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Old Posted Jan 12, 2012, 7:36 PM
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The Case for Saving Ugly Buildings

The Case for Saving Ugly Buildings


Jan 10, 2012

By Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones

Read More: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/des...buildings/913/

Quote:
The Brutalist AT&T Long Lines building in New York is a looming grey monolith, a giant stone scabbard thrust into the heart of lower Manhattan. In Washington, D.C., the Third Church of Christ, Scientist is an almost windowless octagon resembling a military bunker more than a religious chapel. The University of Toronto's Robarts Library resembles an oppressive, stone Transformer with little access to sunlight. L’Eglise Ste-Bernadette du Banlay in Nevers, France, is an oblique, oversized, confusing stone bubble seat. Then there are the hundreds of worn, crumbling public housing projects, lifeless abandoned tombs more reminiscent of J.G. Ballard-style prison complexes than anything someone would willingly live in.

- These behemoth structures of Béton brut, most built in the 1960s and ‘70s, are slowly crumbling from wear and disrepair, ignored by communities that no longer want the burden of upkeep of a giant, lifeless rock. But even horrendously ugly and soulless abominations are part of our architectural heritage and need to be preserved for future generations. Technically, many of them have to be. Their place in history and uniqueness as architectural oddities warrant their preservation from a legal perspective. They satisfy Criteria C for the National Register as having "distinctive design/construction techniques." They are the pinnacle of High Modernism: the architectural trend that started in the early 20th century with minimalism, Bauhaus, van Der Rohe, on down to Le Corbusier. Defined by sleek lines, little embellishment, and grandiose structure, High Modernism captured the attention of the architectural world at a time when it was eager to embrace something new.

- Brutalism took the idea of unity of form and sleek futurism even further. Where modernism embraced a sleek, simple approach to say, windows, Brutalism went one step further by minimizing or even outright eliminating them. Corbusier called his designs "machines for living in," which was actually an improvement upon the Futurist adage of creating “buildings as machines,” not necessarily for living in. After the Great Depression, a new building made of long, sleek slabs of bright concrete was a grand improvement over the crumbling wood and brick shacks of old houses. Simplicity of design appealed to communist countries looking for an anti-bourgeois aesthetic. And affordability appealed to capitalist countries interested in cheaper construction materials for public works projects under the banner of urban renewal.

- That standard of irreplaceability is a common element for a majority of historic preservation law. Buildings aren't preserved based on relative maintenance costs or aesthetics but on the merits of originality and historic interest. Whether it be a pre-historic pueblo, Colonial-era slave quarters, World War II Quonset hut, or a Brutalist tower is irrelevant, as long as it fits the designation of being unique and historically relevant. Many iconic, retro-futurist Googie structures have been lost because the streamlined style was representative of lowbrow, vulgar highway culture. In a similar vein, various Classic Revival and Art Nouveau movie theaters were demolished in the years when the ornate flourish of their decaying interiors was simply dismissed as antiquated, gaudy decadence in the post-Depression age.

- Historic preservationists were left in the uncomfortable position of having to defend something that might be considered ugly within the current definitions of taste. If they relented in their defense, they might open a legal loophole for other historic buildings to be demolished based on economic incentives or aesthetic whims. But preservation law grounded in a sense of historic import and architectural singularity also means that more and more “horrendous” structures will be preserved, that future generations could be punished by the mistakes of the past, possibly as a warning to future architects about the impact of their decisions. The tragic irony being that preservation law, which wasn't enacted in time to save so many irreplaceable buildings of the past, is now in place to save the least loved outputs of High Modernism and urban renewal.

.....



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Old Posted Jan 12, 2012, 9:21 PM
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A wing of the preservation/architectural community agrees with saving failed experiments because they exemplify an era. But the general public, me included, is more interested in preserving buildings we like, generally coinciding with design that respects timeless principles as well as some examples of experimental or revolutionary design that worked out well.

Saving POSs like these will just turn the public against preservation, which is too bad.
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Old Posted Jan 12, 2012, 9:36 PM
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There aren't that many brutalist buildings (compared to pre-war and glass boxes) to worry about so we should try to preserve what we can as they did exemplify an era.
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Old Posted Jan 12, 2012, 9:42 PM
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That's not even that bad of a building really. We pay so little attention to eras outside of now and more than a hundred years ago that our art and sculptural history will be complete in reality, but for architecture we'll have gigantic gaps in the built history. While not everything is worth saving the current practice of nothing from the 60s, 70s and 80s is worth saving will make me very sad. Everyone likes to pick on the concrete brutalism period.

Edmonton lost a great church from the 1960s recently and there are rumours in Regina that our wonderful little modernist library from 1962 is probably going to disappear.

Humans have proven time and time again that we know very little and are incredibly short-sighted. Punishment is in the eye of the beholder.
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Old Posted Jan 12, 2012, 9:45 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by JManc View Post
There aren't that many brutalist buildings (compared to pre-war and glass boxes) to worry about so we should try to preserve what we can as they did exemplify an era.
But you're sentencing the neighborhood to have to live with it, and someone to be a tenant.
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Old Posted Jan 12, 2012, 10:34 PM
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Then it hangs on saving these Brutalist buildings for the sake of preventing an excuse to demolish other historical landmarks that are worth saving.
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Old Posted Jan 12, 2012, 10:50 PM
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Exactly the opposite....focusing on saving the better buildings will keep the public on the preservationists' side, and strengthen the effort on those buildings.
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Old Posted Jan 13, 2012, 12:41 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by M II A II R II K View Post
Then it hangs on saving these Brutalist buildings for the sake of preventing an excuse to demolish other historical landmarks that are worth saving.
Yep. When judgements are made as to what buildings are "pretty" and worth saving and what's not, preservation will be seen as arbitrary and subjective, if it isn't already. Along with that comes the predictable power-grab to establish themselves or their group as the official arbitor of taste.

