Brutalism’s heroic ugliness


Orange County Government Service Center. (Park Pasnik/The Monacelli Press)

Hats off to Jo-Anne Peck for sending to TradArch this amazing article, “In Memoriam: Important Buildings We Lost in 2015,” by Kriston Capps, a staff writer for CityLab. Quoth Peck: “I don’t see any I would miss.”

Right on, Jo-Anne! I won’t miss any of them either, but neither will I miss this opportunity to guffaw at Capps’s slobbering attitudes toward Brutalism, the focus of this article and the branch of modern architecture in the ’60s and ’70s that exalted rough concrete (“béton brut” in French). The Penguin Dictionary of Architecture describes it as “handled with an overemphasis on big chunky members which collide ruthlessly.” Exactement!

Unloved Landmark

Orange County Government Service Center. (Mike Groll/AP)

But first, a news flash: The Orange County Government Service Center, the Brutalist building designed by Paul Rudolph in Goshen, N.Y., has been demolished. That’s what Capps says, and it’s (good) news to me. I suppose that what will be left of Rudolph after a planned “renovation” of the icon is so minimal that the heartthrobs of midcentury modern are downcast. My own heart does not go pitter-pat on their behalf.

Capps writes: “Even critics who reject Brutalism for more-or-less ideological reasons – namely the anti-intellectual charge that Heroic Concrete is ‘ugly’ – ought to see that Orange County bungled this one.”


New county building in Goshen. (CityLab)

Well, that’s me, and I cannot see it. Sure, Orange County has bungled this one – not by demolishing the Brutish building but by planning to replace it with something that’s even worse – worse not least because Goshenites can no longer blame their ridiculous forefathers but only themselves.

In the passage quoted above Capps uses the phrase “Heroic Concrete,” alluding (and linking) to a new book out that tries to claim that Brutalism is heroic, not ugly. Not ugly!? Only a degree in architecture can explain (if not justify) a denial that Brutalism is ugly. Of course it is ugly. Modernism wallows in the idea of ugliness just as it revels in its denial of the idea of beauty.

Capps links to “The Case for Calling Brutalism ‘Heroic’ Instead.” In this article, also for CityLab, Mark Byrnes interviews the authors of Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston, by Mark Byrnes. Leaving aside the basic asininity of his thesis, Byrnes proves with his photo selection that by choosing your shot and your angle carefully you can find beauty in almost anything. He does so (once) with a staircases at the Rudolph building in Goshen. But even if a modernist accidentally commits an act of beauty it does not mean that Brutalism is beautiful, let alone heroic. To ram down the municipal throat a building the public in Goshen hated even before it was built is not heroic. It is … brutal. QED.

There is a lot of inanity in that piece, but genuine inanity masquerading as deep think is fun, so go read it. Capps’s article lists several other brutes razed this year, none that anyone is likely to honestly miss. By the way, I have used with this post the two most alluring photos from Capps’s piece. Compared to most Brutalism, they are the Mona Lisa.


Staircase in Orange County building. (Mark Pasnik/Monacelli Press)

About David Brussat

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, 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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