Brutalist behemoths in a friendly mountain town: will Asheville salvage the seventies?

For those who haven’t been there, my words can at least serve as a testimony to the vibrance of Asheville, North Carolina. The heart of the city, along Patton Avenue near the triangular Pritchard Park, is teeming with local establishments, resulting in sidewalks packed with visitors from mid-morning until late at night. The older, less aesthetically distinct industrial quarter just south of downtown now harbors a variety of local breweries and specialty artisan shops. The streetcar-oriented, formerly working class West Asheville extends the entrepreneurial spirit of downtown along a generally walkable arterial. Best of all, this urbanizing alchemy seems to have happened almost completely organically. While I’m sure local business and civic leaders did their best to foster a community that attracts tourists and new niche industries in equal measure, much of it happened gradually, over twenty to thirty ears. And most of it took place through the revitalization of finely wrought existing buildings; only in the last decade did new development kick into high gear. The combination of the Biltmore Estate’s intrigue with the beauty of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains elevated this mid-sized mill town into major hub for outdoor exploration, with plenty of evening leisure activities packed into the town center, not all of them oriented around beer. (But an awful lot are.)

And I can only hope that my flattering words will suffice, because, like my previous feature on the awkwardly situated new Hilton Aloft hotel, this article confronts us with some architectural letdowns.IMG_9508The nondescript structure with “Breakout” over its doorway may seem like the centerpiece to this photo, but the buildings that flank it are far more interesting. Notice the elaborate, ornate façade on the building to the left.IMG_9512I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest this is indicative of the Spanish Mission Revival style that flourished alongside Art Deco, at least until someone better-versed than me can step up with a correction. Ninety years after construction (give or take), the S&W building remains a cherished feature of downtown Asheville. Now let’s look at the structure to the right of “Breakout”.Brutalist building in Asheville's downtownFormerly the site of a Bank of America branch (still operating as of 2012 according to Google Street View), the building seems to have endured a mixed reputation throughout the years: the courtyard created by the street setback apparently used to host drum circles and homeless overnight squatting (possibly a Venn diagram with some serious overlap).IMG_9510Vacant and fenced in, this structure is quite the eyesore in the context of just about everything else along the Patton Avenue corridor. Given the state of Asheville’s economy, though, it should come as no surprise that a Charlotte-based developer plans to renovate the property extensively into a new hotel, most likely adding a few floors and eliminating the plaza entry by building out to the lot line.

Incidentally, this isn’t the only austere concrete structure fronting Asheville’s lush centerpiece. Here’s a view of Prichard Park from an opposite corner.IMG_9507And here it is from another street corner.IMG_9514And, after pivoting the left, the visitor gets this lovely view.IMG_9515This windowless monstrosity spans the entire block from which I took those two previous photos of Prichard Park. Unfortunately, I failed to get a pic of the structure head-on, but this Google Street View reveals that it’s a large Wells Fargo Bank branch. And unlike the Bank of America a few hundred feet away, the Wells Fargo remains fully operative. In many respects, this building is an even bigger blight to Asheville’s otherwise visually stimulating downtown streetscape. Here’s the side of the Wells Fargo Building.IMG_9516Nothing but a huge blank wall for pedestrians to gaze upon. And compare that with a different corner facing Prichard Park.IMG_9513

These two banks—former and current—share both an architectural progenitor and an entire design philosophy reflective of their time period of construction. Unlike with my Spanish Mission Revival guesstimate, I can confidently assert that both banks owe their existence to the Brutalist movement that flourished in the middle of the 19th century. Although the earliest pioneers for this movement began in the early 1950s, it didn’t achieve widespread recognition until the late 1960s, reaching a peak around 1970, a period when virtually every major American university bestowed a Brutalist edifice onto its campus (most frequently a library or admin building). Public reception to this style, always somewhat chilly, helped contribute to its quick decline by 1975, a phenomenon that the 1970s energy crises no doubt helped to exacerbate. (Hulking Brutalist structures are notoriously costly to heat and cool.) By the late 1970s, the expansive concrete façades found a successor in slightly more inviting masonry, while continuing to mimic Brutalism’s unconventional massing and fenestration, at least for a few more years.

While most architectural movements, like all trends, experience a backlash that speeds the movement’s retreat, they also typically enjoy a renewed appreciation about two decades later, due largely by nostalgia’s capacity to spur a cyclical temporal form to collective popular taste. Alas, Brutalism has generally struggled to catch on. Concrete’s tendency to deteriorate—particularly the spalling that occurs in moist climates with four seasons like Asheville’s—creates both an aesthetic and structural predicament for the owners of Brutalist structures. But, more importantly from the standard of a civic node like Prichard Park, the majority of Brutalist buildings are intrinsically inhospitable to pedestrian engagement. They have few windows—further amplifying energy costs, since they need far more artificial lighting—and they look like fortresses, which confers no benefit to urban areas seeking to attract people and new businesses. The anti-Brutalist movement is so intense that many prominent structures have faced the wrecking ball in the last decade, and others are threatened. Even those Brutalist buildings that remain in good condition and offer an unquestionably distinct physical presence still arouse more detractors than cheerleaders.

