The Union Station Metro stop was dark as a cave, its high concrete arch coated in years’ worth of grime. To Metro officials, it must have seemed like a no-brainer to break out white paint and rollers and give the dingy concrete a going-over.
Then photos of the paint job circulated on social media — and local architects, design aficionados and critics (including this one) erupted in fury. “Keep Metro Bleak!” urged one headline, while another decried the makeover as disrespecting the architecture. The controversy dragged from this past March into April, as more people saw Metro’s handiwork up close. “RAAAAAAAGEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!” tweeted an architectural blogger from Union Station on April 8.
The Washington chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, a federal design-review agency, also weighed in, writing to Metro to express their displeasure and ask that the work be stopped immediately. Painting the station’s raw concrete, the commission argued, alters “an essential characteristic of this important civic space.”
Clearly, the beleaguered Metro system has bigger things to worry about — safety, reliability, plummeting ridership — than the color of its stations. Yet “Paintgate” does prompt tantalizing questions about the future of perhaps the world’s most polarizing architectural style: brutalism, derived from the French béton brut, meaning “raw concrete.” And few big cities in the United States or Europe have as much brutalism per square mile as Washington — thanks to the Metro, the FBI headquarters downtown, the Hirshhorn Museum on the Mall and the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Southwest Washington, among other federal buildings, as well as privately built structures like Georgetown University’s Lauinger Library.
Brutalist architecture in the United States emerged in the 1960s, the era of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, when progressive designers wanted to create buildings that fit their vision of a strong and benevolent public sector. They were also bucking the previous generation and its cool, glassy modernism, which by that point had become the architectural language of the corporate world. By contrast, brutalism showcases stark or rough exterior walls; deep-set, sometimes small windows; a sculptural or blocky form (often top-heavy); and a monumental scale.
Over the years, many Americans have come to associate brutalism with failed public housing projects and Soviet architecture. The fact that its signature material, concrete, was used for hundreds of forgettable knockoffs, not to mention storm drains and highway overpasses, didn’t help its reputation.
“There’s a tendency to condemn the entire period based on its worst examples,” argues Michael Kubo, an architect and architectural historian who co-wrote a book about the style. “People point to all of the second- or third-rate, relatively cheaply built buildings in concrete ... as a way of condemning the best buildings.”
As brutalist buildings have started to suffer the aches and pains of middle age, many are being torn down. Preserving them just as they are can be expensive and impractical. But for all its ham-fistedness, the painting of the Metro vault at Union Station raises the possibility of a middle way: Perhaps we can save brutalism by making it more lovable.
For any significant building in any style, the period between its 30th and 60th birthdays is awkward. By 30, it has been around too long to seem new or edgy. Its style has probably fallen out of fashion, and most likely it needs repairs. But it’s not yet old enough to be distinguished — to seem properly historical. What do you do with a building that is tired but not venerated?
“There’s this kind of weird valley in which people either love or hate the buildings. I definitely feel like brutalism is in exactly that zone,” says Kubo. He compares its predicament to that of Victorian architecture in the early 20th century, when that style was mocked. (“Whatever may be said in favour of the Victorians, it is pretty generally admitted that few of them were to be trusted within reach of a trowel and a pile of bricks,” P.G. Wodehouse wrote in 1937.) And it’s hard to imagine Washington without the Old Post Office or the National Building Museum — but both were once regarded with embarrassment, and the Old Post Office was nearly demolished in the 1970s.
Many brutalist buildings are today hovering around age 50. Hostility to the style combined with owners’ headaches over their upkeep have led to several celebrated structures being razed. The cloverleaf-shaped Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago fell to the wreckers in 2013. In New York state, the Orange County Government Center, a multilayered (and leaky) cubic composition, succumbed in 2015. The same year, the brutalist Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore was bulldozed.
Washington’s octagonal Third Church of Christ, Scientist, was demolished in 2014 and has been replaced by a glassy office building. Last year, in Reston, Va., a spirited campaign to save the American Press Institute building by the modernist master Marcel Breuer failed, and workers started dismantling the structure in September. Comments on the website Reston Now reveal reactions on the extremes. “Absolute tragedy and one of stupidest things Board of Supervisors ever approved!” fumed one commenter. Another wrote, “Ugly concrete building from an ugly architecture period.”
But a colorful brutalist revamp is emerging as a middle course that everyone (maybe) can live with. One evening in the fall, Mayor Marty Walsh stood in front of Boston City Hall as the massive concrete temple from 1968 burst into a vivid blue. Walsh was unveiling a new lighting scheme: 325 LED fixtures that accentuate the three-tiered brutalist building — hailed by some as an architectural masterpiece yet also loathed as cold and depressing. The lights can be programmed to flame into color; the blue that night honored injured police officers. In Houston, the Alley Theatre, designed by brutalist flag bearer Ulrich Franzen, recently reopened after a renovation that gave it an airier lobby and lipstick-red carpet climbing the central stair.
