The BBC and Brutalism

Amy Lawday sends me a rather

weird on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand report-slash-editorial

about Brutalism on the BBC’s website. The story comes in the wake of the first

listing of a Brutalist

building: the 1958 Old Vic Annexe, by Lyons Israel Ellis.

Writes Amy:

If it is agreed by a large majority that a building is dog ugly, and depressing,

then why save it?

I agree. I opposed the

preservation of 2 Columbus Circle for much the same reason:

Preserving great buildings, and even merely good buildings, is one thing.

But preserving provocative buildings is another thing entirely.

The fact is, the kind of people who love From Bauhaus to Our House are

exactly the sort of people who look at 2 Columbus Circle and consider it a

hideous eyesore. This building is one of the few things on which both die-hard

Modernists and most anti-Modernist laymen can agree: very, very few people

actually like it.

On the other hand, not all Brutalism is dog-ugly and depressing. The National

Theatre, for instance, to take only the most obvious example, is a wonderful

building and should be preserved. The Old Vic Annexe is not a wonderful building,

however: it’s being listed not because it’s good, but because it’s early. And

that’s a bad reason to list something.

But the thing which really puzzles me is the illustration halfway down the

BBC article:

Yes folks, the editors at the BBC decided to illustrate an article about Brutalism

with an illustration of the Royal Festival Hall, one of the greatest post-war

buildings in the UK, and possibly my favourite building in London. I’m far from

alone in this: go there any day of the year, but especially in the summer, and

you’ll find both the interior and exterior spaces thrumming with life. The foyers,

the balconies and the terraces all make the RFH one of the most open and inviting

buildings in the city.

What’s more, the RFH is not Brutalist at all. For one thing it was built for

the Festival of Britain in 1951, so it’s far too early to be Brutalist. For

another thing, it’s not a big concrete slab: as this

page notes,

The brutalist approach of Modernists like the Smithsons and Erno Goldfinger

in the years ahead would owe little to the Royal Festival Hall’s inviting

curves and whitewashed friendliness.

But even BBC journalists, it seems, are so architecturally illiterate that

they see a magnificent structure like the Royal Festival Hall and just because

it’s made of concrete decide that it represents a "bunker mentality".

I hope that Ed Dorrell, the editor of the Architects’ Journal and the author

of the BBC article, gives them a suitable amount of grief.

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13 Responses to The BBC and Brutalism

  1. I think brutalism suffers the same branding problem as ‘global warming': there was a recent article (Slate? New Yorker?) quoting a biologist who noted that people would like respond better to the notion of global warming if it didn’t sound so… nice. Global Freezing, that might get more attention.

    Inversely, Brutalism gets appended with adjectives that often have more of a grammatical relationship than an observation of the physical spaces. Given that some of the atecedents (Gothic and Baroque formally, and any warm weather climes using adobe or rammed earth as a building technology) never suffered the same fate is unfortunate for some of the most inventive work with concrete ever attempted (formally, you can trace a relationship from the Brutalists to Kahn and Saarinen, neither of whom get saddled with ‘bunker metality’).

    If all you read was Wolfe, you would think Paul Rudolph — who cut his teeth designing in Sarasota, where light control is the primary design consideration — never met a window he liked.

    I’m no fan of much of the work, but it’s no worse, on balance, than any other coherent design ideology this century.

  2. Matthew says:

    Did you really just quote yourself? (and, fwiw, the entire South Bank complex is a horrid, windswept waste of space, much like the old WTC courtyard: that any life happens outside its buildings is a source of constant amazement to me.)

  3. Benjamin Hemric says:

    I don’t understand upon what evidence you are basing your assertion that “The fact is, the kind of people who love ‘From Bauhaus to Our House’ look at 2 Columbus Circle and consider it an eyesore.” Tom Wolfe, of course, wrote “From Bauhaus to Our House” and he obviously doesn’t think it’s an eyesore. I and many other supporters of the fight to preserve 2 Columbus Circle love “From Bauhaus to Our House” and don’t consider it an eyesore.

