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Thursday, March 17, 2016

Book Review: Concrete Concept and Heroic

Concrete Concept: Brutalist Buildings Around the World by Christopher Beanland
Frances Lincoln, 2016
Hardcover, 192 pages

Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston by Mark Pasnik, Michael Kubo, Chris Grimley
The Monacelli Press, 2015
Hardcover, 336 pages



Late last year when I was at the New York Public Library's main building I stopped into the gift shop, which was decked out for holiday shopping. On a shelf alongside other toys was Blockitecture, its first series devoted to Brutalism (photo below). My first thought was that Brutalism – the "style" of concrete architecture from the late 1950s to early 1970s – was finally, officially hip. This was good, since it implied that the hatred of Brutalist buildings was waning, subject to reappraisal by younger generations that grew fond of the rough concrete and aggressive forms, much like others now embrace Postmodernism, a style I still have a hard time swallowing. But my second thought was that the toy blocks didn't really resemble Brutalist buildings. Some of the blocks interlocked, which made sense, but they were faceted rather than orthogonal; full of color; and the windows were appliqué rather than integral to the forms. In other words, there was an evident misunderstanding of Brutalist architecture. These books, in their own ways, serve to remedy that rampant confusion.



Concrete Concept assembles 50 Brutalist buildings, numbered 1 to 50 and presented with basic facts, a couple paragraphs of text each and numerous photographs, most in color. It starts with Le Corbusier's Unite d'Habitation from 1952 and ends with Susanne Gross's Maria-Magdalena Church from 2004, but the 48 buildings in between are not arranged in chronological order. Nor are they in alphabetical order, or in some sort of geographical order. For the life of me, I can't tell decipher what logic author Christopher Beanland used in ordering the projects.

This ordering is really besides the point, since in any book that collects a bunch of buildings, the important thing is what is included and what is omitted. And in this case, the selection is solid if questionable at times. Think of a building that carries the Brutalist label and it's probably here: Couvent Sainte-Marie de la Tourette, Banco de Londres y América del Sur, Preston Bus Station, The Barbican, Yale Art & Architecture Building and a few other Paul Rudolph buildings. But where is Boston City Hall? Why is the stone-clad AT&T Long Lines Building in Lower Manhattan here? And ditto with Marina City, whose delicate, "corn-cob" balconies would seem to refuse the Brutalist label?

Most confusing, though, is the inclusion of Gross's church from this century. Most of the buildings fall into the roughly 20 years centered on the 1960s, but Beanland ends the book with this "neo-brutalist oddity" as he calls it. He asserts that "Brutalism, evidently, hasn't died," and then asks rhetorically: "The start of a new chapter?" Perhaps he's hinting at a sequel, but for me this building's inclusion opens up the possibility for including other neo-Brutalist buildings that fit the bill. All tolled, Beanland's book is a visual feast that situates Brutalism within form-making – uncompromised form-making, to be sure.

Although also a visual feast, Heroic is the antithesis of Concrete Concept. Heck, the omission of the word "Brutalism" from the title or subtitle says as much: "Concrete" is there, but in place of "Brutalism" the authors – Mark Pasnik, Michael Kubo and Chris Grimley of over,under / pinkcomma – opted for "Heroic," which is just as riddled with contradictions as Brutalism but doesn't carry as many mis- or preconceptions. As a further distinction from Concrete ConceptHeroic is focused on one city instead of an international sampling of concrete buildings, and it delves deeper into history and context (political, social, urban), making it a much more rewarding book for those wanting to go below the (rough) surfaces of concrete architecture.

Heroic is split into three sections: Words, Buildings and Voices. The second makes up the bulk of the book, with the numerous buildings partitioned into four parts: Reinventing the Civic Center, University Building, Design Culture and Making the New Boston. Words includes the author's introduction (much of it explaining the use of Heroic over Brutalism) followed by scholarly essays on Heroic architecture in Boston and beyond, while Voices serves as an oral history on some of the buildings that populate the book. Although most readers will be drawn to the Buildings, the Words and Voices sections are extremely valuable contributions, especially the latter, given the threats of demolition that Heroic buildings in Boston and beyond continue to face, regardless of the popularity of "Brutalist" toys.

The whole Heroic undertaking can be traced back to 2007, when the authors decided to mount an exhibition that countered the then mayor's call for the demolition or sale of Boston City Hall (Kallmann, McKinnell and Knowles, 1962-1969). Two years later, they unveiled an exhibition at pinkcomma gallery, which I happened to see on my (so far) only visit to Boston, in November 2009. (I still have my pink and white tear sheets from the gallery walls.) The exhibition, its companion microsite, and now the book all these years later tells the story of these buildings and the "new Boston" in a fairly straightforward manner, but one that makes the appreciation of these buildings on the part of the authors clear. Even as Boston has lost a number of Heroic buildings recently, I'd like to think their passion will serve to curtail the ill-considered destruction of buildings whose qualities are deeper than their concrete surfaces.

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