Architecture's Brutalist 'fad' swept through schools, public construction

John Conti
| Saturday, March 9, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

There is hardly a college campus without one.

In among older, traditional Colonial- or Classical- or Gothic-style buildings on a campus, you will almost always find a ponderous and massive concrete building dating from the 1960s or '70s, usually looming over its surroundings.

Windows will often be small in relation to the rest of the facade; some will be recessed well into the concrete face, some will just be tall, narrow slits, and there will often be inexplicable bulky projections at seemingly random places.

It can be a library, a laboratory, an auditorium, a student union, or sometimes just a great big classroom building. It's called, for what may seem to be obvious reasons, a "Brutalist" building, and the architecture style involved is called "Brutalism."

And these buildings are, generally speaking, unloved, even when they have been designed by architects with skill.

So why do we tend to find these buildings so prominently on college campuses? Why are there so many of them? And why are they so unpopular? Many people walking a campus will just dismiss them as some arrogant modernist architect's attempt to garner attention. But the answer is much more complicated than that.

Here in Pittsburgh, one of the most prominent of these "unloved" Brutalist buildings is Posvar Hall at the University of Pittsburgh. It sits in an ungainly way on the site of the old Forbes Field, facing Schenley Plaza. Other examples are Wean Hall at Carnegie Mellon University, a rough-faced concrete structure inserted into a quadrangle of Classical-style buildings; the student union at Duquesne University; the library at Chatham University; and the headquarters of WQED on Fifth Avenue in Oakland. All are "Brutalist" structures.

The fashion for these buildings was derived almost entirely from an academic fascination that started in the 1950s and '60s with the famous French-Swiss architect known as Le Corbusier. It's hard to over-emphasize the impact that Corbusier (his real name was Charles-Edouard Jeanneret) had on the architecture profession and teachers of architecture in the '50s, '60s and '70s.

In some quarters, he was considered the greatest architect of the 20th century, as he demonstrated radical, exciting concepts about light and shadow and about interlocking spaces and abstract shapes that appealed to the aspirations of architects and academics.

Just as important, it was easy for other architects to imitate a lot of what he did.

For example, one of his most impressive buildings was an early 1950s apartment block at Marseille, France, that used a technique called, in French, beton brut, which simply means bare or rough concrete. This often involved leaving the impression of wood formwork in the concrete. That technique soon became "all the rage," and architects began to use it both inside and outside new buildings.

It's important to remember that architecture has never been any less prone to fads than, say, the fashion industry. The difference is that architectural styles last for decades, not seasons. And architects sometimes pursue their fads with an almost ideological fervor. There was a time in the '60s and '70s when Brutalism in the style of Corbusier was the only style taught in some university architecture departments.

So it became rather inevitable that Brutalism would find its greatest flowering in college and university buildings or in public buildings where the opinions of academic architects on building committees could hold sway. There was an occasional church or museum done in the style, but it had hardly any impact on commercial or residential architecture in the United States.

The simple fact of the matter is that most people just don't like bare concrete - and they often don't like massive, almost elephantine, concrete structures, even if clad in limestone, such as Posvar Hall at Pitt. The dislike is such that, in some places, they are seeking to demolish Brutalist buildings, and in others they often revise them.

The late Paul Schweikher, who was head of the architecture department of CMU in the 1960s, designed two fine Brutalist buildings in Pittsburgh - the student union at Duquesne University and the headquarters for WQED on Forbes. But both buildings have had dramatic entrances significantly remodeled over the years. At WQED, removing a flight of original steps turned an interesting building into a boring one.

At Carnegie Mellon around 1970, Pittsburgh architect Dahlen Ritchey fitted a new building into the classical-style quadrangle that his former mentor, Henry Hornbostel, had designed some 60 years earlier. Following the fashion of the day, Ritchey elected to use rough concrete and a "Corbusian"-like facade, though he deftly set his Brutalist building slightly back from the Hornbostel buildings and, in his modern way, matched the scale and rhythms of their facades.

Still, he seemingly couldn't resist intruding far into the quadrangle with a three-story-high cubistic block of concrete that still feels today like a huge tumor grown on the face of the building. Totally windowless, it houses a rather routine lecture hall inside.

Pittsburgh produced another fine Brutalist architect - Tasso Katselas, now retired, who designed many prominent buildings in town, including the main building for Allegheny County Community College on the North Side and the new County Jail on Second Avenue. Both have still-strong elements of Brutalism. But these buildings were significantly softened by the use of brick, tile or other materials rather than just concrete - a change first introduced, incidentally, by Corbusier himself.

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