In the last few years I have read any number of articles on Brutalism, the midcentury architectural movement that has, in Canada, given us Simon Fraser University and the University of Toronto Scarborough, plus any number of structures at York University. I accept that etymologically, Brutalism derives from the French brut, ‘raw, unfinished’, and must not be confused with the coarse English term brutal.
But I have long experienced these buildings at close quarters, both as citizen-observer and as occupant. Here are my findings, based not on theoretical-academic evaluation but rather on my gut reaction in using these structures, and my response is: Tear the damned things down. Yes, they may be regarded as art, megatonne-sized public sculpture like the Statue of Liberty. But singly and collectively they insult the goal of architecture, which is to enhance the human spirit. My message to the academics and theoreticians: There is more to architecture than the glorification of the designer. There is also the day-to-day experience of us, the poor bloody users of these ghastly elitist monuments. In exalting yourselves you have condemned hoi polloi to experiences that oppress our common spirit to the brink of death.
For there is more to architecture than street views. There is also, and more importantly, the view of the interior; and not just its views, but more importantly its uses. Looked at this way, brutalism lives up (or rather down) to its demotic construal, which is to be brutal. To stamp an intellectual boot on the neck of us poor beleaguered citizens who, after paying for these architect-apotheosizing monuments, have to endure them day to day. Who have to scuttle about like rats inside their vast inhuman forms, despite the enduring delight of the designers and critics not condemned to their daily experience.
I started off a fan of Brutalism. And now and then it works. I adore, for example, the Robarts Library: one moves from experiencing the nonthreatening threat of its looming exterior to the deliciously welcoming confines of its interior spaces. Being present as a Robarts’ archivist opens a first edition of Principia Mathematica will always be a highlight of my life – scholarly, aesthetic, professional, academic.
More than offsetting this, however, are my direct experiences not just of viewing Brutalism, but also of using it – or at least attempting to. Usually unsuccessfully, owing to design.
Take Simon Fraser, for example, a futuristic cityscape used as backdrop for Battlestar Galactica and other sci-fi potboilers. I’ve had classes in this building; or rather I’ve attempted to locate classes in this building, again usually unsuccessfully. It’s a truism that in any Arthur Erickson design the toughest thing to find is the front door. O infra dignitate, asking for the entranceway. And then, inside the building, finding an office: Sweet Jesus. Oops, east stairwell rather than west. Oops, upper-left-stairwell rather than lower-right-ramp. Oops . . . It all comes clear when you’ve experienced it: that is, after three years of missed appointments, bruised shins, and other miscellaneous misery. Then you’re like a London cabbie, instinctively aware how Swithun Street NW1 becomes Groping Avenue exactly 53m west of St Martin in the Fields. But intuitive navigation? Oh yah. Thanks, Arthur. Love ya, babe. Great streetscape.
But these are minor details, right? How dare mere users ask for such quotidian things as ease of navigation from such a supernal genius as Mr Erickson? Heaven forfend that architecture should bow to mere users. O ick.
There is also the soul-crushing experience of the Ross Building on York University’s Keele Campus, another Brutalist triumph, in which my colleagues and I have had to endure years of windowless classes. Around the periphery of Ross are offices with windows. These are reserved for professors and administrators. In the core of the building, its large colon as it were, are the seminar rooms in which the nation’s brightest are expected to expand their minds by examining the world’s great ideas. Only one thing distinguishes these rooms from a torture chamber in the Gulag Archipelago: there is not an observation slot in their doors through which guards can see the torment of those within. Plato famously spoke of people trapped inside a cave, looking at shadows on the wall and imagining they saw reality; but even shadows require sunlight. Students in Ross’s seminar rooms must examine scholarly thought locked away from even shadows, since cheap fluorescent lights are shadowless. Architecturally the demand is, Think while in chains: Send your mind over the world’s thought while your body is physically and aesthetically in prison. Good luck with that. An hour in a Ross seminar room is like an hour’s commute in big-city traffic: One longs not to live. Three hours cries out for Amnesty International. This is not education, it is cruel and unusual punishment: people are literally Brutalized. And all the while, the exterior of this oppressive prison continues to delight the critics. One imagines the brass plaque soon to be screwed to the Ross exterior: SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF THE DESIGN PROFESSION. LASCIATE OGNE SPERANZA VOI CH’INTRATE.
As a York alumnus I was recently subjected to an e-article extolling the influence of the Ross and other buildings on the ‘Brutalist awakening’ of the 1960s. I responded by trying to table the experience of the poor bloody infantry such as myself, who had to take classes within such structures. I was told I had no option: the article was one-way: the York e-zine had neither the wish nor the space for feedback. I said that one-way communication was a contradiction in terms – that a message with no response portal was nothing more than a brick through a window. I received no answer. I cc’d Dr Rhonda Lenton, President of York, and received no answer.
So let me state in this larger venue: Brutalism, like Structualism in music, is an abject failure. Both have delighted a handful of aesthetes and oppressed a million times that number of their fellow citizens. If the world’s present sweep toward populism has a root cause, this may be it: the arrogation by a tiny few to control it all – jobs, money, architecture, economy, everything: take it and be damned to you. That groaning creak you hear may be the sound of the Establishment at last about to collapse. Et apres eux la déluge.
William Atkinson is a 5th year doctoral candidate at York University. He lives in Calgary.