    Yes, there may be some people who say they loved Wolfe’s book (a number of who may not even have really understood it or actually agreed with it, but only loved it for Wolfe’s “cheekiness”) who don’t like the building, but that’s hardly the same as saying that “the kind of people who love” the book invariably dislike 2 Columbus Circle.

    Personally, I think that when the building was properly taken care of, it was quite pretty — a delightful “folly” — and that it had very interesting, well-thought out and functional interior spaces also.

    Also, my recollection is that when the building first opened the criticism (mostly from modernist ideologues and their followers — like my high school art teacher) was not that the building was “ugly,” but that it was too “frivolously” pretty — kind of like a cake with too much frosted trimming for those who prefer their cakes simple and unadorned — and that only the “low classes” (e.g., taxi cab drivers, etc.) with unsophisticated taste would enjoy it. (The kind of people with grottos in their front yard.)

    I certainly think that 2 Columbus Circle is prettier than dozens upon dozens of other designated landmarks — like the Socony-Mobil Building (E. 42nd St., diagonally across from the Hyatt), a building that was designated a landmark during the very period that supporters of 2 Columbus Circle were lobbying to have it declared a landmark. But one structure was the “enemy” of orthodox modernists (2 Columbus Circle), and one structure was apparently a darling of the modernist ideologues (Socony-Mobil Building).

    – – – – – –

    I agree, however, with the idea that to preserve a building SIMPLY because it is provocative (“bothers some people”) is a very bad idea. But that’s not why I think supporters were in favor of preserving 2 Colubus Circle. That’s certainly not the reason I favored preserving it.

    I think it’s important to remember that what’s beautiful to one person can be ugly to another person and vice versa. As I pointed out in my comments (signed simply “Benjamin”) to your original post on 2 Columbus Circle, a lot of people once thought — quite understandably — that the old Jefferson Market Courthouse was “ugly” and not worth preserving. Different groups of people have different tastes (ideological filters) and, furthermore, tastes change over time (as ideologies come and go). What is thought beautiful in one era (Jefferson Market Courthouse) is thought ugly in another (1940s, etc.) and then thought beautiful again (1960s).

    So one of the main reasons for having a landmark law in the first place is to develop objective criteria for landmark protection and to thereby protect beautiful and / or important / historical buildings that may be the victims of ideology (e.g., the ideology of orthodox modernism) or changing tastes (e.g., Pennsylvania Station). Yes, such buildings challenge and provoke, but they are worth preserving on their own merits too.

  4. Well, I’ll take the easy liberal arts-Hal Foster bait: exactly what do you propose as objective criteria, Benjamin? Bonus points if you don’t rely on the hazy input of ‘experts’, since that would undermine your own critique.

    The ‘defense’ of 2 Columbus Circle has been a sham since the word go. 20 years that building sat in abandonment. Brad Cloepfil has recommended a surprisingly restrained (considering the museum renovations going on locally and worldwide) intervention, one that will stand venerated for far longer than Stone’s sad pastiche, challening the ire of whom, a handful of Upper West Side residents who ignored it for how long? The building has been embattled only since someone decided to do something with it. I’m sure that Stern could have petitioned his good bud Eisner to save the building long ago. But he didn’t. So his yapping now rings a little hollow.

  5. Benjamin Hemric says:

    In reading both the current and previous commentary on this blog, it seems that people are unaware of the actual history of 2 Columbus Circle and the particular issues involved in the fight to save it. Two Columbus Circle was not an abandoned building that no one showed an interest in and for which no other use could be found.

    2 Columbus Circle was given to the City and used as an office building (for agencies like the Convention and Visitors Bureau) — a use for which it was not really designed — for about 20 years. It was not abandoned for 20 years.

    The city then planned to sell the building and asked for bids (Requests for Proposals). Among those responding was the Dahesh Museum, an organization with a mission very similar to that of the Huntington Hartford Museum, the original builder and owner of the building. (More recently, other museum organizations have also expressed an interest in preserving and restoring the original structure for its original use.) So with virtually no effort on the part of the City — without even designating the building a landmark — this structure could have been restored to its original purpose and appearance at no cost to the City.

