An attitude, not a material

Concrete building in Saint Augustine, Fla.

Concrete building, the Hotel Acazar, in Saint Augustine, Fla. (Top two photos by Patrick Webb.)

Patrick Webb, of the American College of the Building Arts, in Charleston, delighted the TradArch list today with examples from Saint Augustine, Fla., of concrete used without brutality. They are the Hotel Acazar, above, and Grace Metodist Church, below to the left. Financed by Henry Flagler, the railroad magnate, both were designed by Carrere and Hastings and completed circa 1887, using Perth Amboy terra cotta.

Grace Methodist Church in Saint Augustine.

Grace Methodist Church in Saint Augustine.

You see, it is a matter of choice, not just cost, to bring beauty to building. I’d wager that any building of concrete in the Beton-brute style better known as Brutalism could have been made more attractive for equal cost. It’s less a matter of material than of design philosophy. The bar is ridiculously low.

Those who are drooling over Paul Rudolph’s Brutalist Orange County Government Center probably realize that, but would never admit it. They take pride in the decision back in the late 1960s when the building was first proposed, to plop it amid a traditional streetscape in Goshen, N.Y. The decision to use concrete was secondary: They were not inflicting concrete on Goshen but Brutalism. Indeed, primarily they were not inflicting Brutalism on Goshen but modernism. Joy in poking average people in the eye is a part of modern architecture’s founding conceit – that people who like this stuff are more intelligent, or have a more refined, less Philistine sense of aesthetics, than those who do not.

False! Those who do not like it are actually more nuanced, in fact, than those who like it. If it is true that the mind is like an iceberg, most of which is under water, it is fair to say that those who dislike Brutalism are using more than the percentage of their consciousness  that’s above the water. Those who like Brutalism have thoughts that are more reliant on the crutch of orthdoxy, which enables them articulate complex (and generally foolish) ideas without having to think. Their brains never reach beneath the surface.

If Orange County had built a government center more like the building above in Saint Augustine, or the equally nice one at the upper left, the embarrassing intellectual pretzeling we’ve seen in Goshen this past week would not have been necessary. For that matter, that elegant bridge in Saint Augustine, pictured below, is probably also made from concrete. Do you suppose any of the Orange County Government Center acolytes would rather have a typical modernist concrete bridge in its place? Neither do I. Would they admit it? … Just askin’.

Bridge in Saint Augustine.

Bridge in Saint Augustine. (Landmark Realty)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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2 Responses to An attitude, not a material

  1. westfall2 says:

    who can add to the list of poured-in-place concrete traditional buildings? And who can provide studies of them? They are not uncommon in the decades on either side of 1900.

    Like

  2. David,

    It was in 2000, I believe, when I visited Christopher Alexander at his home near Arundel, UK. We were still working to make the last edits on the Nature of Order. He drove me to the West Dean Visitor’s Center, which he had designed and built, so that I could see it. Of course it’s a great building, yet something surprised me because it was so unexpected. I turned to Christopher and said: “You have managed something tremendous here; using concrete in a beautiful way. I never thought it possible! Other architects employ concrete to assault the users’ feelings.” He didn’t seem to think much of this particular accomplishment. Now I’m reminded of that day.

    West Dean Visitor’s Center

    Best wishes,
    Nikos

    Like

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