Now that it seems as if the Fogarty Building will finally come down, the Brutalist government structure next to the Providence Journal Building downtown was treated to a love-fest in the Journal today. “Time’s Up” reads the headline of reporter John Hill’s story. “Too old to be hip, too young to be venerated,” he groans on the building’s behalf.
In fact, the Fogarty is unpopular because it is ugly, and its ugliness is too blatant to be wished away in a cloud of words. I’m surprised that Hill did not find anyone to quote on rebranding Brutalism from ugly to “heroic” – the latest intellectual froth in art circles following the publication of a new book along those lines called Heroic: Concrete Architecture in the New Boston.
Although Hill’s story and his accompanying piece about the Brutalist style commendably offer alternative viewpoints, their central assumption that the Fogarty and its style were once popular is false. Brutalism has always been disliked by the public – and why not? It is a style that is based on a credo of the public be damned. Architects of the modernist era treat the the public’s dislike of their work as a feather in their cap.
Modern architecture – with Brutalism as the most straightforward example – emerged from a history going back two centuries or more that traces artists’ increasing frustration with public (or “bourgeois”) taste. The public has always preferred tradition to novelty in design. By the early 20th century, artists – including artisans and architects – were so mad at the public that they embraced design that openly poked public taste in the eye. Now that the market for art and architecture no longer arises mainly from the middle class but from the corporate elite, artists and architects no longer suffer financially from the public’s dislike of their work.
Brent Brolin’s pathbreaking Architectural Ornament: Banishment and Return, written in 1985, tells the story well and with a profusion of illustrations. One of his themes is that, with Immanuel Kant’s call for artists to seek freedom in novelty, most artists, architects and craft workers have misunderstood the true springs of creativity and innovation. For thousands of years, artists and architects conceived of innovation and creativity as the result of individual artists’ search, using both talent and precedent, for ever greater virtuosity in the application of method and craft to design. The result was an ever-rising level of beauty in art, architecture and commercial products. That changed as novelty at any cost became the focus of design. Having cast out traditional ornament based on nature, however, and having substituted new inspiration based largely on machine culture, there remained a very limited kit of design tools, and as those were used up, novelty had to reach out farther and farther beyond tradition to meet the requirements of a self-limiting “creativity.”
As Brolin writes:
Modernism’s philosophy is exclusive, not inclusive, and therefore its forms have changed remarkably little in the past eighty [now 110] years. The buildings published in today’s professional journals are, by and large, just exaggerated versions of earlier modernist exercises – Mies through a fun-house mirror. The near century-old shapes of modernism are pulled and stretched, chopped apart and reassembled, to be sure, but they rely on the same simple, barren geometry that characterized the style from the beginning. They use the same restricted form vocabulary that was introduced eighty years ago, and they refine it by taking away from the form rather than adding to it. They tend to be as sterile and inhospitable as their ancestors, and equally hostile or indifferent to their architectural contexts.
The result is around us for all to see – not least in the Fogarty’s Brutalism.
Tear it down.
The problem with the Fogarty is only partly the style. It is profoundly anti urban: set up on a podium away from the street, with a concrete shoulder to the public. The only visible entry is the gaping hole for cars, and the way in for the public are stairs leading to dark entries hidden away from the street. Granted, most brutalist buildings are anti urban, but it is not implicit in the style.
The future for any of the grey “beton brut” hulks is not very promising: eventually, water will penetrate to the reinforcing steel; rust will start; cracks will form and the surface will to spall off. My late father in law, Augusto Romano, an architect in practice for nearly 50 years in Italy, confessed to me near the end of his life that he regretted doing so much work in bare reinforced concrete. He could already see the problems with surface deterioration on his early work, problems it is very expensive to repair. This came from an architect who had a picture of himself showing a project model to Le Corbusier hung in pride of place in the office.
Peter, that’s a very affecting story of the Italian architect. I wish there were a collection of stories like that which I could recirculate in my column. If you could write it up briefly I would run it under your name on my blog. Only if you want to. But as to the Fogarty’s ills being only partly a matter of style, that is true, but its other problems are a subset of its style. In no traditional style would the idea of a building that turns its back on the street be conceivable. There may be poorly designed traditional buildings, but there are none that turn their backs on the street as a matter of principle. Corbusier wanted to eliminate the street. It is no surprise that he and his followers designed buildings that disliked the street, disliked pedestrians, disliked shoppers and shopping. Modernism is the quintessential anti-social style, so many of the problems with its buildings are part of their DNA.
Well said…never liked modernism. The Fogarty buildings demise will not be mourned by this middle class citizen.
I am enjoying your commentary.
Rosalind…yes that Rosalind
I don’t blame your dad, Robin, I blame the people who asked him to design a building he and they were perfectly aware the public would not like. Your dad was just doing his job. The people who purged traditional design from architecture and then from architecture schools are also to blame. There is a lot of blame to go around, of which the individual architect deserves some but not all. The profession of architecture, and its top professional organizations, are very culpable for the overt steps they take to prevent design tastes congenial to the public from getting a new foothold. The playing field for architecture is tilted toward modernism and against styles the public likes to a perverse degree. But to answer your question, I write with relentless negativity about Brutalism because it is an act of social good to condemn – I repeat, to justly condemn – through it the broader societal ill of modern architecture.
?? My dad drafted that building in the design that was asked for, ? What’s up with the relentless negativity about The design style? Robin Giacomini
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