The Triumph and Decline of a Truly Brutal Style

(By Roger K. Lewis For The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, May 30, 2009

The historically landmarked, stylistically "brutalist" Third Church of Christ Scientist at 16th and I streets NW, long disliked by its owner as well as by many Washingtonians, is fated to meet the wrecking ball. Could this be the destiny of brutalist architecture -- those minimally ornamented, exposed-concrete buildings erected in Washington in the 1960s and 1970s?

Demolition has been proposed for the Forestal Building bridging 10th Street SW at Independence Avenue. Many think the FBI Building on Pennsylvania Avenue NW likewise should be a candidate.

The word brutalism comes from "b├ęton brut," or raw concrete in French. It is defined by Random House as "the aesthetic use of basic building processes with no apparent concern for visual amenity." But despite appearances, designers who embraced brutalism and its stylistic offshoots were in fact concerned with visual amenity.

Fifty years ago, many architects were infatuated with concrete as a finish as well as a structural material. Industrially produced concrete was thought to be intrinsically beautiful, ideal not only for creating building skeletons, but also for achieving poetic design expression. Why conceal or decorate it?

Concrete indeed has many virtues. It is inexpensive and widely available. It can be shaped at will, whether poured into formwork on site or precast to make window frames, wall panels, floor planks, columns and beams. A vast array of patterns and textures can be embossed on exposed concrete surfaces. Its color can be manipulated using various aggregates and admixtures. And concrete is inherently fireproof and soundproof.

When I was an architecture student in the 1960s, our heroes -- Le Corbusier, Marcel Breuer, Jose Luis Sert, Louis Kahn, Paul Rudolph -- were designing visually robust concrete buildings whose photos regularly appeared in American and European architectural journals.

But the concrete infatuation waned. Too many all-concrete buildings looked bureaucratic, sterile and devoid of detail. They developed cracks, absorbed discoloring dirt particles and became streaked with stains from rainwater.

New materials and technologies, coupled with new aesthetic philosophies, sent architects in different directions. Brutalist, all-concrete buildings were viewed as relics of a misguided phase of mid-20th-century modernism.

Yet this is precisely why the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board conferred landmark status on the Third Church. But preservation was an uphill battle.

The church's congregation deplored the building on all counts -- aesthetic, functional, technical and financial -- and vigorously opposed the preservation board's decision. The church appealed, and the mayor's agent granted it.

However, preservationists should not panic. This was a special case involving tough issues: private property rights, freedom of worship, economic hardship, a structure difficult to adapt to new uses, and, conversely, the government's right and duty to advocate for and enforce historic preservation.

Thus the church's fate is not a harbinger of things to come. The need to act sustainably and create greener architecture will ensure survival of most unloved concrete buildings, preserving the energy and resources already invested in them. And with a creative facade makeover, even the brutal can be made beautiful.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company