The One Minute Modernist

Professor Patrick Snadon, University of Cincinnati, DAAP

Concrete Brutalism:  tough to love, tougher to tear down

Controversies are erupting around the U.S. regarding the preservation of concrete Brutalist buildings of the 1960s and 70s.   Modernist architect LeCorbusier popularized the style (called “beton brut”–or raw concrete) in the 1950s with such buildings as his Unite d’Habitation apartment block in Marseilles and his famous Chapel at Ronchamp, both in France.  Architects such as Louis Kahn and Paul Rudolph introduced the style to America.  It is characterized by tower-like compositions, blocky forms expressive of internal functions,  small windows, and thick, poured-in-place concrete walls that often exhibit the impress of the wooden formwork used in their construction.

Later examples sometimes substituted rough concrete blocks, or even steel framing with heavy-looking brick veneers or pre-cast concrete panels, for more labor-intensive poured concrete.  Brutalism represented a U-turn from earlier, International-style Modernism, with its skeletal steel frames and thin, elegant, non-structural curtain  walls of glass or metal.  At their best, Brutalist buildings exude a primitive, sculptural power, but many find them alienating and inhumane.

While Cincinnati was never a hotbed of Brutalist buildings, several exist that deserve notice, such as the Wesley United Methodist Chapel (corner of E. McMicken & Lang in OTR); 22 Garfield Place (formerly a senior center, now the Brand Innovation Center); the 1974 Cincinnati Bell equipment annex (downtown); the annex to the main post office on Lynn St.; the Environmental Protection Agency in Clifton; and Crosley Tower (1963-69) on the UC campus.

The last three buildings were designed by A. M. Kinney, architects and engineers (founded 1929), an important firm that introduced Brutalism to Cincinnati.  In the early 1960s the firm hired architect Charles H. Burchard who designed Crosley Tower as part of a larger complex.  Burchard (1915-90; a Harvard protege of Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus) later became Dean of Architecture at Virginia Tech.  A giant concrete tower housing stacked chemistry labs, Crosley’s flared pylons and circular openings accommodate ventilation shafts.    Purportedly the largest, continuous concrete pour in the world of its date (the trucks just kept coming!) its concrete shell was completed in only 18 days.

If one example of Cincinnati Brutalism commands our attention, it is Crosley Tower.  The University (a slow learner when it comes to preservation) would love to tear it down, but has not quite figured out how, as its demolition will be a massive undertaking.

Constructing a case for preserving Brutalism may be challenging, but critics contend that representative buildings of every period deserve preservation and that even “ugly” buildings may teach us much–and I remember when Victorian buildings were considered “ugly.”  Finally, if we scions of Western civilization had torn down all our heavy-masonry, windowless, tower-like buildings, we’d have no Medieval castles left to visit, would we?