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.