Certain academic circles and specialty journals have rallied behind the finest Brutalist structures in an attempt to save them, but it’s a very tough sell. These two examples in Asheville offer all the evidence necessary through a handful of photos. The Bank of America building will almost certainly be unrecognizable after redevelopment, if the investor doesn’t ultimately decide to demolish altogether. The building remains difficult to repurpose within its current façade, at a time when a continuous street wall is more appealing than setbacks. It’s a bit unfortunate, because, as Brutalist buildings go, it’s less adversarial to the streetscape than most. The very presence of a green courtyard and first-floor windows certainly distinguish it from the overtly hostile Wells Fargo building nearby, which will likely remain for the foreseeable future.

The broadly disliked aesthetics of Brutalism beg a question: what made architects of the time think that concrete citadels would represent modernity? It may have been an unconscious gesture, but it is essential to recognize the sociological conditions that prompted this design. In the late 60s and 1970s, old urban centers were plummeting in their appeal, losing out to new development in the suburbs and engulfed in poverty and crime. Many Brutalist architects eschewed first-floor windows because they became points of vulnerability within their hostile surroundings. Though Asheville was probably never a criminal hotbed, it certainly suffered the economic malaise that made its downtown unappealing compared to the safer purlieus. A number of structures built in the 1970s, Brutalist and otherwise, deploy a massing that makes them visibly defensible space—a feature no doubt more attractive to banks than other tenants.

My suspicion is that Asheville will continue its rapid-growth trajectory. In due time, real estate interests will eye the lucrative parcel for the Wells Fargo Building and it will face the same redevelopment. And most residents in Asheville will hardly bat an eyelash at the thought of this concrete monster coming down. In fact, it may take many more demolitions before the general public gets jolted into panic mode about the endangered future of Brutalism: but those Americans who are nostalgic for the design need only venture over to their nation’s capital. They’ve got a little subway system based almost entirely on the fundamentals of Brutalism, and it’s not going anywhere. Literally.

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19 thoughts on “Brutalist behemoths in a friendly mountain town: will Asheville salvage the seventies?

  1. Alex Pline

    I think the problem with Brutalism as a style is that is very, I mean very very, hard to do well. While I intensely dislike this style there are some exemplary examples such as in my prior back yard U Mass Dartmouth (former Southeastern Mass U and SMTI): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_Massachusetts_Dartmouth It may be just a soft spot for me having spent some time there, but it is interesting and never felt oppressive. I think this sentiment applies to other styles too, such as Mid Century Modern. There are many, many examples of this done well, but for each of those, there is probably 10 that are just schlocky implementations. But Brutalism is the worst of this ilk in my opinion both as an assault on the eyes aesthetically and a failure (by design as you indicate with “hostile surroundings”) from a perspective. Just because a building is by a famous architect, if it fails on the latter and to an extent on the former, tear it down and build something worthy. We only have to look at the great civic stuff built around the turn of the century.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      “Schlock” is a great word for it, Alex. I kind of think of it as the Yiddish counterpart to (equally Yiddish) “kitsch”. Whereas kitsch is low art popularized to middlebrow tastes, schlock is middlebrow kitsch inflated to highbrow pretentions. In short, Brutalism. I think it’s noteworthy that, in contrast to MCM and other 19th century styles, Brutalism never got domesticated. I can’t imagine there are more than a few dozen homes out there that have imitated the Brutalist typology. In fact, a disproportionate number of brutalist buildings come from the public sector, suggesting that the private development community knew that they wouldn’t age well and stayed clear the heck away.

      I have to confess, though, that I’m still a pretty big fan of Boston City Hall. A complete disaster from an urban design perspective, but an interesting spectacle. Still, the whole “spectacle” approach gives Brutalist a sort of bombast that further substantiates your claim of “10 schlocky implementations” for every really good building out there.

      Reply
  2. Chris B

    ” A number of structures built in the 1970s, Brutalist and otherwise, deploy a massing that makes them visibly defensible space”

    ^^This. I have long called that subset of Brutalist buildings “Urban Castle-and-Moat Architecture”. The most literal example of this I know is the PNC (formerly Merchants) Plaza in Indianapolis. Its Washington Street side is literally a dry moat, with barred parking set under a raised plaza with limited street access.

    As originally built, Renaissance Center in Detroit and CNN Plaza in Atlanta (especially the hotel component, where the lobby of what is now the Omni was 1 1/2 stories up from street level) were better-known examples, but in their current incarnations offer some hope that such monstrosities can be tastefully altered to meet more modern sensibilities.

    In the case of the BofA in Asheville, I suppose a glass curtain wall at street level (to convert the courtyard to lobby) would do this. The Wells Fargo building would need far more radical surgery (cutting openings through the poured concrete).

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Thanks Chris–the question is whether retrofitting most of these buildings would offer a reasonable IRR, and that it could be accomplished without nullifying the most striking features of these buildings. The Bank of America in Asheville will probably yield a pretty respectable hotel, while the Wells Fargo Building–a better looking structure overall, but even more hostile to the streetscape–is likely to languish for many years to come.

