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This begins with a building I’ve never seen but is still there. I was on a train from Paris bound for a visit to the artist Christian Bonnefoi in the nearby French countryside. I missed my stop and ended up in Nevers, with about four hours to kill before I could catch a return train. I reluctantly poked around the quietly depressed city (one of the ancient towns in France losing population and commerce to globalization), looked into a few Romanesque churches, with their general air of stubborn presence, had a good lunch, and got out of there.
Because I was pissed about the train when I got to Nevers, I didn’t think to search “Nevers Brutalism” on my iPhone to see what would come up. And so I missed Eglise Sainte Bernadette du Banlay, the church designed by the architect Claude Parent and the philosopher Paul Virilio.
This cast-concrete, postwar structure has a rounded dome resting on the crowns of the concrete bunkers built by the Nazis on the Normandy coast in anticipation of the D-Day landings. Virilio and Parent visited this part of northern France after the war and went inside the bunkers, some of which had slid down the sand dunes like lost toys. Parent was taken with their tilted floors, a result of their tumble, which he recreated in the sloping floors inside the church. (Virilio’s collection of essays on these structures were included in his book, Bunker Archeology, which was published to accompany an exhibition of his photographs at the Pompidou Center in 1975. It was republished in 2009 with an English translation for the first time.)
The architecture followed a belief that the language of building must reflect a true representation of conditions in contemporary society, which Virilio understood as continually immersed in an industry of war. Sainte Bernadette du Banlay was built in a working-class neighborhood and represents the original intentions of Brutalism: offering no apology, looking at what is really there without permitting a space for illusion. It is a result of thinking about what a building is and does for people. This is what makes me want to track these buildings down wherever I am, though I missed an important one that day.
In Naples several years ago, riding in a van full of tourists on the way to Pompeii, I saw some unusual architecture along the waterfront among the docks and cranes. From a speeding vehicle it looked like a dirty gray fortress, both curvy and angular and interrupted by steel windows, turrets, stacks, and blunted shards. The next day I walked down the highway towards the docks, past the ocean liner boarding areas, finally disturbing a sleeping cab driver in an outlying neighborhood, asking him to take me out to the thing I was pointing to in the distance.
Known as Casa del Portuale, it was no longer in use, but had been built as a social services center for the dockworkers of Naples. It was situated upon a long, bowed base that resembled the hull of a freighter. It ascended to the semi-abstracted superstructure in weathered and stained cast-concrete, curved floors, stairways, and interior platforms that spiraled out from a central axis. As I walked around this thrilling structure, truckers sped by, honking and giving me the thumbs up, seeming to approve of my interest.
The building’s architect, Aldo Loris Rossi — not to be confused, as I did at first, with his almost exact contemporary, the more famous Aldo Rossi — died this past June. Unlike the Milanese Aldo Rossi, he was from Naples and practiced in the region; his work has been called “visionary” and “dystopian.” Brutalist architecture of all kinds seems to be fashionable at the moment, for obscure reasons: there was a photo feature in Purple magazine in 2016 that depicted Casa Del Portuale as an abandoned masterpiece, highlighting its neglected interiors, speculating on bloodstains found on the roof, linking it to Mafia killings — glamorizing its current state of degeneration while reinforcing generalizations about Naples.
Rossi was also a professor of architecture, a theorist, and polemicist, often writing for the magazine L’Architettura, which was edited by one of the great modernist architecture critics, the zealous anti-classicist Bruno Zevi.
In his most famous book, The Modern Language of Architecture (English edition, University of Washington Press, 1978), Zevi writes: “Is modern architecture hard? Probably, but it is splendid because every element, every word of it, is related to a social content.”
Zevi wrote that Rossi’s Casa Del Portuale’s “shabby, degraded coastal context […] is animated by a pioneering, spectacular, subversive object, which seems to claim an environmental redemption.”
Imagine the implications for the history of 20th-century art if it considered the Brutalist movement in architecture as directly sharing in the legacy of Cézanne. I thought of this while reading about the three versions of Cézanne’s “Bathers” in the art historian T.J. Clark’s book, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (Yale University Press, 1999), in which Clark discusses the paintings’ “savage kind of materialism” and, later, “their mixture of Grand Guignol and utopia, or absurdity and perfection.”
