In the mornings, they collect paper-pushers and patterns of sun and shade. In the evenings, their shadows swallow entire streets, their surfaces swell with yellow light.
Whether humdrum haunts of government bureaucrats or temples of avant-garde design, the Brutalist buildings of D.C. invite both disdain and devotion. They are imposing monsters and gentle giants. They are the detritus of drab mid-century modernism and bold, futuristic icons. To some, they are awkward, and to others graceful.
But even as their appearance shifts with the eye (and era) of the beholder — even as they have transformed from forgotten artifacts to trendy Instagram fodder, Brutalist buildings maintain one unflinching constant: a sense of permanence.
An architectural style characterized by unfinished concrete, recessed windows, top-heavy design, and a proclivity for bulk and heft, Brutalism proliferated around the world in the mid-20th century and found a particularly welcoming home in the D.C. area, which boasts many examples of the style. At the time, the U.S. government was pouring funds into the public sector, and concrete — convenient, inexpensive and versatile — would give shape to public housing, schools, libraries, government offices and more.
These days, Brutalism’s stripped-down philosophy reflects a reality we’ve come to know during the pandemic: restraint over excess, function over flair — in the words of architecture critic Reyner Banham, ethic over aesthetic. To appreciate Brutalist architecture is to embrace the essence of things.
At first, I looked on the Brutalist buildings of my adopted hometown as little more than habitable parking garages. It’s not that I ever disliked them. I simply appreciated their quieter qualities — their natural colors and textures — and let them fade into the background of my mental picture of D.C. Until I couldn’t anymore.
Maybe it started with the Metro stations. At times, I would find myself nearly missing trains, distracted by the way light and shadow seem to transform into physical substance when gathered in the stations’ waffle-like, coffered ceilings.
Or maybe it began with the Hirshhorn Museum, luring me into its concrete doughnut-form, weekend after weekend, when I first moved here. In a 1974 article in the New York Times, the building was disparagingly compared to a bunker. But maybe my mind needed a bunker. As I circled that introspective cylinder of interior windows, around and around, my rambling thoughts tightened into something more solid.
All I know is that one dusk I found myself suddenly softening to the harsh lines of the James V. Forrestal Building. Looking at the Energy Department headquarters — once described by a Washington Post critic as an elephant teetering on the legs of a giraffe — in the waning light, my own legs seemed a little sturdier, my feet more firmly on the ground.
Modern life has a way of scattering us. Social media ripples bits of our personalities across the digital ether. The oceanic information ecosystem demands that we dissolve ourselves into it to glean anything from it. At any given moment, each of us can be in 10 different “places”: at work (via messenger app); shopping (via website); at a birthday party (via a video call). Events, places, people, self — it’s all untethered.
In the cityscape of the 21st century, this idea takes physical form. Glass buildings face one another, rendering their structures invisible, their facades as fickle as the reflection of the clouds. Walking by them, our bodies, too, are reflected in fragments, becoming a mirage.
In this environment, there’s a startling gravity to Brutalist buildings. Light nestles in their grainy, weighty walls. They seem to have risen from the very ground we walk on.
Second only to water, concrete is the most consumed material on Earth. Often, we hide it. Exposed concrete is reserved for stairwells, highways, bridges, parking garages — liminal spaces meant to be passed through.
In Brutalist buildings, the concrete is in your face. While glass buildings seem transient, Brutalist buildings seem to know they will outlast us. To stand in front of one is to be humbled, to be confronted by a chunk of eternity. That can be comforting — or disconcerting.
Of course this is an illusion. Brutalist buildings are endangered by luxury condominiums and crusaders for conservative architecture. A 2020 executive order by President Donald Trump — recently overturned by President Biden — directed all new federal buildings be constructed in the classical style, specifically calling out Brutalist design as to be avoided.
Brutalism is a term as clunky as the buildings it describes. People associate it with anything hulking and concrete. Some use it to describe anything they dislike. Even some proponents of the style have a hard time divorcing it from the idea of brutality, advocating that Brutalist buildings be referred to as “heroic” instead.
But there’s no need to vilify — or glorify — it. The term itself derives from the neutral French phrase béton brut, meaning “raw concrete.” What if we instead called these misunderstood buildings “raw?” Maybe they’d conjure up different associations. Maybe we’d see them as the vulnerable, honest structures they aspire to be.
Trump’s architectural order advocated for buildings that “command admiration.” There, he might have actually gotten something right: Brutalist buildings don’t command much of anything. That’s one of their virtues, and one of their shortcomings: It’s hard to know what to think of them, unbound as they are from narratives of the past. Too often, they’re misread as bland and thoughtless.
Not everyone likes Brutalism. Some scorn the aesthetic as that of a giant mausoleum: bleak and cold. Others see these down-to-earth buildings as harbingers of a more inclusive future, one in which the public is prioritized and where reality feels a little more … concrete.
Much has been written in an effort to get the haters to fall in love with the beauty of Brutalism. But that’s not my aim. Rather, I will show that some of us might be looking at it all wrong: These are buildings, not greeting cards — love and beauty are beside the point.
