Embracing the Brute

A much-reviled architectural style has its admirers.

By Anne Matthews

The granite building that houses New York?s Whitney Museum of American Art, designed by Marcel Breuer and completed in 1966

Credit: Whitney Museum

Since 1969, the George L. Mosse Humanities Building has housed the departments of history, music, and art at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. I all but lived there as an undergraduate in the 1970s, but now that this seven-story hulk of rough limestone and unfinished concrete is slated to be turned into rubble, I am trying to be sorry.

Although it stretched a full city block, Humanities, as it is known for short, had no main door. I remember the exterior being as gray as Madison's winter skies, the interior menacing and incoherent, a Piranesi maze of low, sunless corridors, cell-like offices, unventilated art studios rich in toxic fumes, and music practice rooms with miserable acoustics. The inmates who attended classes there called the place "Inhumanities." It dripped and grew moss, and its designer seemed to have scorned ventilation and storage space. It also grabbed and shook you on a daily basis: Even when you felt most lost, most trapped, you never forgot you were wandering inside a gigantic work of art.

The medieval historian William Courtenay has taught in that space for 36 years. "I have longed for the demolition of the Humanities Building," he says, "and only my sense of civil responsibility kept me from helping initiate the process." His colleague Philip Hamilton has spent years breathing the fumes as Art Department chair. "I do have a lot of bad memories from teaching there," he says, "yet I still think the building should be preserved and a creative, adaptive reuse found for it."

The university thinks not. As Alan Fish, the associate vice chancellor for facilities planning and management, explained at a recent planning meeting, "I don't usually say demolish, but it's so much fun with the Humanities Building." It is scheduled to be razed sometime in the next two decades so that a new arts district on the east end of campus can be created. Official sketches display well-mannered towers, and practical shoeboxes bland as buttermilk.

Humanities is a classic example of the architectural style known as brutalism, which championed massive block forms and raw concrete, or béton brut, as best realized in Le Corbusier's thrillingly unfinished Marseilles housing block, Unité d'Habitation, started in 1947. From the 1950s to the '70s, brutalism sought to make buildings plain, but also understandable. Naked pipes snaked along bare corridors, and loading docks trumped grand entrances. A brutalist structure typically was constructed by pouring concrete into a wooden form; when the form was removed, the rough patterns of the wood were proudly visible on the concrete walls—often the only ornament on the building. "No mystery, no romanticism, no obscurities about function and circulation," exulted the British critic Reyner Banham, who is often credited with coining the term brutalism.  

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