    The only real roadblock was that put up by its ideological opponents who were successful in manipulating the system to prevent the preservation of the building’s original design.

    Without ever publicly stating why, the City declined to accept the Dahesh Museum’s bid. And, years later (after a second RFP, I believe), the building was given over to a organization that intended to destroy the original design, instead of work with it. This organization, by the way, is one with which the Mayor once had a connection. (I believe he may have been on its board of trustees.)

    Despite numerous requests from established authorities in the field of landmark preservation to have the LPC at least schedule a public hearing on the building (only the first step in the process — not all buildings given hearings are designated), the LPC never scheduled a hearing. (As mentioned in my previous post, the LPC not only scheduled a hearing on the Socony-Mobil Building in this time period, but actually took a vote and designated it as well. I hope people interested in this discussion take a look at the Socony-Mobil building or look it up on the internet.)

    Thus the question one needs to ask is what IS the criteria for scheduling a hearing for proposed landmark designation? Normally the recommendation of perhaps the foremost expert on American architecture and the Dean of Yale’s School of Architecture would be enough. Normally the recommendation of the Landmarks Conservancy, the Municipal Arts Society, the Historic Districts Council — and the National Trust for Historic Preservation(!) and the World’s Monument Fund(!!) — would be enough.

    So isn’t there something a little fishy about the fact that the chairman of the LPC — a city employee charged with preserving the City’s architectural/historicala heritage — instead trades e-mails with MADD, an organization committed to destroying a potential landmark, in order to avoid having the LPC hold a public hearing?

    Regarding objective criteria: A blog’s comment box is not the right place for an extensive discussion, but here are two quick thoughts: 1) have open — and consistently applied — criteria for scheduling public hearings; 2) perhaps require that all buildings scheduled for a public hearing have at least three deans of schools of architecture or chairpersons of graduate history departments write recommendations in the buiding’s favor.

  6. Ahh… a bunch of experts. Righto. Cause Deans of Architecture programs are far less compromised than the MAD board. I love the conspiracy mongering — MAD is one of the poorest museums in the city (relative to behemoths like the Met). They are still scrounging for funds to pay for the reno. They have about as much influence as I do.

    To say the building was ‘used’ by the city is a bit thick. I lived in the area over ten years ago, and it looked like a derelict structure even when the city was ‘using’ it.

    If my memory serves, the Dahesh bid had a number of problems, not the least of which was money (and a collection of highly dubious quality). MAD may be poor, but one reason they’ve had such a hard time raising money is endlessly pending litigation. Litigation, which it should be noted, specifically addressed the highly disingenuous history you outlined. Thanks for the high minded and smug theorizing, but your people already have tried suing the city on prodcedural issues regarding the LPC and, um, the State Supreme Court found no reason to continue suffering their childish ranting.

    I love the Socony Mobil building. Big deal. That shows the limitation of ‘experts’. You like this one and not that. I, the reverse. Oh, where would we be without the insight of Messrs. Wolfe and Stern? Lost like babes in the woods.

    One of the crucial benefits of landmarking is granting protection to extant buildings in regular use (as is the Socony Mobil building), but granting certain privileges to owners (tax breaks) in exchange for other limits (restricting their ability to modify their property). Properties in disuse are a trickier problem in a market economy, but there are plenty of tools for the city, short of the noxious Kelo decision, to address property owners who nelgect structures intentionally.

    The tinfoil hat edge of the preservation community thinks what is an excellent example of government regulation of property ownership should perverted into a process for slipcasing every discarded gum wrapper, and threatening anyone who thinks owing a house means they can make their own decision about paint color.

  7. Benjamin Hemric says:

    A number of the points made seem to be irrelevant to the Two Columbus Circle controversy or seem to be just plain factually incorrect — or both!

    1) Letters of recommendation, so to speak, by recognized “experts” ( to winnow down and vet the candidate buildings for public hearings by the LPC) has nothing whatsoever to do with whether the Board of MADD is, or is not, “compromised.”

    2) Whether MADD is much poorer than the Metroplitan Museum has nothing to do with anything.