Victorians went out of vogue back in the day. Now brutalist buildings are out of vogue. Yeah, tearing things down because they don't fit with current fashion really works wonders.
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Old Posted Jan 13, 2012, 1:04 AM
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I don't recall the general public ever being in favor or brutalism. Architects yes, but can anyone point to a mass outcry over the potential for losing one of these? Is any brutalist building loved today?

It was a fad by architects, and partially related to an area of protest. Other buildings are based on time-proven priciples and tend to do well with the general public decade after decade, aside from a relatively brief period of experiemental architecture, which coincided not coincidentally with the decline of central cities and the decline of probably most older buildings.
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Old Posted Jan 13, 2012, 1:05 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by mhays View Post
But you're sentencing the neighborhood to have to live with it, and someone to be a tenant.
That argument was used as an excuse to demolish buildings of a similar age as these during the construction of the Brutalist structures you deride now.
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Old Posted Jan 13, 2012, 1:13 AM
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....During a relatively brief fad.
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Old Posted Jan 13, 2012, 1:20 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by vid View Post
That argument was used as an excuse to demolish buildings of a similar age as these during the construction of the Brutalist structures you deride now.
Exactly. Besides most brutalist buildings aren't ugly. They are just "unfashionable" right now in the eyes of those who are inexperienced and narrow minded. In the ’60's the Victorian monstrosities that are so beloved today were considered ugly. Would you have wanted to see them all demolished?
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Old Posted Jan 13, 2012, 1:27 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by vid View Post
That argument was used as an excuse to demolish buildings of a similar age as these during the construction of the Brutalist structures you deride now.
Exactly. I think it's ideal for a city to maintain a mix of buildings from every available era of its existence. We have the Buffalo city court building, and to be honest it doesn't bother me. I think it looks great in contrast to the art deco city hall, and the new glass court house.


photo by me, also posted on wikipedia commons.
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Old Posted Jan 13, 2012, 1:27 AM
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There are brutalism fanboys out there. Maybe the non-fanboys are narrow minded, or maybe not....
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Old Posted Jan 13, 2012, 1:28 AM
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I assume that's a jail, and I hope the architects and client team are in it.
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Old Posted Jan 13, 2012, 1:30 AM
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I touched on this back in the "gone but not forgotten" thread...

But basically we cannot let ourselves fall into the trap of "Not saving it because it's ugly." Because it is EXACTLY that which led to the architecture holocaust of the 60's and 70's.

I will be honest, the Curmudgeon in me truly despises about 90% of the Brutalist architecture out there. ESPECIALLY as many of therm were built after tearing down turn of the century or art deco masterpieces...

But here is the rub... Tear them down, What do you build in their place?

Because if you tear down a one-of-a-kind, and replace it with a cookie cutter bland modern building... You are no better then those of the 60's who tore down the works of the last century to build those Brutalist buildings you (and I) hate so much.
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Old Posted Jan 13, 2012, 1:44 AM
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I mostly agree with mhays, but a time comes where its good to re-examine if an allegedly bad/dysfunctional/gross building is really just misunderstood.

Maybe not all brutalist structures are failures at architecture and city planning? Sure it has a big plaza out front, and while contemporary theories say that's not desirable, maybe it was the fault of mid-20th century social trends that caused it become a run-down homeless area and not the design itself?

Maybe it could also be claimed that people like Jane Jacobs were fighting against the possibility of entire cities being replaced with bad modernist city planning, but one or two historical curiosities of a style that will never come back and fill a niche/play a role in their neighborhoods can't hurt?
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Old Posted Jan 13, 2012, 1:57 AM
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Just to put things in perspective when it comes to the way people "feel" about buildings, before 9/11 the twin towers were considered banal, boring and old fashioned if not downright ugly by pretty much everyone and the big plaza was a cold, wind swept waste of space. Now that they are gone they are idolized and admired. Go figure!
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Old Posted Jan 13, 2012, 1:57 AM
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Some are not that bad, like Toronto City Hall that have some kind of aesthetics gone into it as well as the picture of that university building in the first post.

It's these boring bland concrete highrises with meaningless windows that makes the concept look bad.
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Old Posted Jan 13, 2012, 2:10 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by mhays View Post
But you're sentencing the neighborhood to have to live with it, and someone to be a tenant.
Like vid said, that line of thought was used to justify a LOT of pre-war building being torn down for various reasons; outdated designs, inefficient floorplans, etc. And led to the whole Urban Renewal era that pretty much destroyed the urban fabric of most US cities. I'm not saying that will happen again but we should not be so quick to discard buildings because they are out of style because we could have a very different discussion 50 years from now when we're lamenting the loss of so many Brutalist style buildings. And they are often replaced with crap. A brutalist school administration building here in Houston was replaced by a Costco. Yay!
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