Staff Writer Linus Glenhaber futilely tries to convince you that his favorite style of architecture is not, in fact, terrible.
A few months ago, I went to the MoMA with friends. After they kicked us out, we went to the gift shop. There, I saw the Atlas of Brutalist Architecture, which I leafed through before realizing that it cost something like $150. Luckily, you can take out a book from the Columbia Libraries for pretty much infinite time if nobody else wants them. I’m pretty sure it’s a safe bet that I can keep this book for a while.
As far as brutalism stans go, I’m pretty much alone. Besides one friend of mine, the general consensus among them is that brutalism is “ugly,” “imposing,” and “stop talking about brutalism, Linus.” I don’t think that this is true, though (except the last part). Whenever I’m on the plaza in front of the law school, I find myself appreciating the brutalism that surrounds me. I hope I can show you why.
On a walking tour of Columbia’s campus, almost every building can be mistaken with one another. Journalism blends into John Jay; I couldn’t tell you from a photo which one is Havemeyer and which is Hartley. Red brick, cream trim, and a green roof. It’s pretty, but also pretty repetitive. When new buildings can be made, then, why not make them different? Brutalism is many things, but at least it’s different. Butler hides everything about itself behind a facade. There are a ton of columns (that hold up nothing) which make a pleasant exterior. Now think about a different library on campus, for the Law School. It’s edgy—literally! It’s got so many different fun little ridges! You don’t have to be distracted by writing on it telling you exactly which Greek philosophers were in the core 75 years ago, or saying how many dead white American names can fit below some windows. You can just look at the shape of the building and appreciate all of the interesting designs offered by unadorned concrete.
The International Affairs Building may be one of my favorite buildings on campus. It’s a big building, but not too big that it feels too imposing. The two large stairwells make two vertical lines which break up the repetitive windows, allowing the eye to look at individual parts of it without being overwhelmed. The plaza design helps with this too—it’s set a bit back from the main path to EC, so it doesn’t appear as if the building looms over you. It catches the light beautifully, turning the gray concrete a great shade of gold. I’m even a fan of the entryway to it from the plaza: the stairs bring you to an underhang with a very normal human sized door—compare that with how to get into Butler or Avery! The only bad part about it, that ground floor is six or maybe four? isn’t even about the external design, just part of Columbia’s project to destroy the meaning of floor numbers.
Brutalism isn’t only at Columbia, of course. It’s a worldwide movement found in countless settings. This was one of the reasons that I loved the Atlas so much. It shows different buildings standing on their own, forming different complexes, and even filling in parts of skylines. Each building is unique. They’re all united by a few themes, but brutalism is a pretty broad category and covers buildings built over 40 years. One even looked closer to a sculpture than anything else. It’s hard to imagine any earlier movement of architecture trying to push a boundary like this.
A sidenote about The Atlas of Brutalist Architecture: as far as I can tell, I can keep on renewing it until someone else requests it. While I hope I’ve changed your mind on brutalism, hopefully it wasn’t that effective that you would try to take out this book. It’s not really that great an architectural style, and you’re better off not looking for more examples.
IAB via Bwog Archives