Brut Force

Brut Force

Hard 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,’” preservationist and Yale Architecture alum Sean Khorsandi says, wryly summing up a common attitude about the architectural movement that exploded in the 1960s and especially in New Haven.

But a true understanding of Brutalism isn’t nearly so simple. Despite the style’s championing of structures meant to be bold and honest, my investigation, like the movement itself, has been full of false starts, crucial distinctions and strange angles.

As a deliberative approach, Brutalism began in England with married architects Alison and Peter Smithson, who formally invented and defined the style with their 1954 Hunstanton School, a building 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.”

But the Smithsons called themselves the New Brutalists, which prompts the question: who was 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 earliest 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, distinguished from a more recent addition along York, is all rough ridges and exclamatory angles folding out from one another, striped with mostly tall, thin glass. It looks like the castle where a very modern Frankenstein might build his monster.

Christopher Wigren, the deputy director of Preservation Connecticut (formerly the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation), says the comparison to a fortress is warranted. With their small windows, hidden doors and heavy walls, 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 Brutalist structures in the city—like Edwin William deCossy’s McGivney Center building, originally constructed for use by city government, and John Johansen’s Dixwell Church—Rudolph’s work looms over the local canon, both figuratively and literally. One of his other major contributions is the Temple Street Garage, the behemoth multi-level parking lot that gobbles up an area equivalent to a whole city block but, according to Khorsandi, is only “a third of the size Rudolph expected it to be.”

Rudolph wasn’t building for the New Haven of the day but rather some imagined New Haven of the future. Brutalism was in vogue during the heady midcentury urban renewal period, when ambitious plans for downtown envisioned a high-traffic, ultra-modern city prioritizing integration with the highway system and access for suburban motorists. As such, his work is designed to the scale of the “forthcoming highway, but the highway never came,” Khorsandi notes. 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 fortresses.

But Brutalism is in some sense more human than the pared-down glass pane and steel International Style—what Wigren calls “the universal boxes”—it rebelled against. The concrete creatures that crouch on our streets come as they are, not hiding behind neat and ordered 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 scale of Brutalist structures is often remarked upon—blank expanses of grayish brown, a sense of massive operations humming within—nuances abound: the honeyed glow of lamplight against scored concrete, the tactile seams of broad walls, the welcome levity of windows reflecting 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. This updated story was originally published on January 2, 2018.

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