A Heroic Debate

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© MAS Context

 

A Heroic Debate by Chris Grimley, Michael Kubo, and Mark Pasnik

 

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WHAT DOES “BRUTALISM” MEAN?

 

Alison and Peter Smithson
architects, London:
Brutalism tries to face up to a mass-production society, and drag a rough poetry out of the confused and powerful forces which are at work. Up to now Brutalism has been discussed stylistically, whereas its essence is ethical.

Le Corbusier
architect, Paris:
Béton brut was born at the Unité d’Habitation at Marseilles where there were 80 contractors and such a massacre of concrete that one simply could not dream of making useful transitions by means of grouting. I decided: let us leave all that brute. I called it “béton brut.” The English immediately jumped on the piece and treated me (Ronchamp and the Monastery of La Tourette) as “Brutal”—béton brutal—all things considered, the brute is Corbu. They called that “the new brutality.” My friends and admirers take me for the brute of the brutal concrete!

Araldo Cossutta
architect, New York and Paris:
The term “brut” means something completely different in the French language, whereas the word “brutal” gives the impression of buildings created by wild people. I resent the word Brutalism being attached to my work in any way.

Reyner Banham
critic, United Kingdom:
Adopted as something between a slogan and a brick-bat flung in the public’s face, The New Brutalism ceased to be a label descriptive of a tendency common to most modern architecture, and became instead a program, a banner, while retaining some—rather restricted—sense as a descriptive label. It is because it is both kinds of -ism at once that The New Brutalism eludes precise description.

 

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WHAT ABOUT “HEROIC”?

 

Smithsons:
Things need to be ordinary and heroic at the same time.

Frederick A. “Tad” Stahl
architect, Boston:
I hoped this work might contribute to the development of a vocabulary—or even a vernacular—of modest but authoritative architecture.

Mary Otis Stevens
architect, Boston:
I think your term Heroic is entirely misplaced… To call it Heroic just feeds the critique by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and others. As a title, Heroic is just too loaded.

Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown
architects, Philadelphia:
This is not the time and ours is not the environment for heroic communication through pure architecture.

anon (not verified):
Replace “Heroic” with “arrogant” and they are right. At the time architects and their BRA [Boston Redevelopment Authority] enablers thought nothing of being uncaring and disdainful of the public with mass land takings and demolition for anti-human superblocks.

Smithsons:
The heroic struggle of the first period of Modern Architecture . . . gave a sense of moral responsibility to invent for ourselves forms appropriate to the postwar period; forms equal in power—but of a different order of strength… responding to the more complicated, even confused, needs of our time.

Stevens:
I would apply the word Heroic to today’s McMansions and other mega-showoffs, whereas our work was anti-monumental… Heroic to me means being grandiose.

N. Michael McKinnell
architect, Boston:
The making of architecture is imbued with hubris, because we challenge our own mortality. That is perhaps why you use such words as heroic and noble. I think that those are terms in which all architects—whatever they say—secretly think of their work.

 

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WHY CONCRETE?

 

McKinnell:
Concrete was in the air. People were interested in the material. I think there were many reasons for its use. As Peter Collins—the biographer of Auguste Perret who taught me at Manchester University—said, “Concrete is the stone of our time.”

Henry N. Cobb
architect, New York City:
Architectural concrete is a very rare material today. There is a lost heroic aspect to cast-in-place concrete. The problem is that the people who really knew about concrete—those who did the research, built the mockups, did the tests—are mostly gone now.

Stevens:
Architectural concrete was an art form that more or less went out with the modern movement and its insistence on exposing the rawness of the real. After the slaughter of two successive World Wars, you tell it as it is—with none of this phony cover-up. We believed in the link between architectural and moral integrity.

Cossutta:
People in general do not appreciate concrete. It is still considered a cheap material. They get confused at a place like the [Christian Science Center] church because concrete certainly does not look cheap there. It’s really the economics. Don’t forget that most contractors still know how to pour concrete. It’s just that they no longer know how to produce beautiful architectural concrete.

McKinnell:
The characteristic of concrete that we enjoyed most was that one material could do so much, and could be seen to do so much. It could be the structure. It could be the cladding. It could be the floors, it could be the walls. There’s a kind of all-through-ness about it. I think if we could have done it, we would have used concrete to make the light switches.

Cossutta:
You could give concrete any form you wanted. It was a material that freed the designer’s imagination.

Stahl:
Reinforced concrete attracted me in part because it is an innately architectural medium, one that is a complete building system unto itself. I had become convinced that architecture should necessitate and compellingly demonstrate an internal logical consistency based on universal principles.

