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The Case for Calling Brutalism 'Heroic' Instead

A conversation with the creators of Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston, which explores the city’s remarkable urban renewal legacy.

Paul Rudolph, Government Service Center, 1962–71 (Mark Pasnik/The Monacelli Press)

1950s Boston, with its stagnant economy, aging infrastructure, and impenetrable culture of corruption, was in need of a few heroes. Some say it got a bunch of concrete-loving villains instead. But a new book hopes to change the way Boston’s urban renewal historyand the entire architectural period that represents it—is viewed and described.

Initiated after then-Mayor Thomas Menino first proposed demolishing Boston City Hall, in late 2006, a trio of Boston architects and designers, Mark Pasnik, Michael Kubo and Chris Grimley, have compiled years of research, interviews, and a popular exhibit on the topic into the Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston.

A thorough look back at the forces behind Boston’s revival between 1957 (the creation of the Boston Redevelopment Authority) to 1976 (the revitalization of Quincy Market), Heroic is an important addition to the growing conversation about Brutalismor, as the authors prefer, “Heroic” architecture. In fact, the book reads like a template for how to properly tell the story of any American city’s concrete architecture.

Sert, Jackson & Associates, Peabody Terrace, 1962–64 (Phokion Karas/The Monacelli Press)

Too many famous examples of these buildings around the country have already disappeared, and although Boston’s new mayor seems open to preserving City Hall, many similar buildings still face the possibility of demolition as they enter their fifties and sixties. The trio behind Heroic doesn’t expect to change the minds of traditionalists, but they do want these buildings to get a fair shot.

Polarizing buildings like Kallmann, McKinnell & Knowles’ City Hall, or Paul Rudolph’s partially realized Government Service Center, are only as ambitious and confident as the clients behind them. They are the remains of a unique period in American history where urban cores were reimagined by the government and often stylized by the disciples of Europe’s post-war design radicals. They have long given way to a culture that still vilifies them, but while Heroic buildings promised so much—sometimes more than they should have—they are hardly brutal and anything but evil.

CityLab recently caught up with Pasnik and Grimley to talk about their project.

Why “Heroic” instead of “Brutalist”?

CHRIS GRIMLEY: Obviously, “Brutal” is not a good brand. We were doing the initial exhibit on the work and we were just figuring to figure out what to call it. With “Heroic” there’s a nice trajectory from Reyner Banham to the Smithsons to that word. But then at the same time we love the connotations of a hero, and the notion that you’re doing your best to create something to fix the problem at hand. But there are also issues of hubris and achilles in there. “Brutal” is fundamentally a negative, whereas with “Heroic,” some people take it as a rah-rah but we see it as a much more nuanced phrase that complicates the project in a number of ways.

I. M. Pei & Associates, Cecil and Ida Green Center for Earth Sciences, 1959–64 (Mark Pasnik/The Monacelli Press)

There are a number of people that still hold on to “Brutalist” as a way to describe these things but local critics and newspaper people have started to use it in their writing, which is nice to see.

MARK PASNIK: There’s the legacy of Brutalism being such a negative term. It begins the conversation with negativity about these buildings, and this falls into the misreading of them as harsh, Stalinist, or some other kind of monstrous, mean architecture. The name plays into that mischaracterization that’s grown around a lot of them. I think “Heroic’” is a better title for what their actual aspirations were. The architects had a real sense of optimism. They were developing architecture for the civic realm. They believed in democracy and high aspirations.

On the one hand, Brutalism encourages a misreading. On the other hand, I think it’s historically inaccurate for the work that is in our book. The term grows out of a British tradition and was applied to many of these buildings but all of the architects we spoke with in the book would say that’s not what they thought their work should be called. They believed in some of the aspirations of Brutalism but they didn’t believe that their work was Brutalist. That was surprising.

Our own creation of the term “Heroic” grows out of a two-fold interest. One is in the Smithsons, the British architects who are partly attributed with creating the term. The book that they wrote as a call to arms to return to the aspirations of early modernism was called The Heroic Period of Modern Architecture, so “heroic” was being used by the originators of Brutalism as a call to arms to return to the basic principles of modernity.

Paul Rudolph, Government Service Center, interior stair, 1962–71 (Mark Pasnik/The Monacelli Press)

Later, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown used it as a negative term. They contrasted what they called the “heroic and original, against the “ugly and ordinary. They always used Paul Rudolph projects to indicate the former while arguing architects should pursue the latter, an everyday kind of architecture that grew into the postmodern movement.

