The Case for Saving Ugly Buildings
The Brutalist AT&T Long Lines building in New York is a looming grey monolith, a giant stone scabbard thrust into the heart of lower Manhattan. In Washington, D.C., the Third Church of Christ, Scientist is an almost windowless octagon resembling a military bunker more than a religious chapel. The University of Toronto's Robarts Library resembles an oppressive, stone Transformer with little access to sunlight. L’Eglise Ste-Bernadette du Banlay in Nevers, France, is an oblique, oversized, confusing stone bubble seat. Then there are the hundreds of worn, crumbling public housing projects, lifeless abandoned tombs more reminiscent of J.G. Ballard-style prison complexes than anything someone would willingly live in.
These behemoth structures of Béton brut, most built in the 1960s and ‘70s, are slowly crumbling from wear and disrepair, ignored by communities that no longer want the burden of upkeep of a giant, lifeless rock. But even horrendously ugly and soulless abominations are part of our architectural heritage and need to be preserved for future generations.
Technically, many of them have to be. Their place in history and uniqueness as architectural oddities warrant their preservation from a legal perspective. They satisfy Criteria C for the National Register as having "distinctive design/construction techniques." They are the pinnacle of High Modernism: the architectural trend that started in the early 20th century with minimalism, Bauhaus, van Der Rohe, on down to Le Corbusier. Defined by sleek lines, little embellishment, and grandiose structure, High Modernism captured the attention of the architectural world at a time when it was eager to embrace something new.
Brutalism took the idea of unity of form and sleek futurism even further. Where modernism embraced a sleek, simple approach to say, windows, Brutalism went one step further by minimizing or even outright eliminating them. Corbusier called his designs "machines for living in," which was actually an improvement upon the Futurist adage of creating “buildings as machines,” not necessarily for living in. After the Great Depression, a new building made of long, sleek slabs of bright concrete was a grand improvement over the crumbling wood and brick shacks of old houses. Simplicity of design appealed to communist countries looking for an anti-bourgeois aesthetic. And affordability appealed to capitalist countries interested in cheaper construction materials for public works projects under the banner of urban renewal.
AT&T Long Lines Building (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons) | Robarts Library (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)
That concrete could be poorly insulated, leak, and crack, eventually turning a sickly grey pallor, was a mere construction detail. Plenty of beautiful Victorian homes, which would now be considered priceless, have been lost because of the push for renewal when their façades were crumbling. The fate of the old New York Penn Station, whose ornate interior rivaled that of Grand Central Station, was lost because prohibitive maintenance costs made the land it sat on worth more than the building itself. Grand Central Station, too, was set for demolition until groups rallied for its conservation. That debate led to the Landmarks Preservation Law, setting a standard of protection for New York's irreplaceable buildings independent of their current worth.
That standard of irreplaceability is a common element for a majority of historic preservation law. Buildings aren't preserved based on relative maintenance costs or aesthetics but on the merits of originality and historic interest. Whether it be a pre-historic pueblo, Colonial-era slave quarters, World War II Quonset hut, or a Brutalist tower is irrelevant, as long as it fits the designation of being unique and historically relevant. Many iconic, retro-futurist Googie structures have been lost because the streamlined style was representative of lowbrow, vulgar highway culture. In a similar vein, various Classic Revival and Art Nouveau movie theaters were demolished in the years when the ornate flourish of their decaying interiors was simply dismissed as antiquated, gaudy decadence in the post-Depression age.
A long protracted battle over the Third Church of Christ, Scientist pitted historic preservationists against the church's congregation, who were uninterested in staying in a poorly lit, decaying concrete block that was costly to maintain. For 20 years, the congregation strove to remove the historic designation of the building, citing the financial burden, flaws of the building's design, and its historical unimportance. Marc Fisher of the Washington Post lambasted the city's preservationists, calling the building an "atrocity" and referring to the preservationists as “an arrogant elite who think they know better.” The preservationists continued to fight for the building's designation until 2010, when the city finally relented and removed the designation, paving the way for the church's demolition.
In a way, they were all correct. Historic preservationists were left in the uncomfortable position of having to defend something that might be considered ugly within the current definitions of taste. If they relented in their defense, they might open a legal loophole for other historic buildings to be demolished based on economic incentives or aesthetic whims.
But preservation law grounded in a sense of historic import and architectural singularity also means that more and more “horrendous” structures will be preserved, that future generations could be punished by the mistakes of the past, possibly as a warning to future architects about the impact of their decisions. The tragic irony being that preservation law, which wasn't enacted in time to save so many irreplaceable buildings of the past, is now in place to save the least loved outputs of High Modernism and urban renewal.