Brut Force

Brut Force

Hulking structures, recessed windows, abrasive raw concrete. These are the hallmarks of some of New Haven’s most striking buildings—enormous, bare creations that inspire gut reactions, often of distaste, in contemporary viewers more accustomed to the classic, the clean or the otherwise comforting.

“If it’s ugly it must be Brutalist,” professor, preservationist and Yale Architecture alum Sean Khorsandi wryly says, summing up a common attitude about the architectural movement that exploded in the 1960s, especially in New Haven. A search for Brutalism here takes you on a winding path, equal parts confounding and exhilarating. False starts, crucial distinctions and strange angles abound, much like with the buildings themselves.

For describing such monolithic structures, Brutalism is oddly difficult to pin down. As a deliberate approach it officially begins in England, with married architects Alison and Peter Smithson, who invented and defined the style with their 1954 Hunstanton School, a building that Khorsandi describes as “industrial chic, but it wasn’t chic. It was just industrial.” The school had “bulbs in cages, exposed plumbing and untreated brick walls,” he says. “They didn’t try to dress it up.”

sponsored by

Family Concerts by the New Haven Symphony Orchestra

The Smithsons called themselves the New Brutalists, which prompts the question: where to find the original? The pioneering French modernist Le Corbusier was the first Brutalist, according to the Smithsons, because of his predilection for rough, unfinished concrete—béton brut in French (hence the name “Brutalism,” often misunderstood as a description of the imposing structures’ effect as opposed to their most prominent material). The problem is, Le Corbusier didn’t ever use the term. “He didn’t know” he was the originator of the style, Khorsandi humorously says, “until after he was dead.”

The confusion is compounded right here in New Haven, with the city’s first and best example of the style: Paul Rudolph’s 1963 Art and Architecture Building, now known as Rudolph Hall. Located at York and Chapel Streets, its original structure, as distinct from a more recent addition along York, is all rough ridges and exclamatory angles folding out from one another, with strips of mostly tall, thin glass. It looks like the castle where a very modern Frankenstein might build his monster.

Christopher Wigren, the deputy director of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, says the comparison to a fortress is warranted. With their small windows, hidden doors and heavy walls, New Brutalist buildings evoke a sense of “medievalism,” he says. Their architects were “looking for something with a sense of power, expressive of specific internal functions. Something that would have a sense of monumentality. More personality and less finish.”

Though Rudolph Hall, still the seat of the Yale School of Architecture, is an international icon of Brutalism, Khorsandi insists it’s actually “not Brutalist because it doesn’t follow the Smithsons’ rules.” The Smithsons eschewed all decoration, but Rudolph couldn’t help himself. The sides of his Hall have been bush-hammered for a more pleasing texture, there are sculptures attached to the exterior and, as Wigren paraphrases critic Nikolaus Pevsner’s address at the building’s dedication, its “dramatic effects come at the expense of function.” Rudolph’s irrepressible impulses for ornament don’t knock him out of the running for Wigren, though. “The decoration is very subordinate to the overall effect,” he says. “There’s not a single definition of what Brutalism is.”

While there are other New Brutalist structures in the city—like Edwin William deCossy’s Knights of Columbus Museum building, originally constructed for use by city government, and John Johansen’s Dixwell Congregational Church—Rudolph’s work looms over the local canon. Literally. One of his other major contributions is the Temple Street Garage, the behemoth multi-level parking lot that spans two blocks but is only “a third of the size Rudolph expected it to be,” Khorsandi says.

Rudolph wasn’t building for New Haven as he knew it but how he thought it would be. New Brutalism was in vogue during the mid-century urban renewal period, when ambitious plans for the Oak Street Connector envisioned a high-traffic, ultra-modern city defined in its relation to the highway and suburban motorists. As such, his work is designed to the scale of the “forthcoming highway, but the highway never came,” Khorsandi says. The buildings are meant to serve as “billboards”—“easily recognizable as you’re zipping past at 50 miles an hour.”

In designing for a city that never was, Rudolph created some of New Haven’s most recognizable and—in many quarters—detestable buildings. “Brutalist buildings aren’t very welcoming. They’re hard to get into. They’re rugged, rough,” Wigren says. “Concrete is cold, it stains after a while so it gets dingy… They don’t have a lot of ornament,” and they often bring to mind images of “faceless bureaucracies” within, deciding the city’s fate from their impenetrable fortress.

But New Brutalism is in some sense more human than the pared-down glass pane and steel International Style—what Wigren calls “the universal boxes”—that New Brutalism rebelled against. The concrete creatures that crouch on our streets come as they are, not hiding behind conventional facades. They’re raw, “personal and idiosyncratic.” In some ways they represent a “more diverse vision of society that’s less mechanical,” Wigren says—“a society of rugged individualists” who aren’t reflected in the slick anonymity of plate-glass office buildings and don’t begrudge the occasional scrape against unfinished concrete.

While the scope of New Brutalism is often remarked upon—broad expanses of blank grayish brown, a sense of massive operations humming within—the brut is in the details: the honeyed glow of lamplight against scored concrete, the tactile seams of broad walls, the welcome surprise of windows reflecting blue sky amid all that heft.

If you want to be technical, it may not be Brutalism. It may not really be New Brutalism either. Call it something else: New Haven Brutalism.

Written by Sorrel Westbrook. Images 1-2, 4-5 and 8 photographed by Dan Mims. Images 3, 6 and 7 photographed by Sorrel Westbrook.

More Stories