Boston City Hall, built in 1969 and designed by architects Gerhardt Kallmann and N. Michael McKinnellis is perhaps the most infamous example of Brutalism, with its characteristic repetitive angular shapes, its hulking bunker-like street presence and its rough-cast concrete construction (still displaying the texture of the plywood forms used in the pouring). The blog Blogadilla elaborates:
Architecture critic & blogger Clem Labine describes Boston City Hall as
Brutalist architecture combines the glamour of raw poured concrete (the woodgrain pattern of the mold still visible on the concrete surface) with the playfulness of military bunkers and the repetitive geometric shapes of a Russian psychiatric prison.
... a monument to architectural hubris, an inhumane construct that is despised both by many of the workers who use it every day, and by most passersby who encounter it face to face. Because of its lack of civility, disdain for ordinary citizens and scorn for its urban context, I would happily swing the first sledgehammer to begin its demolition.Theodore Dalrymple, in a 1995 essay titled Do Sties Make Pigs?, wrote about the effect Brutalist architecture had on his home town of London:
Until quite recently, I had assumed that the extreme ugliness of the city in which I live was attributable to the Luftwaffe. I imagined that the cheap and charmless high rise buildings which so disfigure the city-scape had been erected of necessity in great gaping holes left by Heinkel bombers. I had spent much of my childhood playing in deserted bomb shelters in public parks: and although I was born some years after the end of the war, that great conflagration still exerted a powerful hold on the imagination of British children of my generation.
I discovered how wrong I was not long ago when I entered a store whose walls were decorated with large photographs of the city as it had been before the war. It was then a fine place, in a grandiloquent, Victorian kind of way. Every building had spoken of a bulging, no doubt slightly pompous and ridiculous, municipal pride. Industry and Labor were glorified in statuary, and a leavening of Greek temples and Italian Renaissance palaces lightened the prevailing mock-Venetian Gothic architecture.
"A great shame about the war," I said to the store assistant, who was of an age to remember the old days. "Look at the city now."
"The war?" she said. "The war had nothing to do with it. It was the council. "
The City Council—the people's elected representatives it transpired, had done far more damage to the fabric of the city in the 1950s and 1960s than had Goering's air force. Indeed, they had managed to turn it into a terrible visual ordeal for anyone with the most minimal visual sensibility.
I attended the University of Guelph in the late seventies and the campus of my alma mater is a typical example of what happened to many universities after the war. A massive enrolment increase resulted in an unprecedented building boom at exactly the time that architects were collectively obsessed with building the most hideous structures in the history of mankind. In the middle of Guelph's stately tree-lined campus, amid beautiful buildings like Creelman Hall:
or Johnston Hall:
were erected Brutalist structures like the McLaughlin Library:
and the McKinnon Arts Building:
Guelph is not atypical: the University of Toronto erected the monstrous Robarts Library in the centre of its leafy 19th Century downtown St. George Campus:
The University of Western Ontario, not to be outdone, built the Weldon Library in the middle of its beautiful campus:
This is a long, roundabout way of commenting on one of Toronto's monuments to Brutalism. I was in Canada's World Class City recently and stayed at the Sheraton Centre on Queen Street, directly across from City Hall. It takes up most of a full city block and is shockingly ugly from the outside:
The low section containing the main lobby and the shopping concourse looks like a sewage treatment plant and the high-rise tower reminds me of the kind of apartment blocks put up by the communists in East Berlin.
The building is constructed of poured concrete in textbook Brutalist style, and up close it has the look of a parking garage or a highway overpass.
This is the ordeal that faces pedestrians as they walk along the south side of Queen Street in front of the building - a featureless, windowless expanse of concrete that sucks the life out of the sidewalk outside. It looks like the Berlin Wall.
To complete the Soviet prison theme, it even has a mini guard tower on one corner. The only thing missing is barbed wire.
The building's exterior is so devoid of ornamentation and detail that it is almost impossible to find the entrance. Fortunately the management has provided helpful signage for confused patrons trying to find their way into the building. This, believe it or not, is the hotel's main entrance off Queen Street, complete with sign saying "Main Entrance". You have to wonder about an architect who would design a building that needs signs to tell you how to get in:
As is typical with Brutalist buildings, the Sheraton Centre makes no attempt to blend in with or even augment the neighbourhood it is situated in. This block of Queen Street is home to more successful modern buildings like City Hall with its surrounding square :
and the beautiful Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts:
The hotel also shares the block with two much-loved historic structures: Osgoode Hall
and Old City Hall
The visual effect of this hulking concrete monstrosity on a street that is (or was) the centre of civic life is jarring. It's like a whole block in the centre of town has been abandoned or occupied by a hostile enemy.
Fortunately, the proprietors have lavished much attention on the hotel's interior, perhaps as befits a building that has turned itself completely away from the street. I was expecting a university dormitory, or perhaps a hospital waiting room, but instead walked into this elaborate lobby decked out in polished marble, dark mahogany and leather-upholstered furniture, all flooded by natural light from an interior courtyard. The rooms were luxurious and made for quite a pleasant stay.
This was quite the contrast to the exterior, and the people who work there must be constantly apologizing for the face their hotel presents to the public.
The oldest Brutalist buildings were built in the 1950s and are starting to show the effects of age and shoddy construction techniques. Architectural preservationists are in a quandary about whether or not to devote money and resources to the preservation of these horrible eyesores - they are, after all, reflective of the historical time in which they were built. It's hard to imagine anyone in the future protesting the demolition of the Sheraton Centre, though.
Next post: another Brutalist eyesore: Toronto's St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts.