In late December, former president Donald Trump signed an executive order aiming to eliminate new federal buildings built in the style of Brutalism and modernism. Brutalism, especially in the District, is an inextricable part of the area’s landscape. And while the executive order has since been overturned, its existence in the first place is curious, to say the least. Why does Brutalism, a style born out of the modernist movement of the late 20th century, still face so much backlash in 2021?
“It’s not a mode of practice that is really being sought after,” explains Deane Madsen, writer, editor, photographer and founder of Brutalist DC, an online appreciation society highlighting the architectural style in the District. “In recent years, concrete construction has come under fire for being extremely resource-intensive. It’s a chemical reaction when you produce concrete. There’s a lot of heat involved in a huge carbon sink, and it depletes a lot of resources – both water and sand. There’s so much that goes on environmentally in the production of concrete.”
It’s a complicated question that perhaps leads to even more questions than answers, but is still worth examining in light of the recent order and its subsequent overturning. Whether you love or hate the aesthetics of Brutalism, its legacy remains a complicated one. And despite its prevalence in the District, it’s not an exceedingly popular style for newer buildings emerging in the area.
“The executive order essentially mandated neoclassical design,” says Lucy Moore, incoming president of Docomomo DC, which works to ensure the rich legacy of the Modern Movement in the Greater Washington area is preserved for future generations. “Its main goal was not to ban Brutalism, though that was an extra dig. Why should the federal government, which represents an increasingly diverse country, mandate one style? It was an attempt to narrowly define civic architecture, just as the Trump administration narrowly defined ‘citizen.’”
While a large concrete building may evoke a number of associations, it also represents a complicated legacy surrounding D.C.’s urban renewal program, which began in 1945. Though that program led to the construction of many of the Brutalist buildings that pepper the District, it also led to the displacement of many.
“A huge amount of it was done under the envelope of urban renewal, totally erasing communities and neighborhoods from Southwest and displacing tens of thousands of people,” Madsen says. “[Sometimes], I have trouble celebrating Brutalist architecture in 2021 because I know there are so many communities that were impacted by urban renewal.”
Despite the complicated legacy and environmental impact, these buildings still exist. As both Madsen and Moore point out, Brutalist buildings are important ways to commemorate the complexities these eras represent and provide opportunities for repurposing and community use.
“A lot of them are under threat because they’re falling into disrepair deliberately,” Madsen says. “Long-term maintenance for these buildings was never built in. And so, you get buildings like the FBI building actually falling apart, with chunks of concrete falling down onto the sidewalk below.”
The FBI building is one often incorporated into these conversations of the merits of the misunderstood style, as its disrepair and the need for an updated place of business for those working in the building are increasingly evident. Iconic Brutalist buildings in the District like the Third Church of Christ, Scientist and Marcel Breuer’s American Press Institute in Reston, Virginia were both demolished, despite preservation efforts.
More recently in the United States, buildings like the Pirelli Tire Building in New Haven, Connecticut – also by Breuer – are getting a second (or third, in this case) wind as architects, designers and preservationists find ways to repurpose them. In the case of Pirelli, once home to a tire manufacturer and an IKEA location, it’s now being made into a hotel and conference center dubbed Hotel Marcel. Not only is it being reused, it’s also aiming for a LEED Platinum certification, will meet net-zero energy standards and is completely solar-powered.
“The Pirelli building is a great example of turning one of these kinds of concrete buildings into something that is sustainable and adaptively reused in a creative way,” Madsen says. “I would love to give a personal shout-out to the developer of [Hotel Marcel]. Come take a look at the FBI building and say, ‘Hey, what could you do here?’”
The team at Becker + Becker, who is behind the newly repurposed Hotel Marcel, is aiming for a summer 2021 opening, which will likely usher in a new era of repurposing for concrete concepts across the country. No matter your opinion on the merits of the style and what happens as many of them age into an era that will see their uses change, Madsen encourages people to continue having conversations about buildings in a meaningful way and challenge their histories and uses as well.
“I want [people] to continue to have strong opinions,” he explains. “Even in the outright despising of a single building like the FBI, at least they’re thinking about buildings in a way that can produce a conversation about why. If there were a series of coffee shops and maker spaces on that ground level facing Pennsylvania Avenue, would that change public perception of the building? I think it would.”
For more on Docomomo DC, visit www.docomomo-us.org/chapter/dc and www.docomomo-us.org, and follow @docomomo_dc and @docomomous on Instagram. For more on Brutalist DC, visit
www.brutalistdc.com and follow @brutalistdc on Instagram.
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