Brutalism as utopia
On a hushed winter morning at Lake Anne Village in Reston, Va., it’s easy to forget how you got there. There are no cars in sight. Just a half-frozen lake. A light-less lighthouse. The imprint of a boat sunken into the concrete ground — public artworks that double as a playground.
The space feels out of time, but also strangely familiar, as if you’ve lived here long enough to know the particular way snow collects on the miniature concrete monuments that surround this suburban town center: a ziggurat at the southernmost tip; abstract obelisks on Washington Plaza, the heart of the village.
An enclave of blocky, mixed-use buildings — a Baptist church, a Finnish-inspired apartment building, small shops on the ground floor of condos — the Brutalist village seems to float above its suburban surroundings. It speaks a language of brick and concrete; of light and austerity; of volume and sincerity; a language known in the body before the mind.
In 1964, when Lake Anne Village was founded in the heart of Reston, “firsts” defined it: the nation’s first planned community, and Virginia’s first consciously integrated one. Designed by architects William Conklin and James Rossant and founded by developer Robert E. Simon (the R.E.S. of Reston), it used the material of modernity — concrete — to create a better vision of it.
The community’s planners wanted to bring together different socioeconomic groups. They flouted traditional zoning practices to create a walkable, contained village with life’s commercial and residential essentials. People were prioritized over cars, which were relegated to hidden parking lots and back roads. Marketing materials sold Reston as the “answer to suburban sprawl: urban living in the country.”
There’s a plain-spoken optimism to Brutalism, which leaves the structure of a building exposed, staying true to materials as they are found.
From the beginning, utopian language surrounded Lake Anne. Headlines touted a “Brave New Town.” Writers called Reston a “traffic-less utopia” and “almost too good.”
But every utopia — as in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” — teeters on the edge of its opposite. Looking at these structures today, in hindsight, it’s easy see dreams of equity never achieved. Worse: You might find the buildings more inclusive and more honest than we are. Today, Fairfax County is the third wealthiest county in the nation. So much for socioeconomic diversity.
Still, Lake Anne Village embodies latent ideals: In the children scaling the ziggurat, indulging concrete’s imaginative possibilities. In the sounds of mixing and mingling coming from the nearby bookstore and apartments and restaurants. In the unusual bustle of a town that lacks the hustle of the city.
Brutalism as villain’s lair
When Harry Weese designed Washington’s Metro stations, he had ambitions to create a “dignified and serious” space, where people are “respectful of their surroundings and of each other.” More often than not, the region’s subway system feels less dignified than diabolical.
It would be remiss not to admit that Brutalist structures often conjure the opposite of their utopian ideals. The recessed windows of Georgetown University’s Lauinger Library suggest an interior perfect for someone who wants to slink from sight. The angular shadows of the Hubert H. Humphrey Federal Building evoke narrowed, conniving eyes. And what unspeakable evil might lurk behind the three-foot-thick walls of the Robert C. Weaver Federal Building?
If cast in a movie, the Dupont Circle Metro station might be both monster and its monstrous lair.
The escalator’s descent into the earth takes two dehumanizing minutes. Squealing grows into thumping and clattering, until a malevolent chorus fills your ears, floods your thoughts. The intestines of the city rumble. Each step jerks like a menacing seesaw, nudging you toward the void.
In the station, shadows pool in the basins of hundreds of concrete coffers lining the domed catacomb, as if each one holds something secret. Light scurries to corners and crevices, rises from below, casting your features as defamiliarized, haunting forms. Everyone looms.
By the time you get down here, are you as raw as the concrete? As callous as a villain? As low as your basest instincts?
Cackles ricochet off concrete. Sinister plots surface from the shadows. With exteriors that impose and interiors that recede, many Brutalist structures would make great hideaways for the dark side.
The association between Brutalism and villainy has been cemented in pop culture: Movies like “Blade Runner 2049” and “RoboCop” turned to real-life Brutalist buildings to inspire the design of tyrannical fictional megacorporations. A James Bond villain is even named after Brutalist architect Erno Goldfinger.
But the connection has grown, in part, from the dysfunctional governments these buildings often house. Washington’s most notorious Brutalist building, the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover Building, has become a living lair, a symbol of surveillance and policing. Essentially two buildings stacked on top of each other, its doomsday architecture doesn’t help.
When seen from the corner of Ninth and E streets NW, the upper structure seems to hover atop the main building. This illusion makes the long narrow windows seem as far away as a lair atop a cliff. You couldn’t imagine how to get up to them — let alone who or what looks through them.
The structure on top threatens to either take off for space or to crush the structure below. Viewed from Pennsylvania Avenue, the entire building crescendos to an angle, as if plowing toward the National Mall.
The FBI building is defined by geometry so rigid that the winding wires of surveillance cameras look playful by comparison. But like the most interesting villains, it’s untamed. You don’t know what it will do next.
Brutalism as science fiction
If you sent an ordinary office building through a rift in the time-space continuum, what came out the other side might look a little like the Weaver Building.