Another Modernist touchstone, early Picasso, described the essence of Cubism as a “base kind of materialism” which Clark interprets as “the Cubists wish at all costs to be low.” Throughout the book (the “farewell” in the title seems even more true at this time than when it was published in 1999), Clark links Modernism to the social by way of materialism: “a bedrock of World/Nature/Sensation/Subjectivity which the to and fro of capitalism had all but destroyed.” Or when Clark quotes a letter from the anarchist post-Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro, “[…] our modern philosophy is absolutely social, antiauthoritarian and anti-mystical […]”
Another Brutalist masterpiece in Naples is Le Vele di Scampia (1975) or the Sails of the Scampia, a suburban district to the north of the city. The architect, Franz Di Salvo, desired an honest use of materials as an outward aspect of a quotidian ideal, developed through his studies of urbanism and infrastructure. This aligned with one segment of the progressive architectural community of that time, the British architects Alison and Peter Smithson and the architecture critic Reyner Banham, whose idea of “uninhibited functionalism” argued for city centers based on movements of populations rather than as planned architectural forms.
The buildings of Le Vele di Scampia, which were described not long ago in one Dwell article as “eyesores of post-war brutalism,” were conceived as a huge public housing project accommodating thousands of citizens who were expected to form a family-based community, but were never provided with such important lifelines such as transportation links, recreation areas, and stores, which would help integrate the seven megastructures into the larger city. The project went into decline quickly, becoming a drug-infested, gang-dominated ghetto, awash in rats and hypodermic needles. After a major earthquake in 1980, many of the poorest displaced Neapolitans stormed the complex and claimed the by-then-abandoned apartments. It was depicted as a Piranesian hellhole in Gomorrah, the 2008 film based on the workings of the Camorra in Naples.
Inspired by this discovery of Neapolitan Brutalism, while traveling north I investigated another school of Italian Brutalism, equally socially conscious but less radical, exemplified by the work of the Florentine, Leonardo Savioli. Savioli’s projects include the pavilion for the flower and vegetable market (c. 1950) in Pescia, whose concrete roof neatly billows like a sheet full of air, and a concrete cemetery in nearby Montecatini. The curved and hood-like repetitions of its roof rhyme with the surrounding mountains, as the hillside enclosure’s several levels step down to vaults below.
This particular structure called to mind the American sculptor and architect Tony Smith’s account of a nightly ride along the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike. This widely quoted conversation, which originally appeared in “Talking with Tony Smith” by Samuel J. Wagstaff Jr., in Artforum (December 1966), is worth reading at length:
[…] in the first year or two of the ’50s, someone told me how I could get on to the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike […] It was a dark night and there were no lights or shoulder markers, lines, railings or anything at all except the dark pavement moving through the landscape of the flats, rimmed by hills in the distance, but punctuated by stacks, towers, fumes and colored lights. This drive was a revealing experience. The road and much of the landscape was artificial, and yet it couldn’t be called a work of art. On the other hand, it did something for me that art had never done. At first I didn’t know what it was, but its effect was to liberate me from many of the views I had had about art. It seemed that there had been a reality there which had not had any expression in art.
The experience on the road was something mapped out but not socially recognized. I thought to myself, it ought to be clear that’s the end of art. Most paintings look pretty pictorial after that. There is no way you can frame it, you just have to experience it. Later I discovered some abandoned airstrips in Europe — abandoned works, Surrealist landscapes, something that had nothing to do with any function, created worlds without tradition. Artificial landscape without cultural precedent began to dawn on me. [Emphasis mine.]
The archaic quality of Brutalist, concrete, abstract architecture can be viewed as what Smith described: an artificial outcropping from the car-dominated, postwar, late-industrial landscape. The continuities between concrete infrastructural interventions in the landscape, such as highways and railroads, and brutalist architecture are most noticeable, in my experience, in Switzerland and in Japan, whose topographies are intertwined with extensive transportation systems and predominantly intelligent concrete architecture, both civic and domestic.
With the help of my mobile devices I have seen architecture like this wherever I have traveled, particularly during recent visits to Italy, and have noted various differences in approach. Farther north, Italian Late Modernists such as Leonardo Ricci, Danilo Santi (who collaborated with Savioli), and Aldo Rossi believed in a greater engagement with society by responding to historical forms and contexts. For example, in the Pescia flower market (now used for truck parking), the notable flying roof is anchored on either side by streamlined versions of the buttresses found supporting ancient cathedrals.
North of Venice, I visited the Brion Cemetery by Carlo Scarpa (1968), one of the jewels of Brutalism, and was not disappointed, but a general survey such as this can’t go very far in establishing what is important about this movement, and what its most important works really are. Though much Brutalist architecture is currently threatened, I must return to the more extreme artistic and social vision of the Neapolitan architects, who have had, obviously, bad luck with their buildings but at least they are still more or less extant. While the entire Vele di Scampia district, devastated by neglect and criminal activity, is being reborn through the work of volunteer and non-profit organizations, three of the seven buildings have been demolished, replaced by mediocre blocks of cheap housing.
