Brutalizing Brutalism

"We got a lotta lotta lotta hard work today ... we gotta rock at the government center ... "

The New York Times today has an article on an endangered building, a landmark example of a classic school of architecture that some people want to tear down. But the style of building represented by the Orange County Government Center is, in the view of many people including me, notable mainly for its ugliness.

Aptly called “Brutalism,” it theoretically discarded facades and pretense in favor of exposing the actual building itself, the concrete and steel that held it together. It also tended to discard traditional forms, breaking buildings up into groups of boxes.

Brutalism and I are peers; it’s about the same age as I am, and we grew up together in many ways. I spent years working in the hideous main building on Dow Jones’s South Brunswick campus, a bizarre construction of overhanging concrete boxes and pillars, and grew up playing in and around the Society of St Paul building in Staten Island, although perhaps that’s a bit too fanciful to be considered truly Brutalist. But as a child of the late 60s and 70s, I grew up with a lot of unrelievedly ugly crap — polyester leisure suits, platform shoes, progressive rock music — so I don’t have a lot of nostalgia for the cultural tropes of my childhood. We may have grown up together, Brutalism, but I don’t like the way you’ve turned out.

The style certainly has its defenders. Some Brutalist buildings are fascinating, and sometimes they fit in to their surroundings — for some strange reason I have always liked the Barbican in London, but that was built on postwar ruins, and London is all about weird contrasts in architecture and time. (One of the best places to see remains of London’s original city walls is on the grounds of the Barbican.)

So, should they tear down the Government Center? Isn’t that bizarre design just perfect for a “Government Center”? There’s nothing else like it anywhere in Orange County and certainly not in Goshen, a sleepy little Victorian town that I used to drive through when I worked for Ottaway Newspapers in nearby Campbell Hall. Should we work to save these buildings?

At first, I thought, hell no. It’s hideous and it sticks out like a sore thumb in an otherwise rather pretty downtown. Then I thought, this exact kind of thinking led to the destruction of Penn Station — it’s old, it doesn’t fit in, it’s standing in the way of progress. And then I think, Penn Station was breathtakingly beautiful and would be a wonderful landmark if we still had it today, so much better than the current rathole and the beyond-hideous Madison Square Garden (public architecture enemy number one on the Times’s list of buildings that should be torn down).

If Orange County were to spend money it doesn’t have to fix up and renovate the building (it’s currently abandoned; like many of these structures, it was always leaky and was damaged in Hurricane Irene), would people in the future thank us for it? Or would they wonder why we bothered?

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