Cobb:
Being monolithic meant eliminating applied surfaces, hung ceilings, sheetrock—eliminating everything except concrete. In that sense, authenticity is a good word. We strove to eliminate the kind of layering that was becoming very characteristic in commercial buildings at that time.

 

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WHAT HAPPENED IN BOSTON?

 

Cobb:
What happened in Boston was a kind of conjunction of the historic city with modernism.

Ada Louise Huxtable
critic, New York City:
While other cities made the same mistakes, and are still making them, Boston paused for shocked reappraisal of what “renewal” had wrought, brought in Edward J. Logue from New Haven to head the Boston Redevelopment Authority and set up an expert planning and architectural staff. Just as significantly, it began to plan directly with the communities involved.

Peter Chermayeff
architect, Boston:
A lot of credit should be given to Ed Logue… [he] was a sophisticated guy with a civic vision, who also believed in the importance of good design. He became the means to recover from the huge mistake made in destroying Boston’s West End in the name of urban renewal. It was on everybody’s mind—what a disaster. Logue came in to make sure that it could never happen again.

Stevens:
I thought he was like a missionary, one who had a singular vision in mind: making cities commercially viable. New Haven, Boston, New York—this is what he did. Mayor [John F.] Collins was easily influenced by Ed Logue, especially if it got him good reviews. I was all for urban renewal and the BRA at the time, although tearing down the West End set a terrible precedent. That strategy destroyed rather than revived residential life in Boston and other American cities.

Jane Jacobs
urbanist and author, New York City:
The trouble with paternalists is that they want to make impossibly profound changes, and they choose impossibly superficial means for doing so.

Edward J. Logue
director, Boston Redevelopment Authority:
Ms. Jacobs is the first one to propose that we use street life as the model for city life everywhere. It is in the image of the Village that she would recast our slum-stricken cities. No more federal renewal aids; let the cities fend for themselves. Not surprisingly, this approach has won her many new friends, particularly among comfortable suburbanites. They like to be told that neither their tax dollars nor their own time need be spent on the cities they leave behind them at the close of each work day.

Jacobs:
We expect too much of new buildings, and too little of ourselves.

Logue:
Our cities are in deep trouble, and large-scale federal financial aid is essential. There is no other effective, constitutional way to get rid of harmful urban land use on the scale required. Urban renewal is the most useful tool yet devised to help cities help themselves.

Jacobs:
Dull, inert cities, it is true, do contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else. But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.

Logue:
Rehabilitation is the wave of the future. The days of the bulldozer redevelopment program will soon be over. Rehabilitation may be harder to start but it is easier to wholesale, and it makes much more sense to city dwellers.

William J. Foley
member, Boston City Council:
I’d rather have visitors to Boston look at things they see in Miami and New York—bright, shiny, tax-producing buildings—rather than some ugly building where William Lloyd Garrison once published the Liberator or some old pizza stand (the Old Brattle Tavern) which he [Logue] plans to tear down brick by brick and rebuild elsewhere.

HubMan:
Right on! They shouldn’t have stopped with Scollay Square and the West End, the South End was a total shxthole back then and they should have wiped it all out and replaced it with terrific, inviting buildings like Center Plaza and Longfellow Place! Then we wouldn’t have the ugly, unliveable South End and all the disgusting old rehabbed brownstone buildings and walkable blocks that blight that whole stretch of the city!! Charlestown, Back Bay, Jamaica Plain—how those God-awful neighborhoods didn’t “bring down the economy of the entire city,” I will never understand.

Foley:
Money is shipped in by the bunches and carloads from Washington [and] there is no shortage of wise guys to control it…. One of the leading wolves in that pack of wise guys is Ed Logue.

anon (not verified):
All of Government Center looks like something an egomaniacal dictator would design. It perhaps might make sense to someone with a social deficit like autism, but not to neuro-typical people.

Katherine Craven
member, Boston City Council:
…the resemblances between Logue and Hitler are striking.

Louise Day Hicks
chair, Boston School Committee:
You know where I stand.

George Foley
chair, Boston City Council Urban Renewal Committee:
If you don’t want urban renewal, you won’t have to have it… show some respect for the people who came here honestly to learn something.

Craven:
You bald-headed son-of-a-bitch, I’ll poke you in the nose!

Logue:
To my Boston friends here… I want to say I am happy with my new job. It is calm and peaceful, and I can’t really say that I miss Louise Day Hicks, Mrs. Craven… and I was happy to learn that Bill Foley has been retired to private life.

SOXINPA:
Just think, if there had been a Twitter in the late ‘60s we might not have had to spend the subsequent half a century looking at the waste of concrete and brick that is Boston’s City Hall.