    3) MADD already has the money for the renovation. (A single donor, I believe, is covering most of the cost.)

    4) The Board of MADD is well-connected and, furthermore, it’s hard to see how having the Mayor (who’s essentially in charge of landmarking and the disposition of the building) as a former Board Member leaves the organization with little influence. Plus the point person at MADD in charge of getting the renovation done is also well-connected — as is the director of the Museum herself.

    5) Whether the building “looked” like a derelict building or not while the City used it as an office building is irrelevant to the fact that the building was not, in fact, abandoned and available for others to buy or use at that time.

    6) The City never announced why it did not accept the bid of the Dahesh Museum — the City doesn’t have to announce why.

    7) If the City wanted more money, it could have said so and the Dahesh Museum or other bidders could have gone about trying to raise the money.

    A bidder’s Request for Proposal is not a final contract. What the RFP process does is allow the City to look at and choose which organization it wants to work with — and apparently the City chose not to work with an organization that wanted to preserve and restore the building but, instead, with an organization that wanted to destroy its original design.

    8) Whether opponents think the Dahesh Museum’s collection is to their taste or not is irrelevant. And, in any case, there are other museums that also expressed an interest in using the original 2 Columbus Circle design and restoring it.

    9) The Courts make legal decisions about whether the actions of the City and the LPC were legal or not. Just because something may turn out to be legal doesn’t necessarily mean that it is good public policy. Robert Moses wrote lots of laws to make what he did legal — that doesn’t necessarily mean that those laws were good public policy. The same goes for the use of eminent domain for economic development.

    10) Whether some people love or don’t love the Socony-Mobil Building isn’t the issue. The question is how should a city go about determining which buildings to grant public hearings to and to possibly landmark? What is the process? Is the process transparent? Does it apply to everyone equally? Or is the landmarking “process” simply a question of “who knows whom” and behind the scenes deal-making?

    11) Whether a building is a) neglected or not, b) is or is not in regular use, c) does or does not get tax breaks is irrelevant to this controversy.

    12) Two Columbus Circle was government property. So the issue of government control of private property has nothing to do with this controversy. And boh MADD and the Dahesh Museum (and, presumably any of the other museums that expressed an interest in the building) are non-profit organizations anyway.

    13) The question isn’t more or less landmarking, but which buildings get landmarked: buildings like the Socony-Mobil Building or Two Columbus Circle ). What is the process? Is it a good one or not?

    The purpose of my posts was to inform interested readers of information and reasoning that was not included in the posts of others. Hopefully readers will examine any future comments on these posts with an eye towards their relevancy, logic and factual accuracy.

  8. 1. I asked you for objective criteria, excepting ‘experts’. Your responded only with experts; having earlier charged that the BOT at — those folks have their own issues) was acting in a way that might be considered unethical by communicating with the LPC outside regular channels. Who is to say the experts you recommend (academics) don’t behave similarly?

    2. MAD being poorer than the Met correlates with its influence in the City. The City gives massive sums of money to the Met, but gives very little to MAD. If MAD were such a powerful cabal, don’t you think they would be getting more funding?

    3. MAD has the money now perhaps, but during the lawsuits, most donors were unwilling to commit until the conflict was settled, creating an awkward chicken/egg issue (the City wanted to see the funding in place before selling the property) [disclosure: MAD was a client and this was relayed to me by a development staff member early in the process; subsequent to that, the relationship ended, so I don’t know at what point, if any, fund raising became easier].

    4. The Mayor is not a former member. He is an current ex-officio member (By virtue of office or position; “by right of office”. Often used when someone holds one position by virtue of holding another.). Other ex-officio members include the Manhattan Borough Pres and Council Speaker. The Mayor is also ex-officio at the Met, both positions likely granted because of the support the city gives. Your other Trilateral Commission claims about the others need to be more thoroughly explicated before one could fairly argue them.

