Sunday, March 28, 2021

When architecture is Brutal -- and where it's not.

I'm no expert in architectural styles. But I lived in the Washington, DC, area for enough years that I can spot a Brutalist building on sight, and I freely admit that I'm not a fan.

So the title of an article in the Washington Post caught my eye this week: "Brutalist buildings aren't unloveable. You're looking at them wrong." Well, maybe. Anyway, I was willing to entertain the possibility long enough to read the article.

Brutalism was kind of a fad in the middle of the 20th century. The article describes it as an "architectural style characterized by unfinished concrete, recessed windows, top-heavy design, and a proclivity for bulk and heft". The term doesn't come from brutal, by the way -- it comes from the French phrase b├ęton brut, or "raw concrete." The author of the article notes the Brutalist style gives buildings a sense of permanence and stability -- perfect for government buildings in the nation's capital.

It also makes them kind of blocky and ugly, if you ask me. But sometimes an architect will figure out that you can make more out of concrete than a big box. Take, for example, the Hirshhorn Museum in DC. 

Valerie Hinojosa | Flickr | CC 2.0
The Hirshhorn is part of the Smithsonian Institution, so admission is free. Its collection concentrates on contemporary art and its sculpture garden is a lot of fun to visit. (The museum building is closed right now due to the virus, but the sculpture garden is open.)

Look at that cylindrical shape. It's unusual, right? Substantial, certainly, but also almost organic?

It occurred to me at about this point in my reading that I know of another city that features a distinct architectural style that uses organic shapes, yet gives the appearance of stability and permanence. 

Give up? Here's a hint:

copyright Lynne Cantwell 2020

This is the New Mexico Museum of Art on the plaza here in Santa Fe. This style of architecture -- with the flat roof, visible ceiling beams (they're called vigas), and adobe exterior -- is called Pueblo Revival. It's meant to mimic the sort of architecture you see at Indian pueblos in New Mexico, including the iconic Taos Pueblo

Wikimedia Commons | CC 3.0

(You can tour Taos Pueblo, but it's closed right now due to the virus.)

I recently learned that Santa Fe didn't always look the way it does now, architecturally speaking. In the 1800s, the city fathers pushed for a more traditional American downtown. The city never really went for Victorian gingerbread, but Greek Revival style was big. Anyway, then the powers-that-be realized if the city wanted to attract the tourist trade, it ought to give tourists what they expected to see in the Southwest -- and in New Mexico, that meant Pueblo style. So a lot of building facades were converted in the early years of the 20th century, and newer structures like the art museum went with the Pueblo Revival style from the get-go.

Here's another thing that occurred to me: Pueblo Revival and Brutalism both reflect their surroundings. Pueblos are built with adobe and adobe is made from earth, so of course the structures are the same color as the earth where they're built -- brown, tan, or terra cotta. And Brutalist buildings are made of concrete, which is gray -- again, kind of perfect for housing government bureaucrats.

I was happy to give DC's Brutalist architecture another chance. But upon reflection, I still prefer Pueblo Revival.

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These moments of architectural blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Don't unmask yet! Keep social distancing! 

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