May 24: The Brute Squad

2016/05/24 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1954 the term New Brutalism was used in print, possibly for the first time in the US.

For the importance of this movement in design, it is somewhat surprising to find its source in an out-of-the-way journal.  The proceedings of the third annual meeting of the Building Research Institute (Division of Engineering and Industrial Research, National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council, Washington) held at Hershey PA, records the events of May 24th.  Architects, deans of architecture schools, critics, and various assorted poobahs of the profession were in attendance.  The proceedings of their panel discussion offer a fascinating, rare and detailed glimpse into a particular moment in architecture, especially in terms of the quality of the transcript as a mirror of American attitudes toward what was seen very much as a European invention.

The discussion was carried largely by Douglas Haskell, editor of Architectural Forum and apparent archi-lexicographer, who later coined the term Googie Architecture.  At the BRI meeting he was the one who introduced this other term, New Brutalism, to the conversation.  He explained it as a “counter-revolution” to the initial position of Machine Age architects who felt a need for “slick-looking buildings” evocative of their epoch.  He suggested that this second stage of development called for “antislick-looking buildings:”

We want them to look good, and coarse, and homespun, in order to have a relief from our machine-age day when we come home.

This could be achieved by making “rough concrete” look “like a hunk of the mountain it came from” or by cultivating “deficiencies” in metal plating, giving it “homespun qualities that have existed hitherto only in masonry materials. . . .  The blemishes were what made it beautiful.”  (While this is in general really interesting, we are particularly distracted by his insistent use of terms relating to the “home” for this architectural method/idiom/style/language that was always and ever about big civic buildings.)

A writer, recently immigrated from China, selected the recent concrete work of Le Corbusier to illustrate the anti-slick agenda.  It was indeed a heady time for the Swiss-French architect: he had just finished one of the first Unités (in Nantes, above); the haute-brut chapel at Ronchamp was either just barely or almost finished (although, curiously, it was not consecrated until 2005).  But rather than articulate the view that everyone should follow the lead of Le Corb, the young writer, a virtual architween, cautioned his listeners from jumping on the Brutalist bandwagon.  He maintained that Le Corbusier’s “new plastic concrete work” was

all right for Europe under their special economy, for their leftover medieval craftsmanship, but I don’t think that’s the sort of thing that’s going to catch on here.

Why not?  Well, we can infer that the architect–with his international perspective–distinguished between “medieval” Europe and “modern” America based on the different approach each place took to mechanization.  For Europe it was an expressive opportunity–albeit a dumpy one.  Americans, he believed, would see the logic in applying the money saved by mechanized processes to refinements in design–albeit not a very generous one.  He later suggested that the trend in architecture toward mass production made it possible for architects to “spend one per cent more for elegance.”  (The 1%!)

We tend to get the idea from drive-by history that: 1. famous things are built by famous people and then 2. everybody else gets on board and does the same thing.  But history is rarely so clean, usually because people are not (all) lemmings.  Not even thirty-seven year-old Chinese-American architects like this one, who would become pretty famous in his own right.  In the following year he founded his firm, I. M. Pei & Associates.  In a decade or so Pei would have a change of heart, possibly finding opportunity for that “elegance” in concrete projects like Society Hill Towers in Philadelphia, the Christian Science Center in Boston, and Dallas City Hall.

Is Pei’s work from the 1960s & ’70s 1% more elegant than the Unités? Or do these buildings contribute to what Haskell worried would be the outcome of too many architects adopting the New Brutalism: “too much would lead to a god-awful mess.”  Is there some sweet irony in the fact that this debate opened up in 1954, the year that beton-brut pioneer August Perret (who had his élégant moments) died?

Read the whole transcript of the BRI here


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