    5. I guess I was talking about the cyclone fencing that went up in ’98.

    6. Then why complain about it being passed over?

    7. RFP’s, in order to be fair, don’t regularly allow the type of price fixing you are recommending.

    8. What other musuems? And did any of them demonstrate the financial resources to cover the costs? The city absolutely can asses the value of a collection. The role of the city in funding cultural organizations is crucial to its success vis a vis tourism, as well fomenting new opportunities and venues for current and incoming residents. The Dahesh Museum doesn’t attract much interest in its current state, and a more prominent locale would simply recreate the sad spectacle of the Hartford Museum.

    9. This may be the case, but the anti-2 Columbus Crowd need to pick a strategy and stick with it. It wasn’t illegal, though this claims leaks in around the edges of all their complaints. Nothing was procedurally wrong with the process (ths is what was determined by the litigation). If you don’t like the policy, call your council member. Or better, run yourself. Terms limits have made it a little easier. Also, note that I said Kelo was noxious and uncessary.

    10. You brought up the Socony Mobil building, not me. I still don’t understand why it is germane to the conversation, except you introduced it as some putative masterstroke of bad taste on the part of the LPC. I happend to disagree with that. Objectively, then, this point is neutral relative to the discussion. Ask Felix to host a poll to see how many readers agree with us, respectively.

    11. Use absolutely matters. Like or lump it, this isn’t socialism. Land use is the single most important thing a city manages (even policing is secondary, since land use will dictate value and safety well in advance of patrolment). Derelict buildings represent economic, health and safety threats. The fact that the city was responsible for the neglect would be an issue, except I happen to think they have revitalized the site in an exceptional way. As to tax breaks — it’s the only reason that preservation exists. There isn’t a city in this country that would have a preservation district if tax breaks weren’t associated with it.

    12. Well, sure, but I’m not sure how this point that relevant in what I said.

    13. I asked you for objective criteria. The notion of three academics writing letters is not a successful model. I don’t like the process either, but I’d rather junk the preservation system altogether, rather than revise it and depend upon the insular and useless community of American architecture academics.

  9. Benjamin Hemric says:

    Just for the record, in my posts, the acronym MADD should have been MAD instead.

  10. Benjamin Hemric says:

    Sorry, I didn’t realize that there was actually another post sandwiched in between my two previous posts.

    A general note:

    It seems to me that the “danger” in a long “back-and-forth” discussion is that inevitably people begin to stray from — and lose sight of — the original discussion. What happens is that the discussion no longer is about what was originally posted, but about what were one person’s reaction to another person’s comments about another person’s reactions, etc., etc. And that’s what seems to me to have happened here in a number of instances.

    It seems to me that the topics of many of the questions being asked were actually pretty clearly discussed in the original posts and that rather than try to re-explain them by addressing a comment that was addressed to another comment that was addressed to another comment, etc., it may just be simpler for people who are interested to go back to the original posts and just re-read them in light of subsequent questions and comments.

    1) This comment/question seems to be to be a prime example of the above.

    It seems to me that it is a tangled misreading of what was actually said and that, perhaps, a number of different points have been jumbled together. So I trust any readers who are interested will go back to the original posts and re-read what was actually said in them in light of the subsequent questions and comments.

    2) Power and influence equal to that of the Metroplitan Museum of Art is “over kill” and seems quite irrelevant to this controversy.

    3) While this may, or may not, be true, this doesn’t seem to have relevance to the original discussion of whether Two Columbus Circle should have been given a public hearing or not, etc.

    4) While the Mayor may currently be an ex-officio member of the Board, my understanding is that before he was Mayor, when he was just a billionaire patron of the arts, he was also connected in some way with the museum, then known, I believe, as the Museum of Contemporary Crafts.

    5) Two Columbus Circle was used for various City offices from about 1978 onward, I believe.

    6) This statement was in reply to the assertion that it was known why the City did not accept the bid of the Dahesh Museum.

    7) Price-fixing had a very precise meaning. Nothing that’s been discussed is in anyway related to price-fixing. As mentioned previously, an RFP is not a final contract, but literally a “request for [a] proposal.”

