Sunday, June 11, 2017

The big block party

Some things seem unlikely candidates for nostalgia, and Brutalist architecture is among them. A severe and forbidding style characterized by huge geometrical structures, it faced criticism from all corners. I have a random memory of WKRP in Cincinnati, of all things. Bailey leads a drive to save examples of Art Deco architecture, which does exist in Cincinnati, and credits it with being the last attempt to bring beauty to the buildings of the city. The implicit rebuke to Brutalism is pretty clear. Then there was Tom Wolfe, who did a whole book - From Bauhaus to Our House - about how it subverted everything good about America.

And yet people are again embracing the Brutalist style, both in the US and elsewhere, and while I'm an agnostic on the subject I can see why. On the aesthetic level its determination not to be too much can be a little much, especially if it's everywhere. But it's a remnant of a time when cities were for everyone. These structures were made with the working class in mind. With urban rents rising catastrophically, more precious buildings now being erected for one percent, and the suburbs/exurbs as faceless as they've ever been, that inclusion counts for a lot. This was once the face of the future, albeit not a future everyone embraced. What does the future look like now?


susan said...

Some months ago I read a number of articles about Le Corbusier, the originator of Brutalist architecture, whose plans for urban living covered every aspect of people's lives. Although a number of his original buildings are very elegant, he also had fascistic tendencies (his proposal to knock down the Marais neighborhood in Paris and replace it all with eighteen cruciform highrises was pretty extreme, but apparently meant well). But whether Le Corbusier disregarded human needs to interact socially doesn't really matter now; what happened was that his ideas were reinterpreted by other architects and city planners with the disastrous results of the public housing programs in the US and elsewhere.

From what I've witnessed Brutalist architecture has continued into our current era. Whenever huge buildings are forced into otherwise normal neighborhoods the result is brutal no matter what materials were used for construction. I agree with the urban planners who believe people are happier in walkable environments where there are interesting things to see - like the Paris Albert Haussman designed.

You've brought up a subject of great interest to me - one worth further conversation.

Ben said...

Le Corbusier was an interesting case. He was also a painter, among several other forms of art, and his work in that field is impressive, if also obviously indebted to Picasso. But a daub of oil paint isn't going to question where you place it and in what shape. Architecture is different because it involves people, along with the extra dimension. Did he have fascist tendencies? The article you link to suggests that he would have worked with just about anyone, which could include fascists. Being a visionary isn't necessarily an unalloyed good.

Cities need to be responsive to the needs of their people. What's happened in recent decades is that the plans get drawn up first and then the effort seems to run along getting people to fit. Not only does this price a number of people out, but it leads to affluent residents being as apt to split on a moment's notice as a major sports franchise.

Georges Haussman did do a lot for Paris. It's easy to forget now what kind of dire shape it had been in before.