The University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth has also pursued an updated brutalism. In the 1960s and early 1970s, architect Paul Rudolph (designer of the doomed Orange County Government Center in New York) had planned the whole campus as a brutalist ensemble. Five years ago, Boston architect Robert Miklos and his firm DesignLab took on a renovation of the 1972 Claire T. Carney Library. The architects reorganized all the spaces inside the building after researching Rudolph’s design intentions. They brought back his original color scheme of red, orange and purple, which had been lost over the years, and contributed their own accents in walnut. They also tried to revive Rudolph’s groovy “lounge pits” as places for students to socialize.
It worked. Visits to the library tripled, and the project won a major award from the American Institute of Architects. “The students embraced it like it was the coolest, hottest new thing,” Miklos says.
Adapting brutalist buildings is pragmatic, he argues, and good for the environment, since it avoids the waste of demolition and conserves the energy and materials that would be required for a new building. “You can love them or hate them, but it’s actually very practical and economical to repurpose these buildings,” Miklos says. “The irony is, given all its robust structural forms, the [library] was really amenable to complete replanning. We didn’t make significant structural changes.”
Inexpensive upgrades to lighting, finishes, and signage or graphics can go a long way. “If you can create transformation at that low-cost level,” he says, “these buildings really have a future.”
Kubo believes brutalism is about to have a breakout moment, the way midcentury modernism did after the debut of AMC’s “Mad Men.” In Britain, the style “has become very, very faddish,” he notes, with books and social media sites oohing over concrete landmarks like the Barbican (the apartment-complex-cum-arts-center in London’s financial district) and the Trellick Tower (a 31-story slab designed by Ernö Goldfinger, the inspiration for the James Bond villain). “I feel like [Britain is] 15 years ahead of what might happen in the U.S.,” Kubo says.
There’s evidence to back up that prediction. When the Metropolitan Museum of Art reopened the former Whitney Museum, a brutalist icon by Breuer, it embraced the style by dubbing it the Met Breuer.You can buy brutalist maps of Washington, London and Paris, and even a brutalist building set for kids. There is a Tumblr of beloved examples of the architectural style called F--- Yeah Brutalism.
It could certainly be that on this side of the Atlantic, the sun-drenched optimism of California in the 1950s holds a broader appeal than the harried mood of the late 1960s and ’70s. The midcentury-modern movement encompassed popular furniture designs and housewares, which encouraged retailers such as Crate & Barrel to revive the look, nodding to icons like the Eames lounge chair in product lines. Brutalism, by contrast, is a self-serious style not known for creature comforts.
In Washington, however, brutalism’s ubiquity means we will have many chances to decide whether it is worth saving. The FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover Building, which squats over a full block of Pennsylvania Avenue downtown, is almost certainly a goner, since planners have set guidelines for its replacement once the agency moves out. (Plus, the concrete is falling off in chunks.)Few locals will miss it. But the architectural pedigree of other structures will make them harder to part with — among them the main HUD building and the Department of Health and Human Services, both designed by Breuer; and private buildings like those at L’Enfant Plaza, designed by I.M. Pei’s firm, and Dupont Circle’s Sunderland Building by Keyes, Lethbridge & Condon.
So instead of bemoaning these structures, perhaps we should be thinking of the ways we could enliven them. (After all, one of the earliest brutalist landmarks, an apartment building in Marseille, France, by Le Corbusier, contrasts pops of color against gray concrete.) The 1990s plaza in front of HUD is a “Jetsons” set of flying-saucer planters and umbrellas, the work of landscape architect Martha Schwartz. The white rings were actually meant to be a riot of color — Schwartz wanted Froot Loops, not Frosted Cheerios. At the time, federal officials lost their nerve; but what if Schwartz’s vision were finally realized, at HUD or elsewhere in the city? What if we lit up the HHS building like Boston City Hall, or asked artists to reimagine the long, dismal underbelly of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Forrestal Building? With so many brutalist public buildings — and, uniquely, brutalist Metro stations that hundreds of thousands of locals interact with daily — Washington would be the perfect testing ground for experiments, provided they respect the integrity of the architecture.
When the Hirshhorn projected Doug Aitken’s video “Song 1” around its exterior in 2012, it was a hit. That institution has succeeded in making its brutalist building relatable, even lovable, by celebrating rather than apologizing for it. This past fall, it offered visitors free doughnuts — a cheeky reference to the “concrete doughnut” — on World Architecture Day.
Last year, a runner-up entry in a design competition sponsored by the National Park Service suggested projecting vistas of America’s best parks onto Metro vaults, a terrific alternative to whitewashing them, which is irreversible and visually flattens the deep coffers. Metro has painted station vaults in years past, to less of an outcry (this was before social media). Simply the fact that there was a controversy this time around suggests the brutalism revival is real. A non-scientific online Washington Post poll asking whether Metro should paint the vaults split 55 percent for and 45 percent against. As glass boxes steadily take over the nation’s capital, producing a mirage of a cityscape, the sheer physicality of brutalism appeals more and more. It is good to have architecture we can get our arms around.
“Brutalist” has become such a pejorative term, Kubo argues, that the better name for this style is “Heroic.” It captures the best and worst qualities of the architecture of this period: its honesty and idealism, as well as its hubris. He is convinced that it will win us over eventually. We just have to be patient. “You might not want to wear your parents’ clothing,” he notes, “but your grandparents’ clothing is suddenly cool again.”
Amanda Kolson Hurley is a freelance writer in Silver Spring, Md.
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