Monster Mash

Just as the theory that image-based feeds instigated the brutalism revival never quite checked out, neither does SOS Brutalism’s stated raison d’être.

Paul Rudolph’s Temple Street Parking Garage in New Haven. Courtesy the Yale School of Architecture

Despite its thirty-seven level changes and bizarro telecommunication headquarters vibe, there is nowhere in Paul Rudolph’s Yale Art and Architecture Building to have a private conversation. Assume that all this corduroy concrete is sound-insulated at your peril. When a badminton tournament concludes on the fourth floor of our Brutalist landmark—now named Rudolph Hall, but still home, since 1963, to the Yale School of Architecture—you hear cheering on the seventh; when you gossip on the fifth-floor balcony, gossipers on the balcony above will listen in; call your doctor from the windowless upper tray of the sixth floor, and everyone in the studio thirty feet away will have committed a HIPAA violation. Nowhere is this sonic promiscuity more evident than in the building’s atrium-like second-floor gallery, from the center of which you can count at least five levels. Most prominent is the catwalk encircling the gallery’s upper perimeter, part of the third-floor administrative suite. Voices alternately hushed and buoyant provide an unfiltered soundtrack to the gallery, floating down not just from the suite’s outboard circulation but from staff and faculty offices, some of which are missing doors, ceilings, or both.

This past fall, the gallery hosted an exhibition that deftly explicated this paradox while leaving more existential uncertainties in its wake. SOS Brutalism: Save the Concrete Monsters!, a traveling show from Frankfurt’s Deutsches Architekturmuseum (DAM), arrived at Rudolph Hall in August for its US debut, after stops in Vienna, Bochum, Aalen, and Taipei. Pulling sixty-some global exemplars of the brawny architectural idiom into eighteen regional and thematic nodes, it cast Brutalism as a medium for decolonization throughout Africa, for social housing and welfare in western Europe, for civic initiatives in the USSR, for the celebration of working-class labor in Latin America, for postwar reconstruction in Japan, for cultural centers in Yugoslavia. Popularly maligned as aggressively antisocial, Brutalism, in this telling, was anything but. Rather, it was a language of public architecture that exuberantly announced itself. The exact meaning of public or social simply depended on the time and place. Within this context, Rudolph Hall’s simultaneous solidity and porosity could be read with the generosity it deserves: neither as a soundproofing failure nor as an aural panopticon, but an intentionally reverberant space for the exchange of ideas. It’s exactly this kind of encounter with Brutalism that the show ostensibly meant to produce—and so, on its own terms, was a success. The exhibition was one piece of the larger, ongoing #SOSBrutalism project: conceived at a symposium at the Wüstenrot Foundation in 2012, officially launched in 2015 as an online building database, and first realized as an exhibition at DAM in 2017. As curator Oliver Elser describes in the brochure for the Yale iteration, the project aims to connect the expert and popular strains of the current Brutalist revival through “an advocacy campaign that picks up that momentum and attempts to rechannel the energy from the internet’s filter bubbles to the very spot where bulldozers and demolition balls are waiting to destroy the next concrete monster.” The exhibition’s intended role in this offensive is to lead public opinion toward “a rediscovery of Brutalism: as a regionally embedded, oppositional, heroically artistic architecture.”

“The internet’s filter bubbles” refers, of course, to social media, primarily to Tumblr and Instagram—so often given credit for the resurgence of interest in Brutalism that began in the late aughts. And it’s true: these buildings look good in pictures. (Owen Hatherley, the revival’s best analyst, recalled in 2016 that “Brutalism was always meant to be photogenic”; he made sure to cite Reyner Banham, the style’s most notorious theorist, who “considered the ‘memorable image’ one of the principal things” that defined it.) Impressively, while photographs were the primary visual medium for SOS Brutalism, the installation managed to resist image fetish. Not only was the exhibition itself somewhat unphotographable—its mostly freestanding corduroy-cardboard panels spread languidly around the perimeter of the gallery, so as to leave space for the school’s lecture receptions—the included images were unfussy, unframed print-outs, often tinted or oddly cropped, pasted directly onto the panels. These buildings, the installation proved, don’t need a head-on angle and a black-and-white filter to read as tremendous, varied, breathtaking, strange.

I wonder if there is something deep in the collective unconscious that has caused it to dredge up the memory of Brutalism in particular and refuse to loosen its grip. These are buildings, after all, that we are no longer allowed to build.

But just as the theory that image-based feeds instigated the Brutalism revival never quite checked out, neither does SOS Brutalism’s stated raison d’être. A thorough rediscovery of Brutalism is warranted, according to Elser, so that the public will throw the weight of Instagram behind preservation campaigns and so keep these precarious buildings from the wrecking ball. This argument suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of social media, which effortlessly produce desire, consumption, and capital but rarely translate a moment into a durée, a spark into activism. More surprisingly, though, the need for a swell of grassroots support is not obviously borne out by #SOSBrutalism’s own data. While the corpus of some individual architects—Rudolph’s among them—are in serious danger, Brutalism as a whole appears to be doing okay. Only eight of the fifty-eight buildings highlighted in the Yale exhibition (13 percent) are threatened; one, Robin Hood Gardens in East London, was scandalously demolished back in 2017. An even smaller percentage of the full #SOSBrutalism database is threatened: 207 of 2,184 buildings (9 percent), with 91 (4 percent) razed. The imperative to preserve and adapt rather than tear down should never be understated, and Brutalist buildings certainly take more than their fair share of vitriol and violence, but the risk of global Brutalist demolition does not seem so acute as to warrant a decadelong-and-counting proselytizing mission. In the end, like many of the think pieces, photo roundups, fan accounts, and coffee-table books that have come out in that time, the exhibition’s true impetus is as clear as a bucket of cement.

Why are we still talking about Brutalism? It is a truism that nostalgia comes in cycles, and this resurgence has been in step with other resurrections of the ’60s and ’70s (see: endless variations on the bubble couch, disco period-piece blockbusters, bucket hats). But as these consumer trends start to fade, I wonder if there is something deep in the collective unconscious that has caused it to dredge up the memory of Brutalism in particular and refuse to loosen its grip. These are buildings, after all, that we are no longer allowed to build. We have neither the political will to manifest such robustly social architecture, nor the cheap labor and the blissful ignorance of the consequences of concrete to realize such form. There is much to mourn here: a monumentality that belongs to the public rather than to capital; buildings that celebrate both the line of the architect and the hand of the builder; pre-oil consciousness; a natural world that is rapidly mutating as the climate crisis marches onward, its effects distributed just as unevenly as the exploitative wealth creation that caused it.

Mourning, however, is hard. So instead of naming this loss and opening space, through grief, for a different future, architectural culture languishes in a melancholic cycle of rephotographing and reconceptualizing. SOS Brutalism, for all its lack of self-awareness, at least engages in the latter. It is easy to indulge in the fleeting satisfaction of flattening these rude, graphic behemoths with the smooth ethereality of the scroll, wielding an instrument of late modernity against our self-inflicted impotence. More poignant is the act of remembering what Brutalism actually offered—deeply social spaces where everybody knows your business.

Clare Fentress is probably gluing dowels together on the fourth floor of Rudolph Hall. Ask her for a tour.