      Reply
      1. Chris B

        Here are a couple of smaller, private structures that are borderline Brutalist: 1 S. Delaware https://www.google.com/maps/@39.7669808,-86.1545296,3a,90y,220.81h,101.26t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sQShWYkKcBbWkijIMcni-1w!2e0!7i13312!8i6656?hl=en
        and
        1712 N. Meridian https://www.google.com/maps/@39.7898586,-86.1573075,3a,70.7y,266.45h,87.93t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sO0d1hGxCsUcpkL60YKpBdg!2e0!7i13312!8i6656?hl=en

        Here’s residential, though it’s apartments (and institutional, and retrofitted in the last decade from its original unpainted-with-bronze-storefront look): https://www.google.com/maps/@39.9528226,-75.2016583,3a,75y,39.89h,119.82t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sv5roSGp_j4vD1sb_a2IDmA!2e0!7i13312!8i6656?hl=en
        The Penn high rises always had been intended to be used at pedestrian scale, so they were always relatively transparent and accessible at ground level. They are in my book some of the best Brutalist buildings out there.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt

          I’m not entirely unfond of the Delaware Street building, and it engages the streetscape better than most structures from that time period. But are the first-floor windows shrouded in some way? The Meridian Street building definitely uses a fenestration that evokes the international style that preceded it.

          As for the Penn campus photo, I think that’s one of the three highrises on the western end of Locust Walk? I recognize the window pattern, though it appears to have been fixed up since the days when I lived in Hamilton House…

          Reply
          1. Chris B

            Yes. That is High Rise North (which has been renamed for Judith Rodin). It’s been given a Mondrian-inspired tinted glass and spandrel front, and the concrete was stained or painted.

            In its original finish it was IMO among the best Brutalist buildings, and the rehab didn’t change it too much.

            Reply
  3. Alex Pline

    Of all architectural styles this is the absolute worse. Looks awful and performs badly. As I mentioned in my comment on the blog, there are some notable exceptions (U Mass Dartmouth), but run of the mill copy cat Brutalism like this is horrible and even “big” projects like so many buildings I walk by in DC and the likes of Boston Government Center, barf.

    Reply
    1. James Kline

      Don’t know. I kind of like it. To be sure copycat architecture can be terrible, but I like the cantilevers on this building.

      Reply
      1. Alex Pline

        James Kline, I posted this because IMHO is an excellent example of good Brutalisim, but I think they are rare and beyond aesthetics are hostile to good pedestrian environment.

        Reply
        1. James Kline

          Ah, I misread the post.
          Haven’t really thought of how to navigate the space through and around. Will start.
          Btw, you should check out the blogs MCMANSION HELL and BRUTALIST DC.

          Reply
        2. AmericanDirt

          Alex Pline Even the ones with good aesthetics still tend to be hostile to pedestrians. I’m surprised by all that greenery. The BofA building in Asheville has/had a courtyard, but that’s the exception. The Wells Fargo building has nothing.

          Reply
  4. Carl M

    Exellent article. Makes me think of the senior citizen apartements in downtown Indy; looks like a vertical, concrete dam. Built facing East and West in the late 60s or so, sans air conditioning…
    Just where an impoverished senior citizen wants to go to die.
    Since updated and air conditioned, and now hidden at eye level (and the removal of a nice little park): https://historicindianapolis.com/indianapolis-then-and-now-millikan-flats-barton-tower-millikan-on-mass-500-block-of-massachusetts-avenue/

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Ah, the Barton Towers. Yeah, I’m not a huge fan, and I like your analogy. They were part of a Pop-Up Mod Tour that I participated in a few years ago, then wrote about on Urban Indy. Some people on the tour were ardent defenders of the Corbusian Tower-in-the-Park aesthetic, while I personally was happy to see that park eliminated, not because I hate parks, but because the new development brought density and a continuous storefront presence back to Mass Ave. Up to that point, that block was kind of the “dead space”, and that park went unused 99.76% of the time. With the added density (and even more opening across the street at the site of the old Firefighters’ Credit Union), the other pocket park over by Bru Burger and the Starbucks is becoming a really swell little space!

      Nothing will probably surpass the old Millikan Building that got demo’d, and I do feel bad for the seniors in Barton who have less of a view. But at least there are a lot more amenities in the area then in 1985, when Barton Tower was about the only fully occupied building in the area…and the only viable restaurant was Brother Juniper’s.

      Here’s the article where I covered the different buildings on the Mod Tour in greater detail: http://www.urbanindy.com/2012/11/07/indiana-landmarks-pop-up-mod-tour-a-chance-to-look-at-our-opinionated-selves-in-the-mirror/

      Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      All too often, they just don’t take them seriously until they become unequivocally endangered. Take Googie architecture, for example: it was born much more out of pop culture imitation then brutalism ever was, which had academic antecedents. Despite being popular in ubiquitous in the early 1960s, Googie is seriously in danger today.

      Reply

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