Perhaps Brutalist architecture never got a fair chance because of a false cognate. The public has long misunderstood this least lovable of architectural styles, but several local buildings show that even Brutalism can be beautiful.
In English, “brutal” architecture sounds harsh and cruel. Yet the term originated in French, where “brut” means wild, rough, or unfinished: “brut” Champagnes haven’t been sweetened with added sugar.
Le Corbusier, the controversial Modernist architect, marveled at how reinforced concrete combined steel’s flexibility with concrete’s rigidity. Reinforced concrete could leap in organic curves and span vast distances without support; it could be cast into novel shapes and its surface raked with three-dimensional textures. Corbusier left his concrete structures “brut,” thus inspiring “Brutalism.”
“It does no good to pretend that Brutalist buildings are easy to like, or that everyone can be convinced to like them,” writes New Yorker critic Paul Goldberger. “But ease and user-friendliness are not the only architectural virtues…. The earnestness of the best Brutalism—the belief in the power of architecture that it represents—continues to be inspiring.”
Brutalism’s brash idealism—its emphasis on big and bold shapes, honest use of mass-produced materials, and rejection of elitist finery—combined with its (yes) low costs to make an irresistible choice for its era’s expanding government bureaucracies. Brutalism was “authoritatively civic in the time of Kennedy-era optimism and the Great Society, before US attitudes toward the public realm changed so dramatically that it has become hard to evaluate the aesthetics on their original terms,” write Michael Kubo, Mark Pasnik, and Chris Grimley.
The results surround us here in Washington, where Brutalist buildings house Great Society legacies like HHS and HUD, plus the university libraries of Georgetown and George Washington. Few will mourn other infamous local examples of Brutalism, like the FBI headquarters or the now-demolished Third Church, particularly since they suffer from the clumsy and pedestrian-unfriendly streetscapes common during their era.
But Washington also boasts several buildings that showcase Brutalism’s sculptural and textural possibilities, while also supporting the urban fabric around them.
1. Washington Metro stations, completed in 1976 and onwards by Harry Weese & Associates.
Last year, the American Institute of Architects bestowed its 25 Year Award, which goes to an architectural design that has stood the test of time, onto the Metro system.
The “Great Society Subway,” as Zach Schrag‘s landmark book called it, shapes simple concrete into heroic vaults that impart a bit of the capital’s majesty to commutes. The coffered vaults also serve practical purposes, distributing structural loads and keeping sightlines open.
The book District Comics includes a comic-strip retelling of Metro’s design process by Jim Ottaviani and Nick Sousanis.
2. Federal Home Loan Bank Board and Liberty Plaza (now Consumer Financial Protection Bureau), completed in 1977 by Max O. Urbahn Associates (architect), and Sasaki Associates (landscape architect).
This structure shows that Brutalism can respectfully frame not only a variety of historic buildings but also human-scaled open spaces and the mixed-use street grid. The building shelters a small plaza that is one of the most popular paved plazas downtown.
The Commission of Fine Arts recently panned proposed renovations, saying they “would have the overall effect of transforming noteworthy modernist architecture into a more conventional, contemporary office building.”
3. The American Institute of Architects, completed in 1973 by The Architects Collaborative.
The AIA’s headquarters stand as an elegant, tiered rear scrim for the curious Octagon House, built in 1801 as one of Washington’s grandest private houses. Although it’s hardly visible from the street, the building’s dynamic boomerang curve stands apart in a city filled with acute angles. The yard interposed between the two buildings, split between a hardscaped plaza on the headquarters side and a soft lawn on the house side, creates a quiet, shaded respite from the busy roads in front.
4. Sunderland Building, completed in 1969 by Keyes, Lethbridge & Condon.
Just south of Dupont Circle and behind the Heurich House, this office building is just a bit taller than it is wide, but the pattern of window and door openings lighten what could otherwise have been a plain concrete cube. The windows sit deep behind angled frames that score the facade with a grid of of shadows that subtly change depth from different perspectives, while the top floor’s wide porches keep the façades off-center. The ground floor arcade lifts most of the ponderous concrete mass well above the sidewalk.
5. Brewood Office Building, completed 1974, Wilkes & Faulkner
This tiny townhouse-sized building, a leftover from before the Golden Triangle flowered with hulking office blocks in the 1980s, might inspire a double take. At first glance, the facade’s irregular, flowing texture and drilled “nail holes” read as a wooden structure, but like its high-rise neighbors it’s entirely concrete.
“Board-formed concrete” takes its texture from wood that disappeared years ago—the wooden “formwork” that encased the concrete when it was being poured left its mark, and here, in a hallmark of Brutalism’s attention to process, the architects have celebrated this artifact.
In addition to these five buildings, two other buildings garner honorable mentions for being fine examples of Brutalism, although one’s located outside the District and the other had to hide its concrete under limestone panels.
1. Dulles Airport, completed in 1962 by Eero Saarinen.
Surely the most striking concrete form in this area is the suspended roofline of Dulles’ soaring terminal. Its roof upends all conventions, dipping inwards with what looks like an unstable curve and inexplicably resting its massive weight upon airy glass walls. Yet this instability subtly reminds us that flight itself is no mean feat of physics. The recessed curtain wall appears like a solid Washingtonian wall of stone columns on the exterior, and on the interior it dissolves into a faceted lens that scatters light throughout the day.
2. Embassy of Canada, completed in 1989 by Arthur Erickson.
Although this building is mostly clad in the federal precinct’s requisite limestone and was completed decades after the others on this list, Erickson has a reputation in his native Canada for sculpting concrete into daring, angular geometries. Here, Erickson allowed unfinished concrete to peek out from underneath the limestone skin in key locations, like this rotunda of columns at the building’s prow.