Can Brutalism make you brutal? Architecture critic James Russell thinks it might

The Claire T. Carney LibraryThe Claire T. Carney Library, Dartmouth U Mass, Wikipeida/CC BY 2.0

Brutalism is not the most popular style of architecture these days, and the criticism of the work of a master of the style, Paul Rudolph, is particularly harsh. Now James Russell, architectural critic for Bloomberg, takes the criticism of brutalism to a new level in his blog, Sticks and Stones; he wonders if the fact that one of the Marathon bombers, Dzhokar Tsarnaev, went to school in Dartmouth U Mass, had anything to do with the way he turned out.

Although it’s too early to know whether he was motivated to violence by political or religious fervor, that’s looking unlikely as I write this. He was a student at the Dartmouth U Mass campus, it turns out. He seems to have had many friends, but I wondered about the effect of such a deeply impersonal place. It’s isolated at the suburban edge and unintentionally expressive of the assembly-line education that’s become the cost-driven norm. Does such a place aid the alienation -- or, at least, impede the forming of deep personal bonds -- of even a smart, sociable kid?

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Now I have read Russell's wonderful book The Agile City and interviewed him (shown above) and read all of his criticism, But think he has stepped over the line here. There are lots of brutalist university buildings, it was a dominant style during the baby boom driven building boom of the sixties. You would be hard pressed to find a university without them. Kriston Capps of Architect Magazine doesn't think much of the argument either:

Say that architectural fervor did drive Tsarnaev to execute an attack on the public at large and that the public had some way of discovering this motive. What would Russell have us do with this information? Tear down Brutalist architecture wherever it stands, in the name of homeland security? The open-ended prescription implicit in the question is troubling. Say that Tsarnaev really liked Brutalism. Would that be an argument for re-thinking Rudolph?

atriumF*ck Yeah Brutalism/CC BY 2.0

Brutalist architecture has fallen into disfavor, as many styles do before they come back into fashion. But things haven't got much better since; Russell notes that the new stuff built at the campus "has been built in a budget-minded medium-security-prison style that makes the Rudolph buildings look humanist." A lot of money was spent and a lot of concrete poured to build atriums and meeting places at a scale that will never be repeated. These buildings deserve to be restored and revitalized, not reviled and now blamed for inciting terrorism.

Tags: Green Building


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