Do Ugly Buildings Deserve Stimulus Funds?

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THE PLANK FEBRUARY 26, 2009

Do Ugly Buildings Deserve Stimulus Funds?

Architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable implicitly raises an important question in her Wall Street Journal column today: What will the billions in construction and renovation funding now coursing outward from Washington mean for architectural preservation--and in particular for the as-yet-unloved, not-yet-landmarked landmarks of mid-century brutalist architecture? 

Brutalism's unfortunate name comes not from its cold and imposing appearance but from its material, raw concrete (in French, it's called beton brut). But the name is nonetheless apt: The style reached its apogee just as the urban renewal wave was tearing apart old neighborhoods, replacing them with massive hulks of concrete and glass; famous examples include Boston's City Hall and I.M. Pei's Third Church of Christ, Scientist in Washington, D.C.

These buildings have never been popular with the public, becoming even less so as they have aged and deteriorated. Many were designed without a thought to maintenance or renovation; Pei's church infamously requires $8,000 in scaffolding to reach burnt-out lightbulbs in the sanctuary. Some, like Pei's church, have received landmark status, but the
majority are still too young and too controversial for protection. Thus the connundrum of preservation: It's one thing to landmark a building, but in the face of heated public opprobrium, how do you justify spending millions just to update them? "Suddenly," Huxtable writes, "a 20th-century heritage is in crisis and in desperate need of
a revised, realistic agenda to keep its landmarks useful and alive."

While Huxtable doesn't say it explicitly, this is a vital question for cities about to spend stimulus money upgrading thousands of brutalist-era schools and government facilities. Should Boston spend some of its newfound cash on updating its hated city hall, or should it go in for a new one? And if Beantown replaces it, will they regret the decision later on, when brutalism enters the pantheon of architectural history?   

P.S.: At the risk of over-self-promotion, I have a piece on Huxtable and her legacy in the new issue of Architect. Check it out. 

--Clay Risen

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