Carney: Within Brutalism, beauty

Michael Carney

Michael CarneyEasily mistaken for a medieval fortress, the Samuel Paley Library on Main Campus seems capable of withstanding a nuclear attack.

At first glance, its interior resembles an outdated mental hospital while its exterior seems to be designed by an architect who used the shape of his cigarette pack for inspiration.

The library, as well as numerous other buildings on campus, was designed using an architectural style known as “Brutalism.”

Generally considered among the ugliest examples of architecture in existence, many Brutalist structures have been demolished in favor of newer facilities. However, in recent years, Brutalism has attracted a small share of architecture enthusiasts like myself who see the artistic beauty of what one Internet blogger calls “architecture of doom.” A deeper look into the history and intricacy of Brutalism and its connection to Temple can fascinate even the most stubborn critic.

Brutalist architecture is extremely easy to identify and those who learn how will begin to notice dozens of buildings that they never had before. Buildings of this style are characterized by colossal concrete facades, a complex interior floor plan, an excessively faceted exterior, and the lack of or minimalist use of windows. Chances are, if you’ve ever looked at a large, concrete building and your first thought is how ugly it is, then it is most likely an example of Brutalism.

Originating in the 1950s and lasting until the mid-1970s, Brutalist architecture is a popular choice among universities because of its practicality, affordability, and resistance to vandalism. Conspiracy theorists even suggest that the maze-like floor plans consistent with Brutalism were favored by universities for their ability to prevent students from quickly mobilizing during acts of protest.

During the 1960s and ‘70s, Temple, as well as most U.S. universities, experienced a period of massive expansion. Anderson, Gladfelter, Weiss, Klein, Paley, Wachman and Ritter halls, as well as the Engineering Building, were erected during this era. All are prime examples of Brutalism, the latter two of which are rare examples of “brick brutalism.”

I first learned of Brutalism this summer through a Facebook group dedicated to quirky and scarcely known Wikipedia articles. This discovery gave me an entirely new perspective on a style of architecture that I had once considered ugly. The concrete façade of Brutalism that I had previously considered to be cold and uninviting now evokes a chilling aura of strength and dominance. The complex floor plan and eccentric exterior that I had seen as design flaws now remind me of an ultra-modern, science fiction, work of art that is far too advanced for even 21st century minds to comprehend.

Brutalist architects were among some of the most post-modern and unconventional designers of their time. Their extremely advanced artistic styles are much of the reason why Brutalist buildings were considered ugly when they were built and are still considered so today. My fascination with Brutalism is that the style is so advanced that even the modern minds of humans in 2014 still find this architecture to be ugly. In other words, Brutalism was produced so far ahead of its time that it will likely not be in style for another hundred years.

The path toward appreciation of this style has, however, grown recently. Two of Temple’s newest buildings, Morgan Hall and the Science Education and Research Center have a strong connection to Brutalism. Both contain many elements of “Neo-Brutalism,” a 21st century twist that puts greater emphasis into the use of windows but is almost identical to Brutalism in every other respect.

History has clearly shown that modern art of all forms often remains unappreciated until years after the fact. The case with Brutalism however is that the style, even to this day, still has not had enough time to reach widespread popularity. The constantly evolving style of Brutalism despite widespread criticism indicates that at least a small group of post-modern connoisseurs recognize the beauty that this style has to offer. All that is required to appreciate this art is a change of mindset. And yes, even Temple’s Brutalist Bell Tower can be beautiful with the right perspective.

Michael Carney can be reached at michael.carney@temple.edu

2 Comments

  1. I can appreciate the architectural qualities of these buildings. However, the oddly layed out interior of the structure leads to overcrowding that I’d actually consider a safety hazard in some locations. Specifically pay a visit to Anderson Hall between 12:00 and 2:00 PM and observe students jammed like sardines in a can.

    With students idling in too small hallways and lobbies between classes, the building becomes a giant traffic jam as thousands of students attempt to make their way around narrow hallways. Stair towers with single exit/entry doors trying to accommodate bi-directional traffic makes for going anywhere in a hurry very difficult. Navigating this building is the least favorite part of my day.

  2. Brutalism does have its place in history and we shouldn’t knock down every single instance of it. The main problem is that it clashes with 21st century ideas of greening. There are no trees in Brutalist Plazas (the mezzanine level between Anderson and Gladfelter) as well as the Empire State Plaza come to mind. The lack of windows and fresh air/sunlight are not healthy. The starkness of it all conveys a sense of mightiness and foreboding of a superpower and regime, quite similar to Speer’s architecture of the Third Reich.

    The true gems of Temple’s campus are the administration buildings like Conwell and Carnell, but if only students could have some classes in these. Also check out USD’s campus on how to build modern, yet beautiful buildings. The newer buildings will become ‘brutal’ in 50 years time. There is only so much one can take of large glass cubes that dwarf their surroundings and don’t fit with street level.

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