Sunday, August 29, 2010

"In praise of Ugly Buildings"

Jan (check her blog out, she's a really talented local photographer and throws in some of the history behind her subjects as well) commented on my last post that she can't find the love for the JFK Civic Center.  Shortly before I established this blog, I had posted an article from the Boston Globe to Facebook that gets into the topic of Brutalist architecture.  Unlike our local paper *ahem* they don't charge for archives (at least ones that are merely a year old), so I can repost the article and my comments here:
I agree. The whole Brutalist (based not on English "brutal" how we think of it, but the French term "Beton Brut" for Raw Concrete)/Modernist thing has certainly not reached romantic thought yet, but that's not to say it won't. The context that made these buildings a good idea at the time need to be understood, because we might go that way again. 
Modernism came into vogue as a backlash against the perceived excesses of the Victorian era, especially once the Depression and the World Wars hit and modern technologies changed the way we look at the world. A world focused on at first frugality and then a re-thinking based on technological innovation and forward-thinking was very happy to get rid of the Victorian/Guilded Age we romance today. 
Why focus design and thought on re-hashing ancient European architecture? Why waste money on ornamental construction? Isn't there value in Truth in Materials (if it's concrete, why make it a phony, looking like it's brick)? Isn't the ability to form that material - concrete - into all sorts of shapes interesting? Isn't using modern indoor lighting and air systems and strong structural members to create large, complex spaces with interesting artificial lighting noble? What is inherently wrong with the monumental Towers in the Park movement, over the wish to build dense and low we are returning to today, where public and private open spaces are again nearly an afterthought? Why should buildings blend into a "street as a room" instead of being monumental?
I know precisely the reasons why we don't like those concepts today, but some day, today's cheaply built prefab buildings with equally cheesy fascades, designed with the idea of romantizing the 19th century ideal of heavy and embellished construction as just one hamonizing player in a dense outdoor room will go out of style again, I'm sure. Architecture is art, and to appreciate it as an expression of the time, you need to understand why it happened.
Some day, we'll look back on these buildings as being part of the culture that brought us space-utopia things like The Jetsons and say "how quaint!"
As for Brutalism in Lowell, there are buildings on North and South campus in the style (one on Riverside just past the intersection of University comes to mind), as was typical in academia in the 60s and 70s. UMass Amherst and Dartmouth are both notorious examples of how cold and Soviet the style can feel. Lowell also had the North Canal apartments which were re-clad in "brick" fascades at some point. 
Then, of course, there's the JFK Civic Center.  JFKs fault I think is its location. It disrespects the focal point of what is supposed to be the Merrimack Street Indoor Room - The typical-of-the-genre Richardson Romanesque City Hall. It de-mapped a street and neighborhood. Like many Brutalist screw-ups, it has the theoretically useful plaza with the very moving officer statue...that nobody uses and is a decaying waste of space. 
Fox Hall on East Campus works much better with its plaza and as a focal point to the park-like assortment of dorms around it.  
There is one more I can think of: The Lowell 5 building at the head of the Merrimack Canal. Not one of my favorites, and I'd tear it down before JFK.  What used to be a spot filled with a monumental mill tower terminating the important view down the Merrimack Canal from Merrimack Street is now a nondescript concrete low-rise with an ugly parking lot. The good news is the slightly later high school addition, while destroying historic rowhouses and being pretty ugly, didn't hurt the massing in the area.

So yeah, that's my thoughts on that.  If you want an interesting book with a local focus that discusses primarily Victorian architecture, pick up Mill and Mansion by John Coolidge.  It was written in 1942 and updated fifty years later.  In addition to the nice little ego trip that a Lowellian gets from hearing a Harvard professor say he picked Lowell for his project because it is one of the best examples of 19th century industrial architecture in context in the world, he discusses why Victorian architecture should be saved - and why people didn't want to do it.  At the time of his first writing, during World War II, a generation gap was appearing around modernism, with his "younger" generation (he was born in the nineteen teens) starting to appreciate the now aging buildings, while their fathers considered most of the styles "sentimental."  Of course, I'm sure most of us agree with Coolidge that these buildings are interesting - they show concern for detail, pride of work, etc.  They don't build them like they used to, you know.

But I still agree with the Globe article:  Modernism will have its day again.


  1. Great post Corey. And I left you a visual response on my blog!

    I was incredibly surprised that you mention Mill and Mansion by John Coolidge. I was lucky enough to find a used copy of the 1967 printing at a local used bookstore in Boston last year. I paid dearly for it, but it certainly is a wonderful book to have as a reference.

    As a recent newcomer to Lowell, I feel it is only my duty to get to know the city as much as possible. I have walked miles and miles in the 15 months here and it is getting to the point that I know where things are more than people born and raised here (really, I am not exaggerating). I take pride in that; I feel that this city has so much to offer and the least I can do is tout it wonderful offerings. That's not to say that it doesn't have it's shortcomings. Perhaps a lot of them. That is obviously not lost on me. But if I can make Lowell be more appealing to the outsider, like the outsider I was just last year, I will do that. The one way I can do that is through my photography. It's wonderful capturing yesteryear!

  2. Nice work, I esp. like the one with the vignetting :-)

    I'm sure you do know more about Lowell than many Lowellians - it's a bad habit of locals anywhere to not know about the things that interest outsiders. Conversely, Lowell's distrust of "blow-ins" is not unwarranted either, with those who want to re-mold the city in their image (or hide in their enclaves), as opposed to simply adding to it.

    My interest in Lowell as something to study emerged around the end of high school - precisely as I was spending less time here.

    As for Mill and Mansion, they usually have it at the Historical Park if you'd like the updated version.

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