Joint Base AT&T: brutally fortifying our downtown, in preparation for the past.

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.Brutalist building downtown WorcesterThe 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.IMG_7733IMG_7681IMG_7729Massachusetts’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.IMG_7736But 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:IMG_7726Mostly just a blank wall. And then there are the parking garages.IMG_7727And 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.

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12 thoughts on “Joint Base AT&T: brutally fortifying our downtown, in preparation for the past.

  1. Aaron M. Renn

    The AT&T building appears to have no windows, suggesting it was originally built as a central office by AT&T/New England Telephone.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      Could be, Aaron… It’s always possible it has had the same tenant for 45+ years. It didn’t seem likely, given how many buildings from that era have experienced a turnaround in tenancy. The design suggests that, at that time, it was conceived with the intent of shielding the occupants/activities from the outside world (i.e., the rest of downtown Worcester), and it still conveys that intent today.

      Reply
      1. Chris B

        I concur with Aaron. Most old AT&T central offices were windowless fortresses. I lived around the corner from a similar structure (near College and Kessler in Indy) of slightly older vintage, but every bit as ugly.

        The ones built in the 30s and 40s were also windowless forts, though they were closer to “neoclassical” in style. (There’s one of those at 30th and Pennsylvania in Indy.)

        In part I think it was a deliberate attempt to convey power and permanence through architecture. AT&T was the successor to railroads as the most recognizable (and powerful and profitable) monopoly in American life.

        Reply
        1. American Dirt

          So windowlessness = power? Very interesting. Since windowlessness is rarely a desirable feature, it’s surprising that it would convey permanence, since it doesn’t encourage a huge variety of successor tenants. Most prospectives aren’t jumping at the opportunity for a windowless structure, except maybe department stores, and even that’s doubtful. I’m particularly puzzled by the rationale in choosing a windowless structure in a downtown, unless it’s sheathing an electrical substation. But clearly that’s not the case.

          I guess if it’s a monopoly, though, they can design their buildings however they want–and monopolistic status gives them a certain hubris and wanton disregard for long-term consequences.

          Reply
            1. AmericanDirt

              So those big AT&T buildings host switching stations? I guess they do need to be fortress-like. Unless redundant, switching stations are almost as likely as substations to get classified as critical facilities per the DHS definitions. Bearing this in mind, and if AT&T was the original owner of this property in Worcester, it’s surprising that the company would devote as much thought in the design of a structure to even adapt to Brutalism, especially in the 1970s, when private investment seemed to adhere to the do-as-little-as-possible rubric.

              Do people work in switching stations? My impression is they would be unoccupied unless someone is there to service the interior parts. This structure is in a pretty centrally located part of downtown Worcester; in most cities, the substations and switching stations are at least in a more peripheral part of downtown.

              Reply
  2. Alex Pline

    “the verdure feels slapped on, like a bad toupee” – Pure gold.

    Great critique of Brutalism. As you know my most hated architectural style, just ahead of modern “starchitecture” which will age only slightly better.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      While I’d be a bit more willing than you are to judge each “starchitect’s” project on its own merits, I’d admit I’m also frustrated by the hubbub typically surrounding these efforts, most of which create such a PR whirlwind that the result almost HAS to be garish and ostentatious or the public will treat it as a disappointment. Then again, architects themselves, like successful movie directors, often become a victim of their own success, as their artistic output becomes a brand independent of its quality or cultural durability.

      Reply
  3. Ted

    It is a switching station- and no need for it to be located downtown taking valuable real estate. City should ask AT and T to relocate it. With fiber optics, this building could probably be replaced with something the size of a minivan now.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for the observations, Ted. It is definitely a hulk of an thing to comprise prime downtown real estate, and it begs the question if it might very well get taken down if Worcester’s downtown were more vibrant and the real estate pressures greater. It makes me think of an electrical substation in my home city that provided quite the eyesore for many years, for a nice new apartment building that had gone up in the early 2010s: https://goo.gl/maps/k8A3WgmewKAebmNS8

      This area in the photo isn’t quite booming but it’s close to districts that are. By the summer of 2018 it had been removed: https://goo.gl/maps/PBF6LFspA58FYgpH9 Or perhaps it was simply “undergrounded”? I haven’t seen if it has changed in the last couple years, but it does have the telltale signs of neglect, suggesting the site might go up on the market before too long.

      I can’t imagine how a structure like this switching station would ever get repurposed. As Brutalist buildings go, Worcester could do much worse.

      Reply

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