For us, “Heroic” has this kind of dualityit’s an aspiring term but there’s also a critique in it. If you think of ancient Greek heroes, they have an achilles heel and I think that fits well with this work because it’s aspiring to a lot but it also had a sense of hubris and maybe failure within its aspirations.

What were people calling these buildings when they were new?

MP: A lot of them talked about “New Monumentality.” I don’t think they would call themselves Brutalists or New Monumentalists or anything like that. I think they were just “modern architects,” but they were seeking a monumentality out of the modern vocabulary that hadn’t existed. A lot of them were constructing the work to be post-Miesian, post-International Style, which was lightweight and repeatedoftentimes glass and steeland had a corporate image by that time. I think they were looking for a different kind of language that would reflect civic society. For them, concrete was a way to get at that monumentality, that permanence, all the kinds of things that weren’t associated with the International style.

What made Boston so ripe for a concrete architecture boom?

MP: Boston had previously been a city where the political and the economic classes would not work together, and it was really a legacy of mayor James Curley. Curley was a Tammany Hall style of corrupt politician. The bankers who had money wouldn’t invest in the city because of what they perceived as a corrupt administration. And Curley used his power to serve his neighborhood and his constituents. That, along with the depression and the world wars meant that by the 1950s, Boston had built almost nothing new in decades. It was a very dilapidated city. The Boston Globe called it then a “hopeless backwater."

Drastic action using federal funds jumpstarted the city thanks to the formation of the Boston Redevelopment Association, especially under Ed Logue and then-Mayor John Collins. They came together and proposed a series of initiatives to create federal investment in the city and the goal was to spark larger investment and more growth in the city, which it did fairly effectively.

When Logue took over the BRA in 1960, very little had been built, but suddenly there was this flood of money coming from the federal government. Logue came out of New Haven where he had previously done a lot of urban renewal. He, as did many architects in Boston at the time, seemed to like concrete as a way to both reflect the weightiness in the presence of historical buildings but also indicate a vision of the future. It allowed architects and someone like Logue to feel like they were connecting to the historic importance of the masonry city while also being a new language that could reflect an optimism about the future.

A lot of growth happened very quickly as a consequence of this for the whole decade. Boston had the highest property tax in the country in the ‘50s. Through growth, it was able to restructure the way development could happen and the way institutions could grow and use a lot of urban renewal strategies to let that happen. There were suddenly new opportunities, new investment, and the need for upgrading and modernizing the whole city at once. It was in desperate need of action, and concrete served that purpose.

CG: The big thing going on architecturally here during that time was that so many ex-students of Corbusier had arrived; Josep Lluís Sert, Araldo Cossutta. Walter Gropius founded The Architects Collaborative. What they provided was a somewhat Europeanbut mainly civic and culturalsensibility about the use of concrete. Boston and Cambridge were really in the doldrums so there’s a serendipitous moment where this architectural language comes to the city at the same time as the public and private sectors bring in a remarkable amount of reinvestment.

Kallman, McKinnell & Knowles, Boston City Hall plaza, 1962–69 (© Ezra Stoller/Esto, The Monacelli Press)

Were these buildings well received at first?

MP: City Hall is probably the most recognized one and from its very beginning there was controversy about it. Many people saw it as a symbol of “the new Boston” and I think there were many people who felt Boston was a new leader, a visionary city. But a lot of other people felt that something like City Hall didn’t reflect the traditions of Boston. We have a whole catalogue of these great articles about the building competition’s unveiling including one of the Herald calling it a “dignified controversy.”

In 1964, Architectural Forum did a special issue dedicated entirely to Boston because of how innovative it had become, seeing it as a case study, a new model for urban renewal. Ada Louise Huxtable lavished a lot of praise of Boston’s later urban renewal strategies after the West End demolition, which everyone thinks were terrible. The later strategies of Ed Logue were widely seen as a more positive model than typical ones being developed across the country.

There were mixed reactions to this kind of work. Some deeply believed that Boston was a historic city that shouldn’t change but many others were very optimistic about those changes.

Was there a specific Heroic project that’s seen as a sign of the period’s peak?

