Chicago has quite a bit of Brutalism—particularly in hospital buildings and on college campuses—which is weird because this form of architecture does not suggest the nurturing of bodies or young minds.
For an appropriate use of Brutalism, I give you the Metropolitan Correctional Center. Yes, we’re so hardcore in Chicago that we have a Brutalist prison smack in the middle of the downtown tourist area. The prison has a triangular layout with the cells along the walls and the guards in the center, a set up where the prisoners are under constant surveillance. (All you Foucault nerds who are always going on about Discipline and Punish just climaxed, admit it.)
Hallmarks of classic Brutalist architecture are the use of concrete, little or no ornamentation, skimpy windows, and a design that makes no attempt to hide mechanics such as air conditioning and elevator shafts. Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital crested the top of the Brutalist wave—just look at that air conditioning unit plunked down all naked and unashamed on top of the concrete cloverleaf. (I had to get this photo from Wikipedia because Northwestern tore Prentice down in 2014: shame on you, Northwestern Hospital).
Much like the prison, Prentice Hospital was designed with surveillance in mind—the hospital rooms radiated around a central nurse’s station where the staff could keep an eye on all the patients at once. As much as I always loved looking at the building, I admit it must have been a creepy place to have a baby.
Walter Netsch’s buildings are the scourge of Chicago area campuses. Apparently university trustees of the mid 20th century all woke up one day and said “You know what this school needs? This school needs slitty windows and concrete that will always look unwashed and oppressive. How about it, Walter?”
The Regenstein Library on the University of Chicago campus even has its own oppressive art mascot: a bronze atomic bomb/brain cavity called Nuclear Energy. I love to see kids playing inside: “Mommy can we play under the mushroom cloud again, pleeeeeeeaaaaase??”
Here’s another Netsch: the Rebecca Crown Center on the Evanston campus of Northwestern University. Netsch’s signature slitty windows are in full glory, with an extra special strip of concrete hovering over the top half, just to be sure the students are thoroughly deprived of natural light. The Crown Center has a feature I’ve never seen elsewhere: a clock tower. One of these days I hope to tell a friend “meet you at 3:00 pm at the Brutalist clock tower.”
The Henry Hinds Laboratory on the University of Chicago campus is much less oppressive, even pleasing. The lab is surrounded by standard neo-Gothic campus architecture, and reflects the scale and design of these buildings. The architect I.W. Colburn couldn’t resist the siren call of slitty windows, but he also managed to transform the building’s ventilation system into mid-century modern/Gothic/Brutalist watch towers.
Is Brutalism ugly? Well the name is certainly leading the witness. I think the best Brutalism achieves a kind of charming ugliness. The worst Brutalism…..well take a look at St. Mary of Nazareth.
The word “hulking” was invented for St. Mary’s, a bloated monstrosity entirely out of scale with the neighboring brick apartment buildings, adorable workman’s cottages and delicate Ukrainian churches. This building does not say “Come to me for health and wellness” it screams “FEAR THEM, MY AIR CONDITIONING UNITS!!!”
I like to think of architecture as answering a question. So what question was Brutalism answering? Well, this was an international style so I need to consider what was going on in the word during its heyday, from the 1950’s to the 1970’s. More than anything, Brutalism was anti-colonialist. Building designers had often exploited the precious resources of colonized nations to construct their public and religious buildings. Brutalist materials are un-precious, and utilitarian and as such did not require the resources of colonized nations or their people.
Does Brutalism have an architectural legacy? I think so. On the University of Chicago campus, a short walk from the Netsch and Colburn buildings, this residence hall by Studio Gang was recently constructed. This hall is Brutalism’s baby.
Slitty windows? Check.
Concrete façade? Check.
Aggressive air conditioning units? Hell no! This might be a Brutalist’s baby, but it’s no ugly baby.