The monolithic concrete that forms some of our most creative 20th-century architectural heritage is in danger of disappearing. Brutalism, that heftily named form of modernism that favors right-angles and a palette with the colors of a storm, is facing demolition and decay around the world, whether the Birmingham Central Library in England demolished this month, or Chicago’s Prentice Women’s Hospital torn down last year.
SOSBrutalism is a new initiative for raising awareness of the preservation of “our beloved concrete monsters.” A collaboration between Wüstenrot Foundation, Deutsche Architekturmuseum (DAM), and Uncube, it’s aimed at growing a database of the world’s Brutalist architecture, with over 700 entries so far. In April of 2017, the project will culminate with an exhibition at DAM in Frankfurt am Main, Germany.
“By showing the phenomenal diversity of forms and shapes, and presenting remarkable, imaginative, or outrageous examples of this wonderful style, we try to create a sense of wonder and admiration for those buildings and sway people from preconceived notions of a kind of oppressive, dull, gloomy, unattractive architecture that is not worthy of preservation,” Oliver Elser, a curator at DAM, told Hyperallergic.
The online database encourages crowd interaction for photographs, history, and preservation status (with color categories from red to blue depending on threat of demolition), with endangered buildings and their preservation campaigns being a major focus.
There are entries for the 1973 terraced La Pyramide by Rinaldo Olivieri on the Ivory Coast, which is mostly abandoned and deteriorating; the USSR-era Buzludzha Memorial in Bulgaria, a sort of UFO-shaped behemoth in the Balkan mountains, vacant since 1991; and the surreal (and infamous) 1960 El Helicoide by Jorge Romero Gutiérrez in Caracas, Venezuela, which has endured stretches of abandonment, squatting, shadowy government surveillance operations, and political prisoner housing. While a recurring theme is a lack of maintenance, practical use, and the impact of decay, there are other risks like a chapel in Lebanon damaged by a missile.
Felix Torkar, curatorial assistant at DAM, noted that Brutalism “still suffers from a particularly bad reputation,” with its heavy name derived from Le Corbusier’s “béton brut” meaning exposed or raw concrete. He added that some of SOSBrutalism’s entries were discovered through “‘the 10 ugliest buildings of xyz’ listicles.”
“In theory, exposed concrete is a great, long-lasting material, but it requires a certain amount of maintenance,” Torkar explained. “Most architects had optimistic projections — this was largely before the 1973 oil crisis — for maintenance budgets and future upkeep, which, in a lot of cases, never materialized. This is especially true with large-scale public housing projects, some of which pretty much started immediately decaying in record time after being completed — one more reason for Brutalism’s bad image.”
Their database is riddled with recent losses like the modular 1971 Orange County Government Center by Paul Rudolph in Goshen, New York, and the 1970 Stage Center by John MacLane Johansen in Oklahoma City that mixed colorful farm catalogue elements with its concrete. Yet there are examples of successful contemporary use, such as Gordon Bunshaft’s circular 1974 Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum, and Marcel Breuer’s 1961 St. John’s Abbey Church in Collegeville, Minnesota, with its sculptural bell tower.
SOSBrutalism is only one of a number of recent actions of Brutalism appreciation, including the Brutalist London Map from Blue Crow Media and the Twentieth Century Society, which includes a walking tour of 50 of the city’s buildings, or more playful projects like Zupagrafika’s paper cut-out models of London’s brutalist architecture. Like these projects, SOSBrutalism is encouraging a recognition of the modernist concrete architecture in our everyday lives, and how it represents design history, and gives the cityscapes a distinct character.
“Since we’ve started this project, we’ve noticed in ourselves that once you start looking in your own city you start noticing all those wonderful concrete monsters you’ve been walking by for years,” Elser said. “In the long run, we think that if you know and remember certain styles and buildings, you’re more likely to appreciate them and get attached to them, rather than tearing them down.”
Explore over 700 examples of Brutalist architecture at SOSBrutalism.