Brutalism is definitely back. Like flared denim, it seems like just yesterday that LeCorbusier’s blocky, abrasively unaesthetic style was universally derided – until, seemingly overnight, it became the new thing. It was only two years ago, in 2014, that DC’s Third Church of Christ, Scientist, considered an important example of Brutalist architecture by people who know about these things, was torn down to unanimous approval. Now that demolition is looked back on like it was the napalming of the Louvre. Why has Brutalism captured contemporary tastes so suddenly?
Part of it is the present moment we’re in. In the decade-by-decade cycle of pop culture recurrence, we’re in a weird transitional period between the mid-to-late-Nineties and the early-to-mid-Aughties. The former period was characterized by a grittiness and an aversion to artifice (think grunge and the first Wu-Tang album), while the latter was characterized by a dystopian futurism (think “The Matrix” and those stupid clear vinyl purses). Brutalism combines all of that into one confrontational pile of rough-hewn concrete blocks.
The style first rose to prominence in Britain, in the Sixties, when the country was being marginalized by post-war America and still rebuilding from World War 2. British critics trace Brutalism’s popularity to “a complicated mixture of envy, longing, and resentment, which in their totality averaged out as a form of chagrin.” If you’ve been following this year’s presidential race, you’ll recognize that as the exact mood of today’s electorate. In post-war Britain, it was also embraced as a rejection of the corny, classical Beaux Arts-ish architectural style of the upper classes. Today, we’re coming off an era when even football stadiums have to strive towards “ethereality.”
Of course, Brutalism (it got its name because of its trademark material of beton brut – raw concrete – not because it looks brutal) is also practical and extremely cheap. British Brutalism took off because the country was mired in post-war austerity and had to rebuild half the country after the bombing raids of WW2; today America is entering a second (or third, depending on who you ask) decade of wage stagnation, and yet is undertaking a rebuild of urban centers from DC to Detroit. The reasons tiny houses are popular are the same reasons Brutalism is back.
But why did it fall so completely out of favor? Well, saturation was one cause. It was so cheap and utopian and eye-catching that for a couple of decades, every new building was built in the Brutalist style. Also, like every cool thing, it ceases to be cool when it’s co-opted by the establishment. And Brutalism eventually became the favored style of government buildings (DC probably has more Brutalist buildings than any other city) and corporate offices everywhere. Did the style appeal to corporations and governments because of its monolithic, authoritarian vibe, or do we associate those qualities with Brutalism because it became so highly correlated with corporations and governments? Yes to both. Who knows? It probably didn’t help either that it so closely resembled the Soviet architecture of Cold War-era Eastern European apartment blocks and Russian prisons.
So will we see more of these confrontational buildings? Probably. Rumor has it that today’s architecture students are all in love with the blocky Brutalist style, and knowing how the taste cycle goes, the next Bjarke Ingles will probably be a big fan of unfinished concrete. Still, we shouldn’t let the approaching Brutalist future from appreciating – and, more importantly, preserving – the Brutalist buildings that are already here now. The Third Church of Christ, Scientist is gone, yes, but there’s still time to save the fortresslike J. Edgar Hoover building from its planned demolition. Developers plan to raze it, but if they just had a little vision, they could wait a couple more years and have a priceless piece of vintage architecture on their hands. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Building downtown is also set for a $200 million renovation that will surely sap its distinctively brutal vibe, and who knows what’s in store for the Brutalist interiors of our Metro stations, now that the system is looking at a billion-dollar refresh? Like your mom throwing out a box of fifty year old baseball cards, the Man is getting rid of these buildings at the worst possible time, and replacing them with something that will be hated more or less immediately. The drab office building that replaced the Third Church of Christ, Scientist at 16 and I was roundly derided before it even opened. Will we learn any lessons from this? (Probably not.)