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Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston

1981 BostonCityHall byLebovich8 HABS MA1176

Brutalism is certainly having a moment

On both sides of the Atlantic. It’s back, like those B-movie monsters that lurch unexpectedly back into view. Judging from weighty publications, critical discourse and evolving concerns among preservationists, Brutalism is experiencing renewed scrutiny, perhaps even appropriation, by a cohort of architects and academics born since, well, the last great Stones album or the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe social housing in 1972.

This may in part be explained by a shift in generation, as today’s Young Turks look back across Parametricism and Deconstructivism, across Postmodernism and High-Tech, to the robust tectonics, bold monumentality and social idealism of their grandparents’ era.

This is the intellectual context for Heroic. No mere substitute for Brutalist (a ‘rhetorical catastrophe’ according to the authors), Heroic ‘refers at once to the formal attributes of the buildings themselves – powerful, singular, aspiring to the iconic – and to the attitudes of the architects and institutions that created them’. It is also distinct from the recent popularity of Mid-Century Modernism, a phrase easily ceded to residential or lifestyle media. Heroic is bold and civic; Mid-Century Modernism thinner and more domestic.

‘Brutalism is back, like those B-movie monsters that lurch unexpectedly back into view’

Literate in postwar debates around béton brut and Le Corbusier, Reyner Banham and the Smithsons, Heroic focuses on work realised in Boston between 1960 and 1975, a corpus predicated on that city’s political synergies and informed by the cosmopolitan discourse across the Charles River at Harvard, where Le Corbusier was building the Carpenter Center (his sole work in North America), and at MIT. In this intersection of vanguard design and local ward ambition, heroic architecture, typically in concrete, came to represent a new body politic.

boston west end city hall

boston west end city hall

Boston City Hall built in 1968 and designed by Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles with Cambell, Aldrich and Nulty Architects

Heroic originated back in 2007 when Mayor Thomas Menino contemplated ‘the demolition and/or sale of Boston City Hall’. The authors responded back then by making an exhibition about the building. Not unlike London’s South Bank, City Hall and its immediate environment have frequently been the target of harsh criticism. Although Menino’s successor, Marty Walsh, has adopted a less trenchant line, and City Hall may live another day, significant contemporary buildings by Araldo Cossutta, Bertrand Goldberg and John Johansen have recently been demolished in Washington DC, Chicago and Baltimore respectively.

‘If New Brutalism had a British accent, its American corollary emerged in elite Ivy League schools, blue chip crucibles of architectural culture’

The seeds of this postwar American architecture were planted by European émigrés, including Giedion, Sert and Léger who in 1943 published the essay titled ‘Nine Points on Monumentality’. If New Brutalism had a British accent, its American corollary emerged in elite Ivy League schools, blue chip crucibles of architectural culture. Thus the importance of Kahn at Penn, Rudolph at Yale and, most importantly, Gropius and then Sert at Harvard. Contributing essayist Joan Ockman notes more exotic connections, citing Kenzo Tange’s 1959 studio at MIT with its proposal for Boston Harbor as a ‘precursor of Tange’s seminal project for Tokyo Bay’.

Thus Heroic Monumentality is linked to Metabolism and megastructures – Banham’s later predilection – through a specific Boston prism.

The Carpenter centre le corbusier

The Carpenter centre le corbusier

The Carpenter Centre by Le Corbusier

Writing about the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), a second contributor, Lizabeth Cohen, lays out that city’s peculiar socioeconomic status quo, long frozen between Brahmin and Irish-American factions. It took enlightened political leadership (Mayors Hynes and Collins) to break that stalemate, tapping into postwar Federal Housing Acts and bringing ‘committed, ambitious New Deal liberal’ Ed Logue from New Haven as BRA Director in 1961.

‘Heroic Monumentality is linked to Metabolism and megastructures – Banham’s later predilection – through a specific Boston prism’

Indeed New Haven in the 1950s, under Logue and Mayor Richard C Lee, served as an incubator for urban renewal: strident architects, slum clearance, road engineering, and all. Something similar occurred in Pittsburgh where the corporate community, strongly Republican, found common purpose with Democratic politicians. Good intentions from above, however, did not always lead to fully functioning communities, in part as major planning exercises were frequently only partially implemented. Thus the emergence of grass roots activism and the valiant role played by Jane Jacobs in opposition to top-down planning in New York and who cautioned, in Pittsburgh in 1962, that ‘developers develop too fast’.

Gund hall

Gund hall

Gund Hall by John Andrews

One surprise in Heroic is to learn today of the decisive role not so much of capitalism but of the federal government in urban renewal, a role manifest in countless housing projects and disruptive freeways and symbolised by Boston City Hall, the alpha and omega of postwar urbanism. Won through competition by Gerhard Kallmann and Michael McKinnell, inspired by La Tourette, City Hall raised the Corbusian parti above an expansive – and windy – public terrain. McKinnell emphasises, in one of Heroic’s many insightful interviews, the word ‘authentic’. Perhaps this is a better word than Brutalist, less vainglorious than, well, Heroic.

Why might authenticity be so compelling in 2016? The year indeed of Bernie Sanders’ surprise run for the White House. Could it be that we are saturated with consumerism and superficiality, and are drawn again to traits of truthfulness in environmental design. Not to mention a renewed concern for communal service and sense of purpose.

‘While Heroic’s immediate subject is Boston, similar themes played out in New Haven, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and St Louis’

Harry Cobb, the most Brahmin of Modernists, replies to the authors’ query about legacy by also invoking ‘this sense of authenticity, this reaching for some kind of truth’. In Cobb’s case, this entailed fair-faced concrete and ‘a shared preference for a monolithic architecture’. It may surprise readers that Pei Cobb Freed and others were inspired by Boston’s monolithic warehouses. Thanks to the 1949 Housing Act, their early output was significantly focused on residential towers, as in Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Chicago.

Almost encyclopaedic in scope (no mention though of Gund Hall, the stratified concrete home of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design), Heroic is a clarion call to understand the total urban environment. While its immediate subject is Boston, similar themes played out in New Haven, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and St Louis. These phenomena are less apparent in New York (Breuer’s Whitney is couture Brutalism) or Los Angeles, the megacities. What makes Heroic compelling is its interplay of archival testimony, collated data on selected buildings and critical assessment from the present. Pasnik, Kubo and Grimley have done Boston a service. Other cities take note!

Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston

Authors: Mark Pasnik, Michael Kubo, Chris Grimley

Publisher: The Monacelli Press

Year: 2015

Price: $50.00