MP: I don’t think people saw any one of these particular buildings and said “it’s time to do something different,” but Paul Rudolph’s Government Center might be a good case-in-point of that shift, because it was really designed in ‘63 or ‘64 but it opened in ‘71. It was designed when Rudolph was at the height of his game, when he was the head of the architecture school at Yale and seen as a new figure at the scale of someone like Frank Lloyd Wright or Louis Kahna leading example of a genius architect. But by the time the project opened, it was incomplete because of cost overruns and it opened in a very different climate from when it was designed. There was a lot of enthusiasm for it earlier but when it actually opened it was a big government building opening in an era of government cutbacks.

CG: The rear view of history would point to City Hall, but that’s a much longer narrative. Even though there’s an interest in the history of Boston, there’s a real lack of nuance. People just associate everything from urban renewal and concrete architecture with a top-heavy government that didn’t care about the people and wanted to exert its will over the population. It’s become the de facto narrative.

If you go on a tour of Boston on one of the trolley cars or duck boats, they pass by City Hall and say, “this is one of the ugliest buildings in the world!” The previous mayor had campaigns of active neglect against the building where he just didn’t give a shit about the building whatsoever and allowed it to decay over the 20-plus years he was in office while constantly badmouthing it. People are constantly fed this narrative, so they assume that the people behind it had nefarious intentions.

The book uses the redevelopment of Quincy Market to mark the end of the Heroic period. What does that project symbolize?

MP: It is a symbolic shift. The end started to appear earlier than that, but it was a good moment to end the book. As we looked at the dates of when concrete was being used it was really up into the ‘70s but not beyond the mid-’70s. That also reflects the shift nationally towards Postmodernism and the reassessment of historical forms as reinvesting in historical architecture, even developing new languages so we see the tide shifting by that point.

It marks the end when even the BRA is shifting its attitude towards the resuscitation of existing buildings rather than the creation of new ones. But of course there are a lot of other factors that contribute to that. In our conversations with Tad Stahl, he always attributed it to shifts in energy markets. After the oil embargo the cost of doing concrete rose substantially. He also attributed it to the shifts in the construction industry that went from large construction organizations that would do the entire job towards a sub-bidding process. He felt that shift meant construction companies could no longer afford to create experts in high-quality, architectural grade concrete.

Public opinion is certainly a factor, too. I think the countercultural movement started to tarnish these buildings, which were really meant to be public and engaging. The shift started to see them more as Big Government: Bad. Authoritative. All those kinds of things that they’re often associated with today.

What’s always curious to me is that it’s both the most liberal and most conservative forces that came together to undo these buildings as part of the popular imagination. It’s partly neoliberalism that undoes them because they’re part of the “welfare state,” but it’s also a liberal counterculture that sees them as being very negative.

CG: Quincy Market happened during the Bicentennial in 1976 and the beginning of that kind of reinvestment in the history of Boston. Thirteen years before that there was an insert published by the Boston Globe that was talking about the future of Boston and the city developed a ‘65-’75 master plan. The rate of change that came with it allowed the city to become viable again. People became intrigued about Boston from a touristic and historic standpoint again.

Because the city had been revitalized there was this idea now that if tourists were going to come, they weren’t going to come for all of these new buildings, they’d come for the history which would then drive the next part of the renewal. With the opening of Quincy Market, you begin to see a reinvestment in the history of the city for better or worse.

Boston University skyline (Phokion Karas/The Monacelli Press)

Which Heroic buildings in Boston are at risk today?

MP: There have been a few. The MLK elementary school by Sert was torn down last year. It’s very close to one of his most important complexes, the Peabody Terrace building at Harvard. City Hall was a big risk under the last mayor but the new mayor has initiated an evaluation and study for making City Hall and the plaza around it better, which will be done over the next year.

The Government Center parking garage is slated to be demolished and replaced with high-scale residential towers. We admire the building quite a lot, but we understand it’s a megastructure parking garage in downtown that cuts the city in half, so I think that there’s good reason for what’s being done there.

The institutions around Boston are looking at thoughtful strategies for how to reuse these buildings. Peabody Terrace was carefully renovated and upgraded. The Boston University law [tower] by Sert is just about finished with a major renovation and addition that was sensitive to its original nature. And Harvard is now looking to transform the Holyoke center in Harvard Square as well.

I’m a little more optimistic than I was a couple of years ago when a lot of these buildings were talked about for substantial negative changes. Many institutions and even the city seem to be handling them with better care now. I don’t know what caused that change, but with City Hall, when Menino was very negative about the building, it probably encouraged locals to think negatively about all of these buildings.

