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A love letter to Brutalism, minus the brutality

This Brutal World

By Peter Chadwick


$49.95, 224 pages

By Colin Dabkowski

There’s beauty in brutality.

For a growing number of architectural aficionados with a renewed fervor for the concrete buildings of the mid- to late 20th century, this statement is becoming a mantra. And now, those concrete-crazed devotees, feeling newly emboldened in a world that largely regards the objects of their affection as Orwellian offenses to the senses, have a manifesto, too.

It’s called “This Brutal World,” a photo-album-cum-paean to the much-maligned category of architecture known as Brutalism, which extends from the concrete grain elevators of the early 20th century to the museums and office buildings of the 21st.

The volume, conceived by the British designer Peter Chadwick and produced to Phaidon’s exacting standards, is a photographic love letter to concrete structures in all their stalwart confidence. Though it sells itself as a “visual manifesto,” it doesn’t quite measure up to the promise of that term, as it makes no cohesive argument for the importance of the form and acts rather as a record of one man’s lifelong fascination with its contributions to architecture.

Taken as such, “This Brutal World” is an intoxicating book, replete with pristine black-and-white photographs rich with shadow play and interspersed with quotes from artists, musicians, writers and architects that point readers’ minds in interesting directions.

Purists and pedants will try to tell you that “Brutalism” refers not to brutality itself but rather to the rough-edged style of poured concrete favored by its early practitioners. This is technically true. But in practice and in reality, it has come to be associated with brutal notions, brutal forms and brutal politics. Therefore, any serious consideration of the movement must engage with the widespread perception of the style as reflective of authoritarianism, oppression or the spectacular failure of collectivist ambitions.

Even if only by quoting certain observers of human achievement, Chadwick engages with this notion right away, with George Orwell’s description of the Ministry of Truth from “1984.” He called it “an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up terrace after terrace, three hundred meters into the air” and declared that “a thousand rocket bombs would not batter it down.”

By launching the book with this description, Chadwick acknowledges the overriding critique of Brutalism as authoritarian, and then proceeds to break that notion down in a series of increasingly graceful forms.

These range from classics such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum to such new works as Tadao Ando’s otherworldly Roberto Garza Sada Center for Arts, Architecture & Design in Monterrey, Mexico, and a gorgeous piece of obsidian circuitry by Stefan Giers Architektur & Landschaft in eastern Germany.

Buffalo’s concrete grain elevators don’t get their due credit for shaping the European impulse for Brutalism – Le Corbusier called them “the fist fruits of a new age.” But they make a couple of important appearances. The first is the hulking 1973 observation at the Erie Basin Marina, which resembles a World War II-era battle station. The second is the 1974 Buffalo City Court by Pfohl, Roberts & Biggie, an infamous example of the form and one of the most authoritarian buildings on the planet.

It’s no mistake that Chadwick pairs it with a quote from Ayn Rand, that misguided prophet of American individualism: “A building is alive, like a man. Its integrity is to follow its own truth, its one single theme, and to serve its own single purpose,” she wrote in “The Fountainhead.” “A man doesn’t borrow pieces of his body. A building doesn’t borrow pieces of its soul.”

Well, some buildings don’t. And City Court, love it or hate it, is surely one.

Chadwick’s insistence on portraying his favorite Brutalist forms in black and white is both a tool to emphasize their formal purity and a somewhat disingenuous move. That’s because it edits out some of the older structures’ more off-putting features, foremost among them color.

When Buffalonians say they don’t like Brutalist forms that appeared in here in the 1960s and ’70s, for instance, part of what they don’t like is the assertively bland palette chosen by the architects or dictated by the materials.

Buffalo’s convention center, its City Court building or One Seneca Tower offend modern sensibilities in part because they are the color of mud. Not the rich and variegated granite of City Hall or the vivid terra cotta of the Guaranty Building, but the beige-brown, bland nothingness of hulking concrete made heavier by the selection of high-calorie colors.

Grey, as Gerhard Richter said in one of the book’s more perceptive quotes, “makes no statement whatever; It evokes neither feelings nor associations: It is really neither visible nor invisible.”

But Brutalism is visible. Sometimes defiantly so. Its mere presence is a statement, and one that increasing numbers of architecture fans are finding relevant once again. Despite a presentation that portrays the form in an unrealistic light, Chadwick’s important book is sure to accelerate the trend.

Colin Dabkowski is The News’ arts critic. email:

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