21.10.13

IT'S NOT RIOT RENAISSANCE.

I am complicit in perpetuating an urban legend.
Assuming that your campus did have a Brutalist building, you’ve probably been told a lie about it that goes something like, “Hideous, right? The administration chose that design because it was good at preventing student riots and occupations.” The notion, apparently, is that the style’s typically complex floor plans, dazzling edifices, and oddly placed entrances would discourage those kinds of activities. I’ve heard versions of this tall tale used to explain both the International Affairs Building at my alma mater, Columbia, as well as the North Academic Center at City College, looming as it does a few blocks from my home in Harlem. Colleagues have heard similar apologies in reference to structures at schools all over the place. For years, we’ve all passively accepted this story; however, a little research shows that it is exactly that—a myth.

Though the riot-prevention narrative is widely known, every architectural historian or critical source that I consulted viewed it as extremely dubious. For one thing, the claim is somewhat anachronistic. Many campus Brutalist projects were planned (if not totally completed) before the student movements of the late '60s and early '70s really took off, so crafty administrators would have to have been very prescient to foresee the countercultural-quashing usefulness of any particular style. Plus, as one practical-minded source put it, “not only was [Brutalism] in vogue, architecturally speaking, but building in concrete was way, way cheap. Hence its widespread use in institutional building” during the period.
Never use a complex explanation when a simple one will do. Trendy. Cheap.

Butt-ugly, too, despite the pretensions of architects of the era.

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