remained of the film were the accounts of its fans and critics, until the work passed out of living memory. Because our current historic preservation movement began, in the middle of the last century, with the loss of Beaux-Arts piles like New York City’s old Pennsylvania Station, we tend to think of the duty of conservation applying to places that look antique, rather than to places, like Sasaki’s plaza and fountain, that still look futuristic. The original Pennsylvania Station, designed to resemble the monuments of the Roman Empire, seemed ancient indeed. But at the time of its demolition, in 1963, it was only fifty years old—the same age as many of the masterpieces of the nineteen-sixties and seventies that are now subject to demolition. Perhaps there is something about the half century that creates a blind spot: too recent for reverence, too distant for love—or even understanding. To the supersonic sensibilities of 1963, the idea that a train station should evoke the Roman Baths of Caracalla was perhaps as enervating as it is to us, in our era of swipes and likes, that buildings not constantly beguile, ingratiate, and soothe.

The buildings and landscapes of Brutalism and high modernism—especially those conceived in the swift decade from the advent of the Summer of Love through the Bicentennial—chose not to charm. They chose toughness and complexity, boldness and subtlety. They were sometimes admonishing and always hortatory. They juxtaposed discipline and delight, caution and comfort, in surprising yet gratifying ways. They were not always easy company, but they were good company. Of their users, they sometimes required, but always rewarded, active engagement. They represented a willful attempt to exhort and accommodate both the aspirations and troubles of their turbulent times—aspirations and troubles that especially affected the central business districts and inner cities in which they were often built. When we destroy these works, we lose something of a moment when many who were trying to communicate to our culture something about itself—in the limited medium of the urban landscape—were less concerned with entertainment than with truth.

On the other hand, many of these buildings are utter monstrosities that physically repel people and were not built with actual people in mind. Of course, architectural has its nostalgia the same as everything else and maybe, much like we are sad that the original Penn Station was torn down, people in 2050 will be outraged that we tore down some great piece of brutalist architecture. I remain slightly skeptical, largely because I hate most of it

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