Brutalism makes a baby in Chicago

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.


Metropolitan Correctional Center, architect Harry Weese, 1975

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.)


Prentice Hospital, architect Bertrand Goldberg. Built 1975, demolished 2014. Photo by Umbugbene – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

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.

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Regenstein Library, architect Walter Netsch, 1970

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?”

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Nuclear Energy, Henry Moore, 1967

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??”







Rebecca Crown Center, architect Walter Netsch, early 1960’s

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.”clocktower







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Henry Hinds Laboratory for Geophysical Sciences, architect, I.W. Colburn, 1969

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.


St. Mary of Nazareth, architect E. Todd Wheeler, 1975

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.

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Campus North Residential Commons, Studio Gang architects. 2016

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.


How we get around Chicago: on foot and with Chicago Transit Authority.
Where we slept: at home. Price: mortgage, assessments and utilities. Recommended: highly.



  1. The small windows and concrete. It all looks pretty oppressive.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I’d really hate to work in a Brutalist building.


  2. I only recently learned that brutalism was considered a style; I’d assumed it was just something that happened in the 70s but didn’t really have a name. Since then I’ve been out taking photos of it. I can’t say I like it but it makes nice photos.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Where are you taking these pictures? You should make a blog post about them!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Not to forget the Brutalist interiors. These include long straight corridors dimply lit by flickering tubelights, steel doors (sometimes painted in cheerful primary colours) with tiny windows set into them, and a smell of many lungs that the air has passed through.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re thinking primary colors while I seem to recall more nauseous mint green tones…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I think the primary colours could be an administrative committee’s innovation.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I am a recent convert to Brutalism (from the outside only!) I used to think it was the worst kind of ugly but now, there’s something about it that I just can’t put my finger on. Really interesting to see your local examples, thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading! The normal course of events for me is I study something and it becomes fascinating to me. In the case of Brutalism, the more I look at it, the more I despise it.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great post and love the photos. Thought the architecture of Chicago was amazing when we visited but hardly noticed the brutal buildings. Fascinating. Shame we missed them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So glad you enjoyed the architecture in Chicago! I often think some of the most unique architecture is in the neighborhoods where tourists don’t go. I’m quite fond of the Chicago bungalow, for example. Perhaps I should write a post about bungalows….

      Liked by 1 person

  6. “Anti-coloniast” as a critique of brutalism is not one I’ve heard before but it does have a logic. I think that it can have an attractiveness at times but two things mitigate against it. First is concrete sickness: so many buildings are crumbling from various types of concrete sickness, many have been demolished as a result. Second, you make the point that neighbouring buildings and neighbourhoods are often disrespected in terms of scale, bulk, materials, style and so on.

    Nevertheless many of the structures you picture have a stark beauty of their own, even an aesthetic sculptural quality. A great post!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you. Perhaps I mean a reaction to the decline of colonialism, more than anti-colonialism. It is coming from the use of materials, of course, but also the sense of how people see their needs met in architecture or how the buildings reflect a political regime (like that dreadful anti-human architecture in Fascist Italy).

      You’re right about the concrete sickness—it crumbles but also just always looks stained and depressing.

      I adored the Prentice Hospital and while it was being demolished I refused to walk in the area because it felt like a slow motion murder of a giant building/sculpture.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I should of course have typed “Anti-colonialism” but you very generously chose to overlook that — and I see that #bloodypredictivetext has again substituted Anti-coloniast, making me doubt what the correct word to use here would be…

        Yes, it’s depressing when architects don’t appreciate the staining that often comes soon after construction when an architectural detail they’ve inserted encourages those identical smudges from pollution and rain.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Buildings are beautiful in the Shire….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Is that Wisconsin? I’m afraid I’ve never been there.


  8. I’ve never heard of brutalism, but Son#1 went to the University of Chicago. I was WONDERING what that was all about! Great post – you make me snicker (and there is not enough snickering going on in the world if you ask me…). And I would fear this air conditioning units!

    Are you going to come watch the marathon in a few weeks? I’m running it it! I’ll be the one who looks really tired…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. U of C campus has an amazing variety of architecture. Your son must be smart—it’s a great school–what did he study?

      I am working the day of the marathon but I’ll be cheering you on in spirit. In case you have some extra energy after that let me know and I can add you to the guest list of the museum I work at.


  9. Oh man. I hate the way St. Mary’s looks. My mom goes there for best appointments.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, it is esp. looming at night, like it is going to eat Division Avenue…

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Lol. Yes. That’s an apt description.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Funny how I read the line as: “meet you at 3:00 pm at the *brutal* clock tower.” 😅I can’t help but wonder if “brutalism” with its absence of any extra decorative detail is also all the way to the other side of (extreme) functionalism. My most recent and vivid memory of Brutalism was a visit to and look at the Bierpinsel tower in the Berlin neighbourhood of Steglitz.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. How did I miss the Bierpinsel tower when I was in Berlin? It is terribly brutal, but playful too.


  11. I didn’t know the style was so alive and well in Chicago — great pics!


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