Wednesday, August 24, 2016

A Digression on (Brutalist) Architecture

I haven't ever had the opportunity to study architecture in a serious way.  But given my interests in housing, real estate, and urban development, it's not surprising I like to pick up a little knowledge about architecture here and there.

My interest is also derived partly from my family's business in tile, terrazzo and marble.  I was once, for brief periods, a productive member of society.  Though my father might have told you, not too terribly productive.

From time to time, in my urban economics and other courses, I like to take short digressions into architecture.  Real estate students sometimes come to the field with pre-existing interest in the design of the built environment; but undergrads in particular often find themselves choosing the major after taking a good intro class or hanging out with the Real Estate Club, and architecture is completely new to them. At the other extreme, some of our MBA students are practicing architects, some of whom have helped me learn a bit about the subject.  (Those former students are not responsible for my opinions or errors!)  Over time, everyone who works in real estate develops some kind of interest in architecture.  As an aside, UW-Madison has no architecture school or department; we sometimes collaborate with friends at UW-Milwaukee architecture.

My interest was piqued today by an article in the New York Times, a little puff piece on the architect Dominque Perrault.  The article itself wasn't terribly interesting, except this quote caught my eye:  "I follow, which is a website that focuses on the preservation of 20th-century brutalism architecture."   Well!

The website Perrault referred to, as you'll see if you follow the link, is devoted to the preservation of architecture in Eastern and Central Europe dating from the communist era.  My interest -- a negative interest, I admit up front -- comes from a little work I've done, and a lot more done by colleagues, that makes me suspicious of the idea that a lot of communist era Brutalist architecture needs to be preserved.  If some of it is to be preserved, the twin challenges are to choose buildings judiciously, and to preserve them in a way that doesn't impose large costs on those who depend on a well-functioning stock of real estate.

Along these lines, shame on me for visiting Budapest and not taking the time to check out Memento Park, where socialist-realist statuary and other reminders of the communist era are there for perusal, and our edification.  (Thanks to my friend Alain Bertaud for the head's up about this park!)  Of course, it's easier to collect a bunch of statues and other art in a park than to round up a bunch of buildings.  Nevertheless, it's an idea...

But the real reason I react so strongly to socialist modernism/brutalism in architecture is that I spent 26 years next door to the most ironically named building of all time, UW-Madison's Humanities Building.  Designed by Chicago architect Harry Weese and completed in 1969, a decade ago it was renamed the George L. Mosse Humanities building in honor of a long-time UW history professor.

 Not only did I have to look at it, from time to time I've had to teach in it.  To paraphrase Dr Who, it's worse on the inside.

Interestingly, student lore from at least the 90s on has it that the built in in-accessibility was because the university wanted a "riot-proof" building.

So I have had to explain to generations of students how to riot.  (We have to teach so much stuff outside the syllabus these days!)

Specifically, students don't mass outside the building and charge it.  Such a charge is what Weese's design brilliantly impedes, as this slide shows:

You are students.  You are allowed inside.  The way to organize a building takeover is to enter in small groups. Then meet at the preordained spot at the agreed upon time.  Announce that you have taken over the building in the name of ______, and present your list of non-negotiable demands.

Which today would probably revolve around forcing professors to allow smartphone and laptop use in class. (If you don't know why many of us wrestle with banning them, you haven't taught much lately.)

Brutalism is an offshoot of modernist architecture.  Early modernists like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe eschewed adornment but used a lot of glass curtain walls, giving some of their work a lightness that the brutalists reacted against, preferring a heavy, monumental look.  The term is usually traced to Le Corbusier's use of raw concrete (béton brut, en français).

Wither Humanities?   (I'm talking about the building, not the field of study!) As UW re-develops the campus, several 60s era buildings, including Humanities, are slated to come down.  Not because of aesthetics, or even because they are functional failures -- Humanities has insufficient HVAC, classrooms where students can't all see the blackboard, and don't even ask about the inability to bring IT into a class.  Rather, the 60s era buildings were built on the cheap.  Their foundations are crumbling, the HVAC can't be maintained, and roofs are collapsing.  Given budget issues faced at UW, I'm not sure of the timetable, but Humanities is slated to come down; so here's a hot debate about this, with a number of preservationists arguing that UW students and faculty should just suck it up.  Of course as an economist, with limited aesthetic sense, my opinions should be appropriately discounted.  But my dim opinion of Humanities is shared by at least a few more knowledgeable colleagues, including architectural writer Brent Brolin.  Brent suggests that buildings worthy of preservation would be either the best of what was built in the past; or in some cases, examples of historic and significant townscapes.  Humanities fits neither criterion.

Of course I've had other run-ins with dysfunctional modernist buildings nominally temples to "functionalism."  I spent many years in Washington, and my fellow urban economist Tony Yezer (long ago, my PhD advisor at GWU), reminds me not to forget HUD's headquarters building, where I've spent some hours in interesting meetings; and other hours lost, trying to find the interesting meetings:

Here's the Robert C. Weaver building, above.  Designed by Marcel Breuer, it was completed in 1968.  It's part of the L'Enfant Plaza complex, itself worth a blog entry someday.

No need to fly back to Madison or take a train to DC to get my Brutalist fix.  Now that I live in the Boston area, I just hop on the D train to go straight to Boston's City Hall.  Gerhardt Kallman and Michael McKinnell have a lot to answer for:

Obviously I don't warm up easily to most Brutalist architecture, or some other Modernist buildings.  But the best Modernist architecure can be positively inspiring.  Edward Durrell Stone's Aon Building (Chicago), for example, or I.M. Pei's Hancock Tower (Boston), to give just two examples.  I can even name one Brutalist example by Weese that works well, in my opinion: the DC metro stations.    Weese designed the honeycombed vaults using "raw" concrete, and to my eye the results are functional, appropriate to the environment, and even beautiful.

There's much we could learn about the economics of architectural design.  One model for studies of the value of good design is a classic paper by Kerry Vandell and Jonathan Lane, "The Economics of Architecture and Urban Design," published in Real Estate Economics in 1989 (vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 235-60.)  A good addition to your "Reading for Life" list.

No comments:

Post a Comment