Sert, Jackson & Associates, Holyoke Center, 1958–67 (Phokion Karas/The Monacelli Press)

I think there’s been more national attention on Brutalism and on its character in the last couple of years. High-profile cases in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Orange County [New York], have brought people to the foreground to argue for them. I also think the economics usually make more sense to save the buildings and invest in them some way. They’re 45, 50 years old, so people are deciding between demolishing them or completely rebuilding them with all new systems and bringing them up to code.

I teach at Wentworth, and we’re doing a project on the Government Service Center by Paul Rudolph. We’ve been doing it for two years with students who are studying how to transform that building. The work has been with the state agency that owns it, and they seem interested in figuring out a way forward through resuscitating, not demolishing it.

CG: No one batted an eyelid about losing Sert’s MLK school. Thankfully, a few years ago, with the Boston Preservation Alliance and significant efforts from other parties, we managed to get the Christian Science Plaza landmarked. There were a number of interventions that were going to happen to the reflecting pool, including a diagonal cut halfway through with a wooden gazebo down the middle of it.

Of all the buildings here, losing City Hall would be our “Penn Station moment.” As they’re wont to say, it would take a controlled nuclear device to bring it down, so at least we have that on our side. There’s a study out right now for the plaza and the building to really investigate its use and its usefulness. I don’t think you would have seen a project like that come out of the Menino administration. Even Michael McKinnell, one of the architects of City Hall, has said on numerous occasions that he’s eager and willing to see the building modified and reused.

Other than City Hall, what Heroic building in Boston is the most misunderstood?

MP: We call City Hall the third rail of this building type because it just sets people into a storm. The Rudolph one is probably equally disliked and sometimes people confuse the two. I think it’s a tour de force of brilliant design but it’s also incredibly complex and because it’s a mental health services building, the programs aren’t really suited. It’s corrugated, bush-hammered concrete. It’s a tough surface.

Paul Rudolph, Government Service Center, 1962–71 (Robert Perron/The Monacelli Press)

There’s a story people talk about where someone lit themselves on fire and killed themselves on the altar in the chapel, but in all of my research, I’ve never seen any evidence of that nor have any of the other scholars I’ve spoken to that are focused on Rudolph. None of us have found any stitch of evidence that that happened. It may very well have happened, but we just can’t find any evidence of it. I worry that there’s a lot of misreadings that happen in these buildings but especially that one. Stuff spirals around the Internet about these buildings and their architects that paint a very dark picture, people even say that Rudolph was a satanist.

I’ve spent a lot of time with one of the original project architects whose wife also ran the building for a decade. He’s pretty upfront about its shortcomings but he said his wife feels like it works pretty well. I’ve done tours with people who work in the building. They don’t universally love it, for sure. But I’ve asked them if bush-hammered concrete is a major problem, if they’re seeing people hurting themselves, and they flat out say “no.”

There are some big issues with the code violations. The handrails are all too low and they had to put chainlink around these outdoor sectional moments where light was being brought down into a lower level via a reveal in the plaza. Now it’s all surrounded with chainlink so it looks terrible but they’ve come up with a solution to permanently fix that. That work is supposed to start in the next couple of months.

Marcel Breuer & Associates, Madison Park High School, 1967–77 (Nick Wheeler, Courtesy of the Frances Loeb Library, Harvard University Graduate School of Design)

CG: Madison Park High School. The people of Boston and even the design community don’t know about it. It’s Marcel Breuer’s only institutional project in the city. It’s in a neighborhood [Roxbury] that not a lot of people visit. It’s a remarkable piece of work. When you step into the interior courtyard of that space it’s just epic. It’s just a real delightful space to be in and I don’t think people know about it. It’s in okay condition. It definitely needs some investment, but the actual precast concrete pieces are in pretty good shape.

This book will naturally appeal to those who already like this kind of architecture, but what would you like everyone else to get out of it?

CG: Even though we’re unabashedly admirers of this kind of work, the project is as much of an aesthetic one as it is a cultural one. We’d hope that the skeptic would not necessarily be swayed to like the buildings but to at least appreciate their existence and their role in the making of a 21st-century Boston. When you start talking about destruction of epochs of architecture you really run the danger of erasing the culture and history of a place well before you’re able to evaluate that history and its implications. Preservation needs time and we’re sprinting fast through the eras of the last 50 years to take down projects just for the sake of their “ugliness.” Legacy cannot be evaluated in time before these things are being torn down. Thankfully, I think we’re starting to see a shift.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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