Concrete Utopia

Brutalism is one of those architecture styles that’s easy to hate on. All that concrete tends to just look so different that what we’re used to in the US and the way we let it decay and age in this country doesn’t do it any favors either.

I’ve been finding myself increasingly drawn to it. As a photographer I especially like the subtle textures and ways it interacts with light and shadow. There’s also something I enjoy about the building itself being sculptural while remaining solid. All of which meant I was very interested in MoMA’s Toward a Concrete Utopia exhibition.*

*Yes it’s been closed for a month. It took me a while to write about this show.

The exhibition started off very much like I expected by focusing on individual buildings. Often these are public spaces like fairgrounds* or stadiums** but they cover the gamut. Brutal headquarters, municipal buildings, churches, apartments, hotels, etc.

*Like the Belgrade Fair with the largest concrete dome in the world before the Astrodome was built.

**Such as Split’s brutal but also light and graceful soccer stadium.

Despite the differences in scale, concrete is an extremely democratic building material. For something so ancient and basic—literally just sand held together with cement—it’s transformable into all kinds of wonderful forms and shapes which can evoke modern or futuristic feelings all the while maintaining that sense of connection to the earth.

Brutalism is great in that it lets the concrete be concrete without trying to mimic any other architectural style or hide what it is. The buildings on display often feel massive and weighty yet they simultaneously soar. Some things—crazy cantilevers and thin load-bearing pillars—can only be done with reinforced concrete and the resulting structures appear surprisingly and disturbingly light and graceful.

Milan Mihelič’s work in particular caught my eye here. It still looks space age despite being decades old. His buildings somehow turn concrete into a crystalline entity predisposed to self-sorting into stable geometric or fractal forms rather than an amorphous solid which gets poured into molds. Even as they age they maintain that aspect of otherworldliness.

Compared to Mihelič, the Hotel Podgorica in Radević is a completely different feel. Instead of feeling space age it taps into a sense of ur-wall and connects an ancient sensibility to a modern construction. It’s still a wonderful building but it bridges how modernism and brutalism can exist in harmony with older traditions.

I also liked the National Library of Kosovo in how it combines Muslim and Orthodox Christian motifs. It’s very much its own thing but for a building which is supposed to be a cultural caretaker in a region which has had more than its fair share of religiously-fueled violence it’s wonderful to see how it tries to be inclusive.

This exhibition surprised me in how it transitioned from being about buildings to instead focusing on cities and spaces and how brutalism is not limited to just individual buildings but instead applies to an entire community or metropolis.

Tatjana Neidhardt makes the observation that whitewashed-earth, cubic vernacular buildings are already modern and it’s pretty neat to see brutalism reframed this way. I love the way Zadar was redeveloped with modern buildings that still meander the way medieval city centers used to. As with the Hotel Podgorica it’s fantastic to see things that bridge modern and ancient and show how similar and compatible they actually are.

The big gallery focusing on Skopje’s post-earthquake rebuilding though is sort of the keystone of the exhibition for me. Kenzō Tange’s designs plus the blank slate of earthquake rebuilding created the opportunity to design an entire city rather than just a building at a time.

The buildings are still very interesting but it’s the spaces between them and how everything interacts that show how brutalism really works. Having so many models of groups of buildings in the gallery* is a great way to get a sense of the place and how it could feel like something new and different with the concrete buildings shaping the outside spaces as much as they shape the inside ones.

*The exhibition used models throughout as a way of illustrating the buildings.

In this case the architecture is clearly not drawing on the past in terms of the building forms but is drawing on it in terms of the public spaces being created between them. The idea that the buildings get used for their purposes of living or working but the open space is for everyone reminds me of the ways that parks and plazas are supposed to work in cities and how in older cities the paths and streets guide you to these public spaces.

Where in the US brutalism often feels imposed and forced into environments, the nature of how it shapes the space outside buildings explains how it works so much differently on college campuses.

Other thoughts

I found myself thinking of Lebbeus Woods as I walked through this exhibition because so much of the brutalism feels like it has one foot in the science fiction esthetic as it is and there’s something organic about concrete and how it ages that makes so many of these buildings feel right up his alley. That there was a small display highlighting Woods’s visit to Yugoslavia after the 1990s war was absolutely perfect.

I love his approach to dealing with the damaged buildings by respecting the damage and then designing around it. It takes the concept of ruin value and transforms it from the classic view of it as an actual ruin and makes it into something spectacularly modern.

The other neat thing about this show is that it shows photographs right next to the architectural renderings. The photographs are particularly interesting to me since they almost feel like digital renderings where people are absent and things have been aged with grungy textures, graffiti, and after-market air conditioning units.* I believe they’re real but given how multiple wars have torn through this area I wasn’t completely certain.

*It’s noteworthy how much these AC units add to the look of the place instead of detracting from it.

Compared to the photographs it’s amazing how poorly the architectural drawings describe how these buildings work. Without any shadows you have to imagine the depth and think about how it will be transformed by light. This aspect of brutalism is definitely one of the things I like best about it as a photographer. Rather than waiting for a shadowless overcast day, so many of these buildings look best when the shadows are harsh.

The freehand renderings and sketches do a much better job at describing the way the buildings will actually feel. Which is awesome since those are frequently imprecise and gestural while the buildings are so rigidly geometric.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

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