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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope

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Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Architectural crimes against humanity (2)

In a recent post I offered up some comments about the Sheraton Centre - one of Toronto's monuments to a much-loathed architectural style called "Brutalism". The theme continues today with a discussion of another Toronto Brutalist eyesore - the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts.

Brutalism is a term coined by French architect Le Corbusier & is derived from the phrase beton brut, meaning "raw concrete". Brutalist buildings are characterized by their bulky, angular geometry and their use of poured concrete, usually left unfinished with the marks of the forms still on it. They often deliberately expose structural features that are usually hidden, like support members, plumbing & ventilation. They are unrelentingly ugly.

Brutalist buildings were built en masse in many large cities and especially on university campuses in the 50s, 60s and 70s when a postwar distaste among architects for old traditional styles resulted in the razing of whole city blocks and the erection of these horrendous, soulless public buildings.

Brutalist buildings, although popular with architects, never caught on much with the people who actually had to live and work in them. This was famously illustrated by a colossal high-rise apartment complex in St. Louis called Pruitt-Igoe, which was at one time the largest public housing project in the U.S. Although not made of poured concrete, Pruitt-Igoe had many of the features of Brutalist architecture, and was an almost immediate failure when it was built in 1952. Tom Wolfe wrote about the fiasco in his book From Bauhaus to Our House:
Millions of dollars and scores of commission meetings and task-force projects were expended in a last-ditch attempt to make Pruitt-Igoe habitable. In 1971, the final task force called a general meeting of everyone still living in the project. They asked the residents for their suggestions. It was a historic moment for two reasons. One, for the first time in the fifty-year history of worker housing, someone had finally asked the client for his two cents' worth. Two, the chant. The chant began immediately: "Blow it....up! Blow it....up! Blow it....up! Blow it....up! Blow it....up!" The next day, the task force thought it over. The poor buggers were right. It was the only solution. In July of 1972, the city blew up the three central blocks of of Pruitt-Igoe with dynamite.

The destruction of Pruitt-Igoe was featured in the film Koyaanisqatsi accompanied by menacing music by Philip Glass. The following YouTube clip contains the scene:

Theodore Dalrymple wrote this about the Brutalist post-war housing projects of his native Britain:
As for the buildings themselves, they are, with a vengeance, Le Corbusier's "machines for living in"—though perhaps "existing in" would be more accurate. The straight line and the right angle reign supreme: no curves, no frivolous decorative touches, no softening materials add warmth to the steel, glass, and concrete. There is nothing that Mies van der Rohe, another dictator in architect's clothing, would have condemned as "aesthetic speculation."

What do the tenants think of their apartment blocks? They vote with their urine. The public spaces and elevators of all public housing blocks I know are so deeply impregnated with urine that the odor is ineradicable. And anything smashable has been smashed.

It's hard to find someone who loves a Brutalist building. Some owners of these structures would dearly love to have them torn down to start fresh. A case in point is the congregation of the Third Church of Christ, Scientist in Washington, DC. Their church was built in the seventies and designed by architect Araldo Cossutta who worked for the renowned I.M. Pei. Church members hate it and want it torn down and replaced, but the D.C. government had other ideas:
Parishioners at the Third Church of Christ, Scientist, say their 1970s modernist church is crumbling, uninviting and too expensive for the small downtown flock to maintain.

Church officials want to tear down the bunker-like structure, located two blocks from the White House, and replace it with a revenue-generating office building that includes space for the church.

The congregation won in the end and a demolition permit was eventually issued:
Harriet Tregoning, director of the city's Office of Planning and Mayor Adrian Fenty's agent for historic preservation, overruled a decision last year by the city's Historic Preservation Board that granted the building landmark status and prevented its demolition.

Preservationists say the building, with its windowless facade and concrete slabs, is a classic example of Brutalist architecture that should be maintained for future generations.

Tregoning, in her ruling, said forcing the congregation to maintain the building "would result in the inevitable demise of the Third Church as a downtown congregation" and would violate the spirit of the landmarking law.


Terry Lynch, executive director of the city's Downtown Cluster of Congregations, praised the decision.

"Historic preservation was never meant to be more important than the very people or purposes that buildings were meant to serve," he said. "This 1970s Brutalist-designed building ... would have bankrupted this congregation and forced it out of downtown where it had been for 100 years. That makes no sense."
Toronto has an abundance of Brutalist buildings blighting its civic landscape, but not many invade their neighbourhoods quite like the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts on Front Street. It was built as the city of Toronto's Centennial project and opened in 1970. Designed by Gordon S. Adamson & Associates, it is the permanent home of the Canadian Stage Company, the Esprit Orchestra and the Hannaford Street Silver Band. It contains two performance spaces, the Jane Mallett Theatre and the Bluma Appel Theatre.

 describes the building euphemistically as "a low-slung modern concrete building that follows the slope of Lake Ontario's former shoreline down from Front Street". That's putting it mildly - it follows the slope of the former shoreline like a German pillbox followed the shoreline at Juno Beach.

The building has all the hallmarks of a classic Brutalist structure: hulking, factory-like street facade completely lacking in ornamentation, poured-concrete construction and harsh angular geometry. It is truly ugly.

The most disturbing thing about the St. Lawrence Centre is the way it intrudes on its neighbourhood. This area of Front Street is home to the famous Gooderham Building

the popular St. Lawrence Market

and one of the best-preserved 19th century commercial blocks in the city

That apparently meant nothing in 1967 when this horrible building was grafted on to the streetscape like a ghastly prosthetic limb. Here are a few shots of the St. Lawrence Centre and its immediate neighbour to the east. You can get a sense of what was destroyed to make way for this structure:

Here's the sidewalk view that is presented to pedestrians who happen to be strolling down the south side of Front Street. Some neo-Victorian lamp-posts have been installed and some forlorn trees have been planted out front to soften the blow.

The facade is utterly devoid of architectural ornamentation. Any structural elements could be mistaken for those of a nuclear reactor:

The interior spaces are not much better. Mingling at intermission in the lobbies & corridors would certainly concentrate one's attention on the bar. It must be tough to stage comedies in this forbidding place:

Toronto has a lively and vibrant live theatre and concert scene, and the St. Lawrence Centre is an important part of it. The artistic tenants deserve a better building to showcase their efforts. I can sympathize with the Pruitt-Igoe tenants who chanted "Blow it....up! Blow it....up! Blow it....up!"


revanche said...

I always figured the brutal brand from the 70's were popular because they were cheap. It never dawned on me there might be architects who actually liked them. Yikes.

Anonymous said...

The local humans and canines vote on St Lawrence Centre with their urine. The outside of it reeks to high heaven, especially first thing in the morning and at night after the bars close.

The building has been neglected for decades, and is in rough shape structurally. But now that Civic Theatres Toronto is in charge, it's finally getting fixed up.

If it was up to me, I'd paint the outside in bright colours to add some creative soul to it.