My dog is a Chinese Crested, meaning he is the type of dog born without the ability to grow fur. I think the name of this breed should instead be “Le Chien Brut“. He is buck naked – “in the raw”, so to speak, except for a crest of pastel colored hair on his head. Figgy burrows into blankets at night, and cuddles with cats.
“Brut” is the French word for raw, and was the catch-word for a movement after World War II. Rawness was an idea expressed in architecture as well as art.
Surviving World War II’s sacrifices and horrors may have helped to break a sense of complacency. No longer would an elitist authority be left alone with the task of maintaining a just and peaceful society.
Good things came when every person worked to influence his world. This right was hard won in the World War battle to preserve a democratic collective apparatus where every person has their say.
The bombs, blood, death and compounding loss of World War II had bludgeoned this home in a rawness that perhaps today can’t be fully understood unless it had been lived.
I was shocked to learn this spring that many seemed to support the demolition of Winnipeg’s Public Safety Building (PSB), a structure built as one of the finest examples of Brutalism – (the architecture these postwar feelings inspired). The structure was nominated for a Massey Medal for Architecture when it was built. I was keen to find out more about it.
One book among many was the 1983 Brutalist Architecture in Winnipeg by Jeffrey Thorsteinson, a pocket sized book written as a tour of Winnipeg’s Brutalist buildings. For me it provided one of the best histories and understandings of the architectural movement.
(I like to say I figured out what I found so interesting about Brutalist buildings through my readings, but this is not true. My new dog, Figgy, did that for me.)
So, wanting to hear the “guy who wrote the book on it”, I headed down to Millennium Library on Friday to hear Thorsteinson speak.
In question period, Thorsteinson said there was a first wave of preservationist arguments that came during a time when early 20th century neo-classical and late Victorian structures were being replaced by early Modernist and even Brutalist buildings.
The genesis of the distaste for Modernist buildings started then, said Thorsteinson, involving a “push back” against these new and unfamiliar forms. But today, although there seems a hesitancy to see “Modernist” buildings as historic and needing protection, this is beginning to change.
Modern period buildings like Winnipeg City Hall and the St. Vital Library have been placed on the preservation list – but many spectacular Brutalist buildings have not. “It’s a conversation that has to start happening,” said Thorsteinson.
Susan Algie, director of the Winnipeg Architectural Foundation, said the buildings first saved in Winnipeg were done so through protest and public demand, buildings such as Dalnavert and Banker’s Row, but said “We have to educate people to understand that buildings that are the same age as some of us could have significance and we have to be expressing that,” referring to the PSB as an example.
Thorsteinson described Canada as a leader in embracing the Brutalist trend of Modernism, with an internationally impressive collection.
“Canada has a nearly unprecedented large amount of Brutalist architecture. The popularity of this style in this country is pretty clear if you take a trip across the country.”
Thorsteinson’s main message: “In terms of Brutalist architecture, not much is very simple. That complexity has to do with the way things grow and the way things are accepted and rejected by different communities,” he said.
The near capacity crowd in the Carol Shields Auditorium then embarked on a slide show trip across Canada of its Brutalist structures, beginning with Ottawa’s National Arts Centre (1965 – 69) and the remarkable and massive Place Bonaventure in Montreal (1964 – 67).
Place Bonaventure’s gargantuan size hosted a range of functions from hotel and shopping centre space to large festival and performance venue sites, including a built in commute function with a railway at its base.
One of most famous Brutalist buildings in Canada is the 1973 University of Toronto’s Robarts Library (where author Umberto Eco wrote the novel The Name of the Rose, using some of the library’s architectural characteristics for inspiration). The building is also featured in dramatic shots in four television shows as well as two movies – similar to the use of many Brutalist buildings in the U. S.
Prior to World War II, early Canadian Brutalism was vibrant. Used with great functionality in the construction of concrete grain silos and other industrial facilities, the images of these structures in the darkened auditorium evoked a great charm and attraction.
“These buildings came to be loved by European modernists in the prewar period,” said Thorsteinson, “for their simplicity, scale and functionality.”
This interest was noted and, in dramatic fashion, the Canadian Pavilion in the 1937 Paris Exposition “was basically a giant grain elevator,” said Thorsteinson. This architecture was taken up almost madly to rebuild post war Europe.
He also said there were a number of myths around the origin story of the style, with the term first applied to a Swedish house after World War II. Brutalism was influenced by the famous and influential architect Le Corbusier, an early modernist known for “purism” who believed “a house should be a machine for living.”
