To Save Brutalism or Not to Save Brutalism?

Posted on: April 9th, 2012 by David Garber 10 Comments

Over the weekend, The New York Times posted a story titled "Architecture’s Ugly Ducklings May Not Get Time to Be Swans," about the plight of the Brutalist-style Orange County Government Center in Goshen, New York. The pixelated concrete building -- designed by modernist architect Paul Rudolph and completed in 1967 -- was closed last September following damage from Tropical Storm Irene, and is currently in danger of being demolished.

The Orange County Government Center, currently in danger of demolition. (Photo:  Ani Od Chai)

The Times opened the topic up to debate in their opinion section, asking the question "Are Some Buildings Too Ugly to Survive?" To open discussion, they asked for statements on the building, its style, and its worth from five people, all coming from different perspectives. 

Atrocities Should Be Eliminated - Anthony M. Daniels, New Criterion

"Buildings should be preserved for one of two reasons: they were the site of events of great historic importance, or they are of aesthetic merit. Buildings in the Brutalist style -- which uses raw concrete or other materials to make art galleries look like fallout shelters -- are certainly aesthetically outstanding: unfortunately, in an entirely negative sense. A single such building can ruin an entire townscape, and it is often difficult to believe that such ruination was not the intention of the architect."

The Value of Finding Value in What’s Unusual - Allison Arieff, The New York Times

"This country’s tolerance for all but the most familiar architecture is frustratingly low. For that reason Modernist buildings, like those of an architect as bold and unique as Paul Rudolph, have been particularly hard hit. Though the World Monuments Fund has described his Orange County government building as a testament to a time “when civic architecture was forging new avenues in design and construction,” that doesn’t keep folks from hating it."

Weighing Costs of Demolition or Preservation - Raksha Vasudevan, National League of Cities

"If not beauty, what criterion should we use to determine the ultimate fate of a building? In a society dominated by overconsumption and wastefulness, we automatically look for a quick fix in matters of architectural preservation — demolish or preserve exactly as is. What is needed is an acknowledgement of the multiple and hidden costs of our choices."

Art Deco Once Faced the Wrecker’s Ball - David J. Brown, National Trust for Historic Preservation

"Tastes change, styles come and go, and assessments of particular buildings and architectural styles fluctuate. For example, many Americans in the early decades of the last century loathed Victorian architecture. Our nation’s history is a continuum, and that history, and our understanding of it, is constantly evolving."

Cost Matters, but So Does History - Aaron M. Renn, Urbanophile

"[Historic] preservation is only one value out of many that we must balance as a society. Balancing our checkbook is another, as are sustainability and accessibility to all. The most important criterion is how well the building fits its purpose and function. Many public housing projects in the Brutualist style have proven nearly impossible to save as they were conceptually flawed from the beginning. Assuming that basic threshold of functionality is met, where the architectural quality and ability to adapt to contemporary standards at a realistic price is high, we should err on the side of preservation."

What do you think? Is this building, and/or Brutalism in general, worthy of preservation? Read the following opinions, and sound off in the comments or on our Facebook page.

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10 Responses

  1. Dawn Stairs

    April 9, 2012

    “Tastes change, styles come and go, and assessments of particular buildings and architectural styles fluctuate.”

    I’m imagining a future where Americans are obsessed with century old Brutalist buildings, a world where people enjoy the Brutalist style as much as they like the Victorian style today. I’m pretty sure this mindset would only exist in a soul crushing dystopia though…


    April 10, 2012

    well if you’re only “pretty sure” then lets err on the side of caution and save this magnificent strain of architecture.


    April 10, 2012

    To Anthony Daniels: If “Atrocities Should Be Eliminated” then lets start with the easy ones- the hundreds of thousands of faceless strip malls lining the commercial corridors of our nation. Or hows about the atrocious plops of crapitecture dropped down in a sea of asphalt with familiar corporate logos blazing away into the night? Modernism is under assault and anyone with a lick of training or education need to join the fight to save America from the pedestrian tastes of the soccer moms and the NASCAR fans.

  4. Sarah

    April 10, 2012

    I think it’s a rather gorgeous example of Brutalism, though I’m no expert on the style. I’d rather have this in my town than the endless cookie-cutter glass office buildings of today. That said, I appreciate the difficulties of adapting older buildings for modern office use. The Eisenhower Executive Office Building and the Smithsonian Castle are both beautiful buildings but the offices inside certainly don’t meet today’s needs.

  5. Chad

    April 10, 2012

    “Ugly” is not something that should be applied to any type of architecture in a serious debate; it is a purely personal opinion. The Nazis had the same view of ugly when they labeled a wide segment of 20th century art as “degenerate.” Personally, I am fascinated by Brutalism; I think it is extraordinary and wonderful.

  6. Kaitlin

    April 11, 2012

    Professor Gary Stanton at the University of Mary Washington taught me this, “Your personal taste in buildings is not an appropriate evaluation for buildings of the past.”

    Therefore, as Chad points out above, “ugly” is not an acceptable way to measure this building.

  7. LMA

    April 11, 2012

    I gotta say, as Brutalist works go, this one is actually kind of interesting and not all that brutal. A thing like the Christian Science building in DC is, no doubt, intentionally ugly, so ugly (and nonfunctional) that frankly, I have no problem with the plans to knock it down. Especially since the entire philosophy of Brutalist buildings is the architectural equivalent of flogging oneself with a metal cat-o-nine-tails. But this thing? It’s concrete, but it’s not a solid, personality-less, windowless wall. It has an interesting broken up facade, different textures, big windows. I’m not a video game player, but it reminds me of some of the early 8-bit games and I suspect if it were “packaged” that way to the community, it might be more appealing.

    Then again, any building with flat roofs is a poorly designed, leaky building, so unless there’s a philanthropist out there who wants to under right the repairs, it’s probably a goner.


    April 12, 2012

    regarding the design of the Christian Science Building:

    “During the planning for the Washington, D.C. complex, the church considered and eventually rejected designs from an architect who was a member of the congregation. The church leaders were undecided on the decision to pursue a modern or traditional design and invited I.M. Pei & Partners to propose a plan. Araldo A. Cossutta of I.M. Pei & Partners proposed a design similar to the finally realized form of the complex but the church rejected it as too expensive. After considering many other architects, they eventually awarded the commission to I.M. Pei & Partners with Cossutta as the lead architect.

    The buildings were preliminarily planned to be clad in limestone but this material was changed to entirely cast-in-place concrete to limit construction costs.

    This was a fortuitous decision as Cossutta had previously in his career displayed great aptitude in designing for this medium.”

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