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Apr 10, 2012 10:20 am

Should We Preserve Ugly Buildings?

I just finished reading this fascinating Room for Debate in the New York Times on whether to preserve or demolish Brutalist architecture. It raises some excellent questions about historical preservation. (Update: And here's the original article on the Orange County Government Building in Goshen, NY -- HT .)

Now, a disclaimer -- I hate Brutalism. I hate it almost as much as this guy, and he calls Brutalist architects fascists (I personally wouldn't go that far, but there is an undeniable similarity between the Buffalo City Court Building and, say, Vienna's WWII flak towers). I've hated Brutalist buildings since I was a kid, well before I realized that it was a major architectural school that some people actually took seriously. Most Brutalist buildings lack anything approaching warmth or humanity -- they almost uniformly dank, dismal, bunker-like objects that contemptuously destroy the existing aesthetic of neighborhoods and cities.

Worse, they're found everywhere. In my junior year of college, I escaped the confines of the University of Minnesota's arts and humanities campus, home to buildings like the one below, to Trinity College Dublin for a semester abroad, which is one of the most picturesque campuses in the world.

Rarig Center, University of Minnesota

Trinity College Dublin

But I discovered, to my horror, that TCD's primary undergraduate research library is this building:

Berkeley Library, Trinity College Dublin

This is the interior -- it's usually much more dimly-lit (rather problematic for a library):

So yes, I HATE Brutalist architecture, which is why I can't be trusted to think rationally about the question of whether some examples should be preserved. If it were up to me, I'd raze every Brutalist building to the ground, salt the earth where they once stood and condemn them damnatio memoriae. (Did I mention I hate Brutalism?) But, as a number of contributors in the NYT noted, people -- or at least architects -- hated Art Deco after a time, just as they had Victorian, neo-classical, and Beaux-Arts. After all, as many commenters in the Times pointed out, the destruction of New York's Penn Station in 1964 is now rightly considered a crime. The difference between the razing of Penn Station and the proposed destruction of Brutalist buildings is that Penn Station was widely beloved at the time and its destruction was heavily protested. The biggest debate over Brutalist buildings is whether or not Prince Charles is overstepping his bounds in his zeal to demolish them, not whether they ought to be demolished. The only real aesthetic purpose of the archly inhuman designs is to provide the appropriate backdrop for the violent, alienating cinema of the 1970s.

But rather than continue to expound on the myriad reasons why Brutalist architecture, for want of a better word, sucks (I am, however, rather found of many modernist designs, which have the benefit of looking sleek and space-age as opposed to bunker-like), I'll throw it open for discussion. Should we preserve Brutalist buildings, and, if so, which ones?

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