McKinnell:
After we won the City Hall competition, we were walking along Madison Avenue, and we spied [Philip] Johnson coming toward us, waving his arms in typical Johnsonian fashion. “Ah! I’m so happy for you two young boys who have won this competition. Absolutely marvelous … I think it’s wonderful… and it’s so ugly!”

 

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WHAT CHANGED?

 

Stahl:
Two principal developments created the strong trend away from concrete to steel throughout the 1970s. First, the oil embargo of the mid-seventies and the ensuing recession in the building industry were far more serious than many have imagined… Concrete construction was dealt a fatal blow, with construction companies, precasters, and concrete specialists suffering or closing entirely.

Second, the major emphasis in the building industry was on the reduction of risk. The advent of construction management in the process of building made the more risky, complex, and demanding execution of concrete construction far less attractive than the singular responsibilities of steel subcontractors. Most general contractors learned to outsource their risk through more extensive subcontracting. In doing so, they often abandoned the concrete work they once had mastered.

McKinnell:
There was a political aspect to it as well. While in the early sixties we witnessed a euphoria—President Kennedy was a heroic figure—later in that decade people turned against heroism in the political world. The young people in ’68 were staunchly opposed to anything that smacked of authority. And it was also true in architecture. Bob Venturi and Denise Scott Brown became immensely influential by pursuing what they believed to be an authentic version of populist architecture.

Jacobs:
There are fashions in building. Behind the fashions lie economic and technological reasons, and these fashions exclude all but a few genuinely different possibilities in city dwelling construction at any one time.

McKinnell:
Postmodern ideas were beginning to take hold earlier than most people imagine, especially with the liberty to draw on historical and contextual sources. The ideological straightjacket of modernism had been put back in the closet.

Tician Papachristou
architect, New York City:
Yes, postmodern, although it would have more aptly been called “pre-modern.” That movement caught fire for some time and other architects began to come into the picture, while we kept moving along with the concrete burden on our backs. Until the early 1970s when things changed, the late 1960s was a heady time filled with idealism. You felt it—and it was an inseparable part of the buildings conceived in that era.

Stevens:
Prior to that era, I was disillusioned, I felt the country was moving in a direction I did not want it to. Then the 1960s gave me hope. In architectural terms, I don’t think one can just start there, you need to understand the origins of the ideas earlier.

Chermayeff:
It was wonderful. We had a hell of a time.

UHub fan (not verified):
The problem was these ideas were so intellectual and abstract that it’s nearly impossible for an average human being to sense any of them when physically in or around the actual building itself. This was a time of cold people with big ideas, and they were incapable of understanding how disconnected they were to the very people they were attempting acknowledge.

Stevens:
It was a moment when you had all these creative fires going together. Of course some burned each other out or they burned out on their own. The collegiality eventually shifted because architecture became less of a communal effort, and instead gravitated to today’s pervasive star-culture that puts people at poles against one another. But for a while during the postwar era, there was openness, collegiality—and so much became possible.

 

Sources

What does “Brutalism” mean?
AS+PS “The New Brutalism,” Architectural Design (April 1957): 113.
LC letter to Josep Lluís Sert, May 12, 1962, reprinted in Eduard F. Sekler and William Curtis, Le Corbusier at Work: The Genesis of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), 302. The translation is Curtis’s, 166.
AC “Integral Architecture,” interview with Araldo Cossutta, in Mark Pasnik, Michael Kubo, and Chris Grimley, Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston (New York: The Monacelli Press 2015), 300.
RB “The New Brutalism,” Architectural Review (December 1955): 356.

What about “Heroic?”
AS+PS Without Rhetoric: An Architectural Aesthetic 1955–1972 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1974), 92.
FS “Modernism in Search of Authenticity: Comments by Frederick A. ‘Tad’ Stahl,” in Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston, 319.
MOS “The Anti-Hero,” interview with Mary Otis Stevens, in Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston, 326.
RV+DSB Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, Learning From Las Vegas (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1972), 87.
anon Comment on adamg “Architects: Boston City Hall isn’t brutalist—it’s heroic,” Universal Hub, June 27, 2015, http://www.universalhub.com/2015/architects-boston-city-hall-isnt-brutalist-its.
AS+PS The Charged Void: Architecture (New York: The Monacelli Press, 2001), 38.
MOS “The Anti-Hero,” in Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston, 326.
MM “Concrete is Patient,” interview with N. Michael McKinnell, in Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston, 311.

Why concrete?
MM “Concrete is Patient,” in Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston, 309.
HC “A Shared Ethos,” in Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston, 297.
MOS “The Anti-Hero,” in Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston, 325.
AC “Integral Architecture,” in Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston, 300.
MM “Concrete is Patient,” in Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston, 309.
AC “Integral Architecture,” in Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston, 300.
FS “Modernism in Search of Authenticity,” in Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston, 318.
HC “A Shared Ethos,” in Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston, 292.

