Metropolis currently features an article on the impending demolition of Marcel Breuer’s Ameritrust Tower in Cleveland. The article reads like a sort of half-hearted defense of the tower and Breuer’s body of work, but the sentiment here seems to be pro-preservation, not so much pro-Breuer. It’s sort of like the ACLU defending a KKK member’s free speech for the sake of protecting free speech itself.
It is a commonly-held belief, understandably so after the devastating social and artistic destruction wrought by the so-called Urban Renewal movement, that the destruction of a building purely on the basis of its being “ugly” or out of fashion is a very dangerous thing. I don’t disagree. But I do wonder what can be said for Brutalism, a style of architecture frequently criticized for its indifference to context and its tendancy to be overly conceptual — to the point of being dehumanizing — in terms of its value in contemporary society.
It seems futile to debate the merits of one architectural style over another, but there are functional components to style that do, I think, make buildings from some architectural movements of lesser worth to society based on the fact that they do not produce an environment that is conducive to human activity. Brutalism is a style of design that focused on materials and structural honesty (what Wikipedia cutely refers to as “the celebration of concrete.”) It is part of a failed utopian vision centered on a kind of rigid equality. It is a style that, as a movement on the whole, failed to acknowledge the messy, blurry lines of human nature. It’s no wonder that people can’t relate to Brutalist buildings, then, because they are based on a stark idealism that most human beings either don’t understand, or flat out reject.
So what can be said for buildings that were designed without people — the real, unidealized kind — in mind. Are these buildings worth saving for some sort of artistic merit? Are they worth saving in order to make a point? And if the cost of preserving them is a less human environment, does what we gain by preserving Brutalist structures, in terms of ideals and ideas, offset that cost?
This article originally appeared in Where on April 6, 2007. Reprinted with permission.