For those who still need evidence of the Brutalist architectural movement’s effrontery—if my recent article on the two ungainly banks in Asheville wasn’t enough—I offer this leviathan in Worcester, Massachusetts.The barely visible logo in the building’s spire to the left—just behind that stoplight—suggests that this is an AT&T property. Regardless of who owns it (and I have a sneaking suspicion that AT&T was not the original developer) it offers such a contrast to everything that makes downtowns engaging and stimulating that I don’t even need to show other pics of Worcester. Of course it doesn’t fit in. It wouldn’t fit in anywhere; the entire premise to Brutalism’s restrictive, individuated take on modernity is that it revolutionizes conventional standards on the meaning of the passage of time. It’s an affront to chronology, and since it overtly defies the eras that bore other edifices, it has an equally anarchic relationship to place. A death star has landed in Worcester. The only context where a Brutalist building would fit is if other Brutalist buildings surrounded it.
Despite my claim in the previous paragraph, I’m going to renege and show some other downtown images anyway. To be fair to Worcester.Massachusetts’s second largest city does not generally boast a very healthy downtown. That said, much of it still has the bones for revitalizing potential. It simply isn’t there yet, and it’s largely obvious by the unloved streetscape and neglected buildings.But perhaps the state of tired desuetude manifested through the above pic also distinguishes the feature of Brutalism that is both its blessing and its curse: a Brutalist building cannot really signal its economic health that easily. It already fails to engage the passer-by, so this lack of engagement makes it easier to hide if it’s 90% vacant, but it never really conveys vibrancy either. It’s not readable.
As others have indicated before me, Brutalist buildings (with few exceptions) shield themselves from the outside world. An unwavering dependence on sturdy, sterile concrete. A paucity of windows—or, in the case of this AT&T building—a completely blank wall fronting the sidewalk. A civic plaza with ornamental landscaping that fails to dialogue with the building; the verdure feels slapped on, like a bad toupee. These are, of course, my mere opinions, and they fail to account for the positive features of Brutalism: its anti-establishmentarianism, its boldness, and its attempt (albeit unsuccessful) at timelessness. But these same features also explain why Brutalism struggles today and may ultimately face extinction in the decades ahead. The massing and fenestration simply aren’t that easy to market, and even if the building looks likely to survive a nuclear holocaust, that’s not always enough to attract new tenants, most of whom will need some self-promoting feature (like a window that shows they are open and in business) that is more obtrusive than the mere logo that serves AT&T so well.
As a result of the long-term challenges in marketability, Brutalism enjoyed—at most—a seven-year period of prominence beginning in the late 1960s. By 1980 the form had softened enough that the name “Brutalism” could no longer apply. And thus, today, our association of this architectural movement with a very distinct and narrow period has completely eroded its attempts to transcend time and space. It looks dated—thus failing the test of timelessness—and most new buildings constructed in the last thirty years have sought to engage the streetscape, much in keeping with the vast majority of downtown Worcester’s old buildings. And as a response to the shortcomings of Brutalism.
I’m not entirely repulsed by Brutalism, and I recognize that some of its most prominent representations clearly fulfilled a vision that, however faded, clearly convey a structural engineer or architect’s vision of modernity circa 1970. But the hostility to conventional urbanism is undeniable. Even if cultural mores had repudiated Brutalism within a decade after its genesis, we haven’t entirely learned from its most unforgiving, brutal misjudgments. And Worcester’s downtown has borne the brunt perhaps more than most cities. Witness the surviving remnants of Worcester Center Galleria, an attempt to revitalize downtown in 1971 that involved building a suburban style mall, an office complex (called the Mercantile Center), and mammoth parking structures. Much of the Galleria is gone—the mall closed in 2004 after dying a slow death—but the surviving office buildings, both fully operative, bear all the trademarks of Brutalism, and though they have a better array of windows and first-floor retail than the AT&T building, they still do not easily reveal much to the unattuned eye about the buildings’ tenants. And here’s another side of the Mercantile Center:Mostly just a blank wall. And then there are the parking garages.And here’s another, shortly before its phased redevelopment, wrapping around the east side of downtown Worcester like an impenetrable wall. The future of downtown, as envisioned by our Brutalist overlords in 1971, may not have been welcoming, but at least it felt secure.