What happened in Boston?
HC “A Shared Ethos,” in Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston, 296.
ALH “Renewal in Boston: Good and Bad,” New York Times, April 19, 1964, 24.
PC “Experiential Thinking,” interview with Peter Chermayeff, in Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston, 288–289.
MOS “The Anti-Hero,” in Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston: 324.
JJ The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Random House, 1961), 271.
EL “The ‘View From the Village’—By Edward J. Logue,” in “American Cities: Dead or Alive?—Two Views,” Architectural Forum (March 1962): 89.
JJ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 334.
EL “The ‘View From the Village,’” 90.
JJ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 448.
EL “The ‘View From the Village,’” 90.
WF “Foley Blasts Logue Plan for Historical Site,” The Boston Globe, July 25, 1961, 3.
HubMan Comment on Chris Grimley, “Urban renewal has shaped Boston for the better,” The Boston Globe, June 15, 2015, https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/editorials/2015/06/14/urban-renewal-has-shaped-boston-for-better/ThtQJo9FgrtYpj6qEFdG9K/story.html#comments.
WF Quoted in “Renewal Foes Protest JP Plan,” 5.
anon Comment on adamg, “Architects: Boston City Hall isn’t brutalist—it’s heroic,” Universal Hub, June 27, http://www.universalhub.com/2015/architects-boston-city-hall-isnt-brutalist-its.
KC Quoted in “Bold Boston Gladiator—Ed Logue,” LIFE, December 24, 1965, 127.
LDH campaign slogan for Boston mayoral election, 1967.
GF “Renewal Foes Protest JP Plan,” The Boston Globe, August 28, 1965, 5.
KC Quoted in Anthony Yudis, “Charlestown Hearing Explodes: Wildest Renewal Battle Rocks Council Chamber,” The Boston Globe (April 28, 1965): 1.
EL “Ed Logue remembers his ‘friends’… echoes of LBJ and the press… A.D.A. pleased,” The Boston Globe, November 30, 1969, A23.
SOXINPA Comment on John Powers, “Olympics chief, Walsh trade barbs over failed bid,” The Boston Globe, July 29, 2015, http://www.bostonglobe.com/sports/2015/07/29/ioc-president-boston-failed-deliver-promises-usoc/ZgfLvUnn3RJAbewuSzMQhI/story.html.
MM “Concrete is Patient,” in Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston, 309.

What changed?
FS “Modernism in Search of Authenticity,” in Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston, 319.
MM “Concrete is Patient,” in Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston, 311.
JJ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 216.
MM “Concrete is Patient,” in Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston, 310.
TP “The Burden of Concrete,” interview with Tician Papachristou, in Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston, 317.
MOS “The Anti-Hero,” in Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston, 322.
PC “Experiential Thinking,” in Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston, 289.
UHub Comment on adamg, “Architects: Boston City Hall isn’t brutalist—it’s heroic,” Universal Hub, June 27, 2015, http://www.universalhub.com/2015/architects-boston-city-hall-isnt-brutalist-its.
MOS “The Anti-Hero,” in Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston, 325.

 

Chris Grimley is a principal of over,under in Boston, Massachusetts. With expertise in architecture, urban design, graphic identity, and publications, the firm’s portfolio ranges in scale from books to cities. Chris is co-director of the pinkcomma gallery and has designed books for Rockport Publications and Rizzoli Press. He is the co-author of Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston (Monacelli Press, 2015).
www.overcommaunder.com | @ou_grimley

Michael Kubo is an architect, author, and PhD Candidate in the History, Theory, and Criticism of Architecture at MIT. In 2014 Kubo was Associate Curator for OfficeUS, the US Pavilion at the International Architecture Biennale in Venice. He is co-editor of OfficeUS Atlas (Lars Müller, 2015), the second volume of the OfficeUS book series. Kubo is a founding partner of the design practice Collective–LOK, co-director of pinkcomma gallery in Boston, and a collaborator in over,under, an interdisciplinary practice with expertise in architecture, urban design, graphic identity, and publications. He is the co-author of Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston (Monacelli Press, 2015).
www.overcommaunder.com | www.pinkcomma.com | @microkubo

Mark Pasnik is a principal of over,under in Boston, Massachusetts. The firm’s portfolio
includes buildings, exhibitions, urban designs, publications, and graphic projects for clients in the Middle East, Central America, and the United States. Mark is co-director of the pinkcomma gallery and an associate professor of architecture at Wentworth Institute of Technology. He is the co-author of Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston (Monacelli Press, 2015).
www.overcommaunder.com

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