This may have resulted in a visual improvement, but the rebuilding denies what has proven truly visionary about this architecture — the way it has effectuated adaptation by a marginalized community, both criminal and law-abiding. During the worst of the occupations by gangs and heroin merchants, who adapted the buildings’ design to their advantage by blocking stairways and sealing doors against police raids, many working-class people continued with their lives and kept their apartments immaculate.
While the exteriors of the complex looked shabby from years of neglect, the replacement of several structures with inferior housing that will, for a time, look more orderly but seems a denial of human vitality. There are a number of films that document former inmates choosing to return to Scampia but who subsequently change their lives, rebuilding abandoned apartments inside the complex. Despite the affection that its denizens seem to hold for this place, Capitalism prefers the erasure of history, desiring that we live only in its presence, that it is the only reality we know.
The history of Vele di Scampia is similar to the “White Building” in Phnom Penh. Originally a pristine structure stretching horizontally along the Bassac River, it was designed and built for working people who held jobs in the city, and featured open-air stairways and kitchens near balconies to facilitate outdoor cooking. Built in 1963, the building was one of my first introductions to Cambodian Modernist architecture when I lived there a dozen or so years ago. It was a holdover the ‘60s building boom under King Sihanouk, in which the ideas of Le Corbusier, guided by state architect Vann Molyvann, merged with the building techniques of Southeast Asia, resulting in Phnom Penh’s brief ascendance as the most modern and visually dazzling city in the region.
After the demise of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the building was re-inhabited through the ministrations of the occupying Vietnamese government’s restoration project. Its new occupants were artists, singers, dancers, even circus performers; that is, the few who were left after the widespread killings that victimized the liberally educated class.
And yet, despite the organized community living there, the White Building was recently deemed irreparable and went under the wrecker’s ball. A Japanese developer stands ready to build luxury housing on what has become a valuable piece of real estate. So far, another Phnom Penh architectural masterpiece, the National Sports complex, still remains.
As it turned out, the months I lived in Cambodia were the last moments before the changes wrought by the incursion of capital and rapid development. Downtown Phnom Penh was a little sleepy, and working people dominated the neighborhoods. The remnants of this phase of concrete Modernist architecture were everywhere, giving evidence of its abstract utilitarianism, which had remained viable for housing. The obdurateness of this architecture illustrated what the architecture critic Salvatore Dellaria endorses in a short essay entitled “Brutally Restoring Brutalism” (Clog: Brutalism, 2013), which opposes the too-careful restoration of Brutalist buildings: “Conscientious restoration is a cloying kindness, an unsolicited and patronizing compassion […]. They’d prefer antipathy. Better to match them blow for blow. They are a sturdy lot. Let them prove just how much they can take.” The Brutalist works that have survived for 50-odd years without being restored have nonetheless demonstrated their resiliency through the adaptations of their structures by generations of residents.
There was something grand about the White Building’s persistent viability, with its independent-minded population of the artistic and service class, though to some eyes the surrounding piles of garbage, clinging vines, water-damaged concrete, re-paintings, canopies, rusted stairways must have appeared to push it to the breaking point.
(Modernist concrete buildings throughout Southeast Asia, all evidencing similar reuse, are the most explicit examples of the continuity of the modernist project. Many can be found on the public Facebook group Vietnamese Modernist Architecture.)
The disavowal of this work, of these monuments to restlessness, is a rejection of the social, which must be, above all, an unconditional love of imperfection. (This balance between ideal and romantic ruin is exactly the point that seems to have been missed by the recent Concrete Utopia exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, no matter how historically corrective it was.) Ultimately, the best Brutalist buildings to me are the ones that have persisted and seem to have accommodated their disfigurement through use, as if disfigurement were not only expected, but welcomed.
Maybe this was the message in the works of Gordon Matta-Clark, whose recent retrospective at the Bronx Museum documented his excisions to the facades of buildings slated for demolition. Matta-Clark’s precise geometric cavities cut into long-used buildings monumentalized their state of extended human habitation — a final architectural gesture toward these reliquaries of everyday life, of struggle and survival. As the artist once wrote in a project proposal from 1975, “In spite of no longer working as an architect, I continue to focus my attention on buildings, for these comprise both a miniature cultural evolution and a model of prevailing social structures.”
Reflecting on the contexts of architectural production and function, Brutalist buildings define class struggle à la Walter Benjamin in his Theses on the Philosophy of History (1942): “a fight for crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist.”