Le Corbusier contributed to the pre-Brutalist Internationalist architectural style that featured large open spaces, a lightness with ample use of glass and thin steel columns, often creating a curtain wall of glass that lessened the barrier between indoor and outdoor space.
But with postwar reconstruction, Le Corbusier built not with light steel and glass but with heavy and massive sculptural forms of rugged, raw, unpolished concrete called “Beton Brut” or concrete in the raw. This was coupled with large open spaces to create great monumentality. “It was designed to make a change,” said Thorsteinson.
The imprint of the raw concrete is a defining element of Brutalism. Wet concrete requires pouring into a mold, and it is this ability to freely form the material that allowed such creativity in its results. This was never before seen. Concrete was also cheap.
At this point, Thorsteinson quipped: “I’d like to point out we have Brut Champagne, which is champagne on the drier side, kind of a better champagne, really,” he said, drawing laughter from the crowd.
(Also popular at the time was a concept called “Art Brut” – involving a rawness of art with a freedom of art expression that fell outside of traditional art cultures and artistic methods).
Critic and professor, Raynor Banham, wrote that the Brutalist style stood against what he termed “a cover of anything with a fancy attitude that was inherent in some post war designs.”
With the ending of the war, issues of class were questioned, and values of directness, unpretentiousness and strength were esteemed.
Winnipeg’s Brutalist Manitoba Theatre Centre was described by its architect as “a building that would love anyone equally, where you could be as comfortable in jeans as you would be in a tuxedo.”
Brutalism was influenced by what came before it; it was an international style yet held regional differences. Brutalist structures have been discovered in postwar Soviet Union, and a very rare regional difference is found in Winnipeg with the Tyndall Stone application to Winnipeg’s Public Safety Building.
Considered one of the best examples of Brutalism and its tailoring to its regional context was work by architect Paul Rudolph (who became Dean at Yale School of Architecture) in his design of the 1963 Yale School of Art and Architecture (Paul Rudolph Hall).
It was notable for its blockiness, heaviness, and its “Beton Brut” roughness. The poured concrete, once set, was further roughened with hammering “creating an almost comically coarse surface,” said Thorsteinson.
Describing the building as having a sculptural monumentality, Thorsteinson ascribed its influence not only to Le Corbusier but also to Rudolph’s teacher, Frank Lloyd Wright, with the inherent drama of Wright’s pioneering organic architecture. (Wright sought a harmony or organicity of structures with the environment).
Another influence was simply the postwar quest for artistry among the functional.
Brutalism, said Thorsteinson, was a complex style that is often misunderstood and interpreted narrowly. While Modernist architecture (including Brutalism) is usually seen as rejection of historical revivalism, the Brutalist approach holds some echoes of ancient models.
Thorsteinson referred to a hidden plaza in Winnipeg near confusion corner commonly known as the “bear pit” that suggests an ancient mezzo American plaza. As well, Le Corbusier’s early work has similarities to classic Greek work in white, and his later works are reflective of stone ruins in India.
The inverted ziggurat of Boston City Hall, considered another “best” of U.S. Brutalism, is based on the 4,000 year old ancient Ziggurat of Ur, a temple with a large base rising with an inward slope.
Brutalism takes this idea and turns it upside down, creating a building that looks somewhat like a blocky inverted pyramid or upside down ziggurat – achievable only with modern technology that eliminated load bearing width at the bottom of structures.
In the Modernist world, a builder’s palette was subject to the constraints of imagination.
But the popularity of the movement in Canada couldn’t be accounted for just by stylistic appeal. What was happening in Canada that made its adoption so favored?
“Canada is cold,” said Thorsteinson, reflecting that bunker-like, closed-in spaces suited the need for protection against extremes of climate. Brutalism was also ideal for closed but large spaces required for classrooms, courts, theatres, and jails. The design also developed along with improvements in ventilation systems.
Concurrently, “There was quick economic, demographic and cultural growth at this time,” said Thorsteinson, exemplified by things such as the move to the Canadian flag, Expo 67, and expansion of crown corporations.
Post war babies were coming of age, and along with a positive economy, pent up demand for institutional buildings, patriotically fueled provincial and federal centennials, and a ground swell of charismatically led growth through Trudeau-mania, the social democratic purse strings and political and public will was set for building a new vision of life as expressed in these buildings.
To top it all off, concrete was easy to use and cheap for large, impressive, monumental looking projects funded by government.
But what was so exciting about all this was how this growth overlapped with social movement and change, said Thorsteinson, in a phenomenon simply known as the “the 60’s”.
