Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

Brutalism: Worth Saving? by Brendan Crain

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?

Farewell, Marcel (Metropolis)

Ameritrust Tower

This article originally appeared in Where on April 6, 2007. Reprinted with permission.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Historic Preservation

114 Responses to “Brutalism: Worth Saving? by Brendan Crain”

  1. John Morris says:

    I am not aware of everything happening downtown, but my impression is there is considerable empty space in the older buildings on Euclid and in other places downtown.

    Also, I am hardly advocating moving the artists from Tremont, or Detroit Shoreway, but primarily in attracting new people. From just a standpoint of central retail potential, the downtown should offer more bang for the buck in terms of retail–much of which could be on the upper floors. For example, it is actually strange that there is no downtown gallery type building.

    You also seem to havea some stereotypes about artists–most likely widely shared. I am not just talking about artists, but the nexus between, art, architecture, product design, gaming, industrial design and craft manufacturing.

    These are real businesses–real potential new jobs that often are dominated by small firms that would benefit from the potential density of a real downtown.

  2. John Morris says:

    By the way, I am not the only one thinkig along these lines.

    There is an innitiative to create a “District of Design” in the Downtown.

    As you can see, a large part of this is about creating product showrooms and fairs. I went around Tremont, and while it is awesome–as a creative place to do things and operate a creative business, it is hardly a centrally located place to really show off products, sell or do business at any scale.

    It seems a perfect synergy to take beautiful, well designed buildings–perhaps not suited to large firms and use market them to design related businesses. It’s actually beyond self evident.

  3. Ano says:

    The proposed design district is next to downtown, in midtowÑ. It is more accessible to dtwn than Tremont or OC, but its not E9 and superior

  4. John Morris says:

    Huh? As a non Clevelander, I’m not really following.

    From my one visit, I really couldn’t determine a difference between “Downtown” and “Midtown” in a Cleveland context.

    All I’m saying is the city and building owners should be much more open to small businesses downtown–and have zoning rules that encourage and allow multiple and flexible building uses. They should also market -flexible use and encourage not just big but small tenants.

    My impression from your comments is that you see this as a zero sum game of some kind–perhaps this is because Cleveland has been shrinking. My experience from other cities like NY, Philly, San Francisco and also Pittsburgh is that this is not a zero sum game at all. This isn’t 50 guys on a street corner driving the price of a generic product like milk down to zero–no two really creative businesses or artists are exactly the same. The result of clustering is to build branding and ever increasing cross polination and synergies.

    It’s like The major players at the top, at least in the downtown don’t understand the whole purpose and value of a city in the first place.

    The dense structure of buildings and mixed uses is very critical to small businesses. It’s also something not found many places anymore in America.

  5. John Morris says:

    Ano said

    “but its not E9 and superior”

    Acually the map of the district on their website has the border of the district at East 9th Street, so one side of the street is in the zone which extends to East 36th Street

    This seems like a reasonable district in that it includes lots of multifunctional buildings and land uses–allowing even for some value added manufacturing.

    Again, in no way, do I think a district of design idea would take away from what’s going on in places like Tremont. Cleveland has a strong history and base of knowledge in this area and some very good schools.

    If and when greater regional collaboration happens between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, synergies could be built with Pittsburgh strong design schools like CMU.

    As you can see–the definition of “design” is pretty broad and includes web design. The lines in this area are now very blurred.

  6. Paul Wittibschlager says:

    John: Midtown is the area between downtown and University Circle. As you noted earlier, it is pretty devoid of retail or artist communities (there are a few). The area is not friendly to foot traffic.

    I agree with you, Cleveland needs more areas downtown that promote small businesses with a mix of artistic offerings. This can be very synergistic with the professional community downtown.

  7. John Morris says:

    Well–you can see from the map, they are starting at East 9th which sort of includes a slice of downtown.

    Using the term “midtown” to destcribe a wide area that takes in most of the eastern half (or northeast half) of the city is confusing. Seems like the term “East” in Cleveland is just trying to be avoided.

  8. Thad says:

    Well, East Cleveland is a separate city, so they may not want to cause regional confusion. That portion of the city has always been considered Midtown too. There also was/is a strong racial divide between East/West with the East side being where the blacks lived and where neighborhoods like th Hough are located which would have a negative connotation. My family is all rooted on the East side and as my mother explains it, you (we’re black) wouldn’t cross the river or go driving in the West side at night or do much of anything over there. It’s a big divide that still exists today in the minds of long-time residents. This probably explains why my family still stays on the east side of the river in the Eastern and Southern suburbs. It probably also explains why no one talks about redeveloping East side neighborhoods other than the Euclid corridor.