    8) Yes, of course, the City has the right — and duty — to look into the financial viability (and tourist potential) of organizations looking to buy Two Columbus Circle. However, the City never announced why it didn’t accept any of the bids submitted by the Dahesh or others during the previous RFPs. And more recently, given the City’s interest in selling to MAD (an organization interested in destroying the original design), there is no indication that the City has ever been interested in examining the finances and tourist potential of any of the organizations expressing an interest in preserving the building.

    9) As mentioned previously, whether the organizations trying to save 2 Columbus Circle picked the correct legal strategies to successfully challenge the legality of the City’s actions in court is a different discussion from the policy issues that were discussed in the original posts.

    10) This seems to me to be another example of where the original posts were actually pretty clear, so I hope that anyone interested will just go back and re-read them in light of the subsequent comments and questions.

    11) A number of these assertions seem to be untrue. But the main thing, as mentioned in a previous post, is that they appears to have no relevance / connection to the current discussion.

    12) Again, no relevance to the current discussion has been shown.

    13) Everyone, of course, is entitled to their own opinion.

    However, as mentioned originally, it seems to me to be unrealistic to try and devise an entire new set of landmarking procedures inside of a blog’s comment box. The suggestion of requiring a public hearing on any building having three (or six, or nine, whatever) acknowledged experts from accredited universities vouching for it was only an illustration of one possible approach to weeding out “unworthy” buildings via a system that is less political and more objective than the current one.

    If people have other ideas as to how the scheduling of public hearings might be done less politically and more objectively, they should certainly express them.

  11. Look Benjamin, you started the point-by-point bit, not me. I’m only going to make one comment that might indicate that both of us are making both unsubstantiated assertions, as well as drawing on some degree of second-hand info and memory, that my assertions are based on better research. So far, you have gotten both names of the institution in question wrong: previously is was the American Craft Museum and currently is it the Museum of Arts and Design.

    I’m betting your interest in this case stems from a general interest in perservation, and likely have been reading about it from second-hand sources. I don’t want to use this point to besmirch your points about preservation in general, but if you are taking the generalist position, that’s a whole different argument. There has been much more debate and introspection about this process than your typical, oh, we woke up and someone tore down a treaured outhouse story (I used to live in Savannah, GA, so I have some understanding of how these conversations evolve). But your lack of command of some details in this debate indicates to me that you haven’t seen much of it (meaning if your sources are the Landmarks West people, then perhaps there is a little too much bias in your reading). The ACM/MAD is a small, but not unknown organization locally. To err on both names puts you pretty far from the playing field. Though I doubt we would find much common ground on preservation issues in general, it does seem a more apropos focus at this point.

  12. Benjamin Hemric says:

    I think it’s important not to be sidetracked by ad hominum argumentation, but to stick to the actual issues involved and look at, and evaluate, the facts, logic and relevance of the information that’s been presented.

    It’s up to readers to decide which argument is more deeply grounded and makes more sense to them:

    a) one with some typos (and maybe even some spelling errors) and an offhand, but already qualified (” . . . I believe . . .”) remark about the musuem’s previous name — a remark that is hardly germane, let alone essential, to the controversy;

    or

    b) one that has major errors regarding facts (e.g., contrary to the original claim, the structure was not abandoned for 20 years, etc.), concepts (e.g., a misunderstanding as to what constitutes “price-fixing,” etc.), logic (e.g., the power of a Metropolitan Museum is overkill and not needed, etc.) and general overall relevance (e.g., the inclusion of a numerous red herrings and straw men) that relate directly to the controversy.

  13. Benjamin Hemric says:

    From what is apparently a “New York Times” article that was republished in the on-line edition of the “San Francisco Chronicle” on July 30, 2003 [?] (“Crafts Museum changes its name . . .” ):

    “Say Hello to Great Design” reads the sidewalk kiosk for an exhibition, “USDesign: 1975-2000,” at the Museum of Arts and Design in Manhattan. The invitation is accompanied by a picture of a telephone designed by Michael Graves, the architect, for the Target chain.

    The 46-year-old museum, established as the MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY CRAFTS and then for 23 years the American Craft Museum, renamed itself again in October . . . .

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