How to Love Brutalism/This Brutal World/ Breuer, The Whitney Museum of American Art (now The Met Breuer)-video

When we try to conceptualize cultural movements the sometime clumsiness of language can from the start distort what we are saying and lead us down a dark noir alley of error. “Brutalism” as an art movement can be immediately associated with the savage or inhumane by those who are inclined the dislike the style anyway. But the term in English is derived from ” ├ęton-brut”, the French word that means “raw concrete”. Perhaps the founding principal of Brutalism could be: Concrete is beautiful.

Here’s a quote from This Brutal World, a book with an intro and brilliant B&W photos by Peter Chadwick. “Do it for the piece of sky we are stealing with our building, you do it for the air that will be displaced, and most of all, you do it for the fucking concrete, because it is as delicate as blood.” The signature quote layout in This Brutal World-which is an absolutely gorgeous book-is in large cap, oversize font, white print on a black background. That’s too Randian for me. There is also an Ayn Rand quote in this book of a mess of quotes. Intellectual honesty compels me to say that the quote is good-although my cognitive distance from Rand is quite vast.

One key to understanding Brutalism is that it’s bipolar, swinging in extremes of perception from utopia to dystopia and back again. Orwell’s 1984 also gets one of those giant white typeface quotes in This Brutal World. The utopian aspect of Brutalism also presents a challenge.

John Grindrod’s How to Love Brutalism, a charmingly concise British volume whose grey cloth cover effectively mimics rough-hewn concrete, points out clearly that one early appeal of Brutalism was its commitment to remedy the social inequities of capitalism by providing the decent mass housing of all those 60’s and 70’s housing blocks-called “social housing” in the U.K. and “public housing” in the U.S….as well as other public buildings and official government buildings designed for the benefit of all the people.

This is a tough nut to crack in the U.S. where a great many people still consider “socialism” a term of godless blasphemy. Piling it on, the old Eastern Block absolutely loved Brutalism for its housing and public buildings. A short while ago, there was a brilliant show of Yugoslavian architecture at MoMA- a revelation to me and a lot of other people. It was chiefly a Brutalist orgy of wild design. If Tito’s Yugoslavian Marxist state still existed, I doubt that MoMA would have run the exhibit, considering the coven of prominent 1 percenters that run the place.

But Boston City Hall is also a major Brutalist building, as well as the F.B.I. headquarters in Washington, D.C. And Grindrod points out that corporate America has also made love at times to Brutalism. Cultural “moments” are complex-something like an oversize umbrella that’s sheltering a diverse group of personalities, who can be expected to break up when the rain stops and they no longer need the umbrella.

As Grindrod and Chadwick both indicate, the Brutalist movement requires an optimistic, self-confident culture in order to prosper. Its heyday was the post World War II period, when the Brits, having more confidence in themselves than they have now, moved to correct long-standing social wrongs with decent housing and libraries for all, some of those key buildings being Brutalist. In the U.S., the movement, with its space-age connotations, coincided with the birth of NASA and the race to the moon, and, please forgive me, Lost in Space. Societies of pessimists don’t launch such enterprises.

I’ve included this cool learning video about the Marcel Breuer old Whitney Museum building, where even the stairwells cause me to tear up because of all their uncompromising Brutalist beauty. And thanks very much to the the store manager of the hypercool Met Breuer bookstore for his help in denting my bank account with the purchase of these books. If you love books, you love bookstores, and love bookstore people-of which I was once one, so long ago.