  9. Anon says:

    You’re blaming “the man” for either zoning out or discriminating against artists and designers just because you don’t see them downtown. The man’s not the problem, the limited number of creative people is the problem.

    A whole bunch of downtown buildings are mixed use – residential/retail, office/retail, retail/hotel, office/residential, etc. etc. There local art vendors in the Galleria and Tower City. There’s a manufacturing mart in the Galleria, as well as a lettuce garden! Tower city is losing national chains (Johnston & Murphy, Nine West) and gaining locals (Hats for Less, Dario’s Fashions).

    Anyone willing to sign a lease can get space downtown. No one’s barring the door.

    While Cleveland may not have a zero sum problem, we have a serious critical mass problem. Our creative energies are spread over Tremont, Ohio City, Detroit Shoreway, Edgewater, Waterloo, Coventry, Slavic Village, University Circle, Little Italy, etc. etc. As a Clevelander, I like going to Tremont and seeing all the investment. But every time I go, I ask myself, why is this here? Why are people building $300K homes looking over a little river and a steel mill instead of a great lake? If all that investment had happened in Ohio City, Ohio City would be completely refurbished by now. Instead both Tremont and Ohio City are “mixed,” or “transitional.” People coming from San Francisco or Chicago just out and call them blighted.

    And so another decade goes by with Cleveland offering an assortment of “up and coming” neighborhoods, but no finished product. People who want that (most young professionals) move to New York, DC, or Seattle. Our experience with spreading-to-thin is why I’m not enthusiastic about pushing downtown as a place for creative people and businesses.

  10. John Morris says:

    I understand what you are saying–building critical mass is very important.

    One thing Cleveland need to do is take some of the energy-I did see there in some of the neighborhoods and in some of the interesting mixed use buildings and make it more visible.

    One aspect–a big part of it is just to put lots of effort in to hype and sell it. This is the kind of stuff–that really can and should be sold–it’s not just a Football team that could move. From what I can see of Cleveland’s marketing- very little effort has been made to respect and hype the creative grass roots businesses.

    Concentrating some of this stuff in and near the downtown is also going to go a log way towards making what’s going on visible. Perhaps, this can also just be on a temporary basis through fairs and Pop Up stores.

    I do think attracting new people is critical and that doesn’t just happen–you have to sell it. Not to dis Cleveland, but the average person doesn’t think–I’m goin there for the sunshine.

  11. John Morris says:

    LOL, any young professional looking for an established neigborhood in NY better have their gig at Goldman Sachs hooked up.

    You will have no trouble at all attracting serious creative people too your city if you actively try to value them and respect them. 99% of cities treat them like crap, or a temporary phase they have to go through, on the way to selling million dollar condos

    Many of the other places that do respect or try to sell themselves–really don’t have the kind of goods–great buildings, some wealth, good art schools that Cleveland has. I mean Paducah Kentucky has had relative success–but a small town like that has it’s limits.

    The thing is that, this is really important for Cleveland. The value of Downtowns-without lots of concentrated energy as a place for major corporate headquarters is pretty shaky. Tear down a few more buildings for stadium parking garages and soon any unique advantage over the suburbs will disapear (except on game day for a few blocks). Likwise, the market for wealthy people with conventional 9-5 type jobs who want expensive downtown apartments is also likely small.

    Cleveland needs to find people who want the real advantages of density, convenience and mixed use that it could offer. For the most part, creatives and other members of the 24hour freelance type economy fit that bill–as do students.

  12. John Morris says:

    Getting back to the Brutalism design issue and the ongoing usefullness of some of these buildings-The Metropolitan Museum of Art has agreed to operate the former Whitney Museum’s Breuer Designed building for at least 8 years

    Obviously the great location near The Met and it’s need for more space and focus for it’s modern and contemporary collection helped seal the deal. I can’t help feeling the Breuer design is just a very well designed museum space. Clearly, The Whitney is leaving it only because they need a lot more space.

  13. Jake says:

    Another reason I don’t want Breuer Tower tower destroyed is because more than likely it will become a parking lot. We have way too many surface lots. Parking lots sitting on valuable land in the heart of the downtown area holds it back from being more.

    Imagine if that massive parking lot next to public square was a residential tower. Or an office building. Or anything other than a terrible, surface lot.

  14. John Morris says:

    Sadly, the relationship with the stadium provides one clear relationship. There is not a great synergy between large sports stadiums and urban life–but there is a strong one between stadiums and parking lots.

    That being said, it does seem like the building has serious issues in terms of adoptability and desirability for flexible use.

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