Oh, the brutality.

Before the Washington, D.C., planning commissioner ruled last week that local Christian Scientists can tear down their church near the White House, it looked as if form was going to win over function. Then the planning commissioner overturned the unanimous vote of  the City Historic Preservation Review Board to designate the church a historic site.

For me, the most exciting part about the battle  was that I was  introduced to an architectural genus that I wasn’t aware of, even though it’s been staring me in the face most of my life.

Brutalism.

And for someone who didn’t know what Brutalism was, one look at the Third Church of Christ Scientist, Washington, D.C., said just about everything I needed to know.

3rdChurchChristScientist

It screams, "Preserve Me!!" doesn't it?

Brutalism. Like a concrete bunker, but with less charm.

A “stark architectural style” that “became synonymous with ’70s ugliness,” according to the Guardian.

Brutalism was a love affair with concrete. It was a response to glass curtain architecture of the 1950s and ’60s.

Interestingly, though, its name has nothing to do with “brutality” or “brutal.” “The term was derived from Le Corbusier’s Béton brut – French for ‘raw concrete,’” the Guardian writes.

Still what could brutalist architects have been thinking? Did they look at the Berlin Wall and decide that was the look they were after? I guess sometimes you just have to throw up a concrete slab and see how it turns out.

“Although many of the structures looked fresh and modern at first, it soon became apparent that the raw, bare concrete structures  lacked personality and promoted alienation,” according to Weburbanist.

That certainly seems to be what happened to the Christian Scientist Church — although nowhere in my reading did anyone say it looked fresh at anytime. Still, the church has its supporters. Washington Post columnist March Fisher quoted Richard Longstreth, a professor of American Civilization at George Washington University, who described the church as being “in a league of its own”  and a “distinctive and original work.”

I guess that can be read a couple of ways.

Concrete doesn’t necessarily mean death to beauty. Not completely. Not far from the church is the rather OK- looking FBI building:

FBI Building DC

And here’s one more example, the Weldon Library in London, Ontario:

Weldon Library, London Ont.

I think you’ll agree they’re OK. You just don’t want to pray in them.

The articles I read said Brutalism ran its course in the 1970s. Perhaps that’s something to be thankful for.

But what explains all the ugly buildings that went up since then?

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4 Comments

Filed under architecture, Washington DC

4 responses to “Oh, the brutality.

  1. That Beton brut is sure a bitch to keep clean. It’s almost as if it was intended to acquire, with age, a patina of grime.

    On the other hand, the concrete-slab look does have creative possibilities; witness the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a federal holding facility in downtown Chicago designed to look like an IBM computer punchcard. http://www.panoramio.com/photo/10909754

  2. You crack me up. I guess every medium has its place. And concrete — for being so grey — is a pretty green material. Such simple ingredients.

  3. Well I, for one, am sad. I regret that this building will be torn down. It’s a gem.

    As simple as the ingredients are, concrete actually represents a great deal of embodied energy used during its manufacture. What is quite green about it, however, is its durability. A building that will stand for hundreds of years…now that’s ‘sustainable.’

    Nice blog.

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