“There was an embrace of new forms and ideas of authenticity,” said Thorsteinson, who also pondered that Brutalism might reflect a desire for an aesthetic reminder of solidity during times of change.
“Brutalism was seen as masculine and tough at a time when gender norms were changing,” along with so much other social change.
Simultaneously, the cold war necessitated buildings with physical solidity and strength. In fact, Winnipeg’s 1962 PSB is bomb proof, and the Brutalist Boston City Hall was built to withstand a nuclear blast. Interestingly, Le Corbusier used a great deal of concrete in designing World War II bomb shelters.
Despite the expression of Brutalism as one of social democratic change, “it came to be seen in an opposite way,” said Thorsteinson, “as almost totalitarian in its bigness, its heaviness, its greyness.”
Rumors even circulated in the 1960’s (when the slogan of “don’t trust anyone over 30” was actually uttered) that Brutalist university design was created to suppress student rebellion. Some Brutalist buildings have been voted the world’s ugliest, such as the Verizon Building or 375 Pearl in New York city. And Dallas City Hall was cast as the evil corporate headquarters in the movie RoboCop.
“The large swaths of concrete left many cold….and the name didn’t help, either,” said Thorsteinson.
Yet, Brutalism was based on a creative and imaginative freedom that courageously broke from the Internationalist style in a daring way that moved dramatically into the future.
But Thorsteinson said within Brutalism could be found a directional path that looked even further ahead. Brutalism was complex, and the design was exploring “boroque, elaborate plans”.
Brutalist ideas were at the heart of the famous 1966 book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture by architect Robert Venturi. (Venturi was noted for combining architectural systems to better respond to a varied urban environment and to fully work with inherent conflicts within a project by abandoning rigid unification of design or systems).
Thorsteinson said the greatest issue facing Brutalist structures today is demolition, an option favored for the PSB by Mayor Brian Bowman and a council who voted for it, although the door remains open to consider a “white knight” scenario.
If there are any such saviors out there, it should be noted not only is the PSB bomb proof and really solid, it also held an unbelievable range of activities as police headquarters with its required interior design. Courtrooms, a gun range, jail cells, administrative centres including a press room and the first 999 call centre anywhere, are all within the building.
Upper floors of activity were dramatically visible from the floors – high vertical windows. Luminous Manitoba Tyndall Stone is seen as particularly impressive in its local adaptation. Although some seals between the cladding and wall have broken requiring repair, some audience members wondered why this issue is used in such a prominent way to incorrectly deem the building unusable.
Many local Brutalist structures have been successfully repaired. Thorsteinson described the successful renovations of the Yale Art and Architectural School building and especially Boston City Hall, revitalized with a “softening of its plaza with trees and market places and so on.”
Today there is a revived interest in Brutalism, seen in the construction of 2002 Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels by Rafael Maneo and a 2007 hospital in Argentina.
A 2013 BBC documentary has reached a new, large audience, and the scholarly and public press has produced many new books. There are even websites and Facebook groups dedicated to the style.
“The directness and tangibility this kind of architecture offers, especially in an era of omnipresent screens in a period when architecture can seem overly interested in glossy spectacle…inspires love in some for the direct, the tough, the practical and creative,” said Thorstienson.
And Brutalist buildings are just plain darn solid, presenting more complex issues of sustainability in the difficulty of tearing them down.
For me, I finally came to understand Brutalist architecture and its controversies with the help of my dog Figgy. He is in the raw, and some have voted his breed the ugliest…but I do love him so.
And their skin, (look it up, I’m not kidding) is very similar to the description by philosopher Mark Kingwell, of concrete: often pitted, with small holes with tiny bits that lodge in the surface (if you don’t bathe these dogs enough, or if they become allergic as many Chinese Cresteds do). And what color are they? Close up, they are, like concrete, “dozens of shades at once.”
“Beautiful concrete! The next time it rains, go out and touch some. Find a wall or a bench or just a stanchion and run your hands along the spongy, almost smooth surface. Feel the tough, wet, muscularity of it. Skim your fingers over a few of the thousands of small holes, bubbles really, that notch the outside. Pebbles and other tiny bits are lodged in its surface looking at you just to pry them out. You will not. Look at the Chios Burg patterns that the rain is painting on the micro pitted planes. We call it grey, as if it were simple color. But concrete is of dozens of shades at once”. – Mark Kingwell
And beautiful Figgy! You are just as dressed for the MTC as I am in my formal gown!