Knock It Down!

Does this deserve to be preserved?

How many times does the public have to declare something a failure before self-proclaimed arbiters of taste get it? How come a small cadre gets to call itself “experts” while those who disagree get labeled as “Philistines?” I just finished reading the umpteenth apology for why buildings such as Boston’s City Hall and London’s Trellick Tower are actually “important” buildings that need to be appreciated. Rubbish! And that’s what these buildings should be. Mark Twain once gazed upon an offensive memorial and commented, “There’s nothing to recommend it. Except dynamite.” Exactly.

I’d be the first to agree that popular art is not the same as “good” art (and vice versa), but I’ve had it with experts trying to convince me that the architecture of the 1960s and 1970s is “misunderstood” and deserves to be “preserved.” Says who? Not the public, surely. The form-follows-function neo-brutalist buildings from that era have long been out of favor and it’s not because the public have been seduced into liking something else. Sixties and Seventies architecture evolved from another style more people hate than like: the International style of Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, and their ilk. We hated that for the same reason we hate neo-brutalism: the people who designed this stuff confused drafting exercises with human habitats.

Do architects and preservationists study history or psychology? I wonder why some of the earliest known artifacts are items of jewelry? Or why tools and tombs are decorated? Hell’s bells, even the caves of Lascaux were painted. Processed food and medicine are meant for the inside of sterile packages, not people. Human beings like color, line, angles, and (yes) frippery. Even if we live in dorm rooms or cold-water walkups, one of the first things we do is put up some artwork and gussy up the joint a bit. We hate neo-brutalism because it’s boring, and a Trellick Tower’s worth of equally boring dissertations isn’t going to change our minds. I say let’s take all the preservationists who love this stuff and make them work, live, and recreate in said edifices. And since they’re so hell-bent on simplicity, let’s add a few covenants: no gardens, no landscaping, no internal art, and no furniture that doesn’t have straight lines. Rip out the lawn and haul in the gravel. Form follows function, baby!

I work in a neobrutalist building. I hate it. I look out my window at what would easily be the most-hated building in all of Massachusetts if it weren’t for the fact that the UMass Amherst campus is too far from Boston to be known statewide. This would be the Fine Arts Center (see above), a gigantic nightmare of concrete slaps that look to have been salvaged from the Berlin Wall. It compensates for ugliness by also being leaky, drafty, damp, and soulless. Seeing a performance at the Fine Arts Center has all the intimacy of making love in Aisle Three of your local Wal-Mart, except that Wal-Mart has better lighting.

Preserve this junk? I think not.


Anonymous said...

There are worse blgs than Trellick in London - and the hideous aopartment monstrosity at Elephant & Castle is about to be knocked down. When you're in London next, we'll trawl some really crappy bldgs.

Anonymous said...

I agree, International style is hideous. But where the material isn't shoddy -- a lot of "groundbreaking" modern buildings are falling apart -- it might be cheaper to keep the already-built. A featureless building might be given some features, even a variegated metal screen: a bare concrete cube could be glazed or painted.

Richard Garey said...

I would argue that the inefficient use of open space around Haigis Mall is far “uglier” than the Fine Arts Center. While I am not in love with it’s design, lack of maintenance on the interior is likely the most uncomfortable aspect of the building.

Alison Ozer, staff and community residenr said...

I agree that the building protrudes and is harsh, hard , colorless,cement. The inside may feel different, but the outside does not embody the moving, fluid, sensusl, dynamic qualities of theater, music, and dance.However the angles and flat surfaces can provide interesting opportunities and backdrops for some more colorful and lively expression. What about hanging banners that can creatively advertise events, or be rotating art pieces that bring color and accent over the drab cement? Rotating Murals? Something that reflects change and creative energy . I understand that the building has historical significance, but remember not liking it even in the 70s. Let it evolve to express more ideas than just that of the original architect?