With it’s double-Y silhouette — as seen from above, the shape of reality splintering into two — the headquarters of the Department of Housing and Urban Development possesses a transcendent bend so colossal it appears to have been made for aliens circling overhead.
While Brutalism envisions an idealistic future, it also, sometimes quite literally, depicts one. Evoking gestures too big — design too otherworldly — for humans to have created, many Brutalist structures appear to have been built in the year 3000 — despite having been designed decades ago.
Marcel Breuer designed the 700,000-square-foot building, which was completed in 1968, just a few years after the department was established. It’s often cited as a direct response to President John F. Kennedy’s call for government buildings that “embody the finest contemporary American architectural thought.” Critics praised it for pushing government buildings toward something new. (In 2021, we are still pushing.)
Breuer got his start at the famed German art school the Bauhaus, where he designed chairs aimed at creating a sense of levitation. He went on to design churches with windows that one pastor described as “deep enough to stretch into infinity.” Later in his career, he commended architecture that defeated gravity for marking “a new epoch in the history of man.”
With HUD, he appears to have defied humanity. A grid of identical windows — 1,584 to be exact — stretches across the facade of 10-story structure. It’s hard to believe that these cell-like forms were made by poured concrete — the first building in D.C. to be made this way — rather than by mitosis. They broach an alternate reality, one where buildings build themselves.
Stepping out from the L’Enfant Plaza subway exit toward this building is akin to stepping onto a tarmac. The building sucks up sound. Identical windows swirl overhead, whispering of a collective consciousness, of eyes blinking in unison. The lifesaver-shaped canopies — designed by landscape architect Martha Schwartz and added to the east side of the building in the ’90s — seem, by all logic, landing pads for UFOs.
Up in Tenleytown, the National Presbyterian Church (currently under renovation) looks to have been afflicted by the same condition that melted Salvador Dali’s clocks. Elongated lancet windows stretch with a yawn — or a scream, or a cry of “hallelujah,” depending on your perspective.
Designed in a style the church calls “neo-Gothic,” but which is also considered Brutalist, the church achieves a vision of the future by way of austerity. It seems to have moved beyond spiritual decor and figuration, as if the ornate contours of Washington National Cathedral had been sanded down by an unforgiving sculptor. In the same way sleek modern forms emphasize the unknowable in science fiction films, the design’s restraint imbues the spiritual with renewed mystery.
Both buildings seem made for a post-human world: They render the human hand irrelevant.
Brutalism as sculpture
With so much of Washington still closed, the streets function like museums. Interiors — with their roped off areas — have become exhibits about things humans used to do. Buildings have become sculptures rather than spaces.
For Brutalist buildings, which prioritize such qualities as form, texture, composition and weight, this has long been their prerogative. They are as much to be looked at as they are to be occupied.
Breuer praised the mid-century return to design where “space itself is again sculpture into which one enters.” When designing the Hirshhorn, Gordon Bunshaft envisioned it as “a large piece of functional sculpture.”
The Smithsonian’s museum of modern and contemporary art certainly succeeds at sculpture’s primary goal: It is a solid, still thing that compels you to move. From the outside, the Hirshhorn’s round, nearly windowless facade seems always just out of grasp, an ever escaping horizon.
Though more playful than its stodgy federal peers, the Hirshhorn is a weighty thing made of “Swenson” pink granite. Even from afar, it has the same sense of presence that minimalist sculptures do. (Maybe that’s why I — jogging on the Mall one day, in a mid-pandemic fit of art-homesickness — caught myself waving hello to it.)
The facade radiates orange at sunset. Seen from the north side, the bulk of the structure, suspended 14 feet above the ground, seems to take a giant inhalation. At night, the underside of this “floating” doughnut glows luminescent white.
The building has garnered all sorts of comparisons, in addition to the circular pastry: a coin, a saucer. Critic Ada Louise Huxtable called it a “maimed monument” marring the Mall. But how could this relatively small thing — with 60,000 square feet of exhibition space, it’s dwarfed by the National Air and Space Museum — be so threatening?
Where other Mall buildings are extroverts, demanding reverence, the Hirshhorn is the wallflower who showed up to the party in the wrong outfit and is choosing not to participate. (Which just makes you want to hang out with it more.)
From its aloof corner of the Mall, it also asks us to think a bit differently: How often does an apartment dweller stop to think about the shape of the building? How often do you look at your own walls and wonder what’s on the other side?
Once inside the Hirshhorn, its curved walls make it impossible not to.
Like Brutalism itself, the Hirshhorn invites us to look beyond the space we inhabit, beyond the limits of our sightlines and our individual interests toward the bigger, collective picture.
Classical buildings look backward; Brutalist buildings look forward. The Hirshhorn’s circle is a little slice of infinity. As you go around it, it keeps pushing you onward, ever tantalized by its promise of something new and a little more perfect.
Edited by Michael O’Sullivan. Copy edited by Jordan Melendrez. Photo editing by Thomas Simonetti. Designed by José L. Soto.