A few more thoughts on beautiful Brutalism

Board formed concrete

Writing “The five best Brutalist buildings in DC” required a lot of attention to definitions. The article’s less about the “best” Brutalist buildings than about examples of Brutalism that fit in well with their urban surroundings (or, in one case, rural surroundings). I love the Hirshhorn Museum’s courtyard, for instance, but it’s pretty awful towards everything around it, so it didn’t merit a mention in the article.

That said, I did check each of the buildings against Reyner Banham’s original 1955 article on Brutalism, which established these three criteria:

1, Memorability as an Image;
2, Clear exhibition of Structure; and
3, Valuation of Materials ‘as found.’

If any of the seven buildings are “on the cusp” per Banham, the CFPB and Canadian Embassy fit in too well with the perimeter-block typology of the city around them — and therefore don’t quite have the cartoonishly simple standalone imageability* typical of the Brutalist sculpture-as-building. Yet both are very clear in plan and intent and have imageable elements. Perhaps the Canadian Embassy’s devalued materials make it more of a postmodern spin on Erickson’s own Brutalism, but that’s a fun tautology.

Commenters have disputed Dulles Airport’s inclusion, perhaps because they actually like it and want to reserve “Brutalism” for stuff they don’t like. Yet it easily meets Banham’s definition, and furthermore celebrates a vast expanse of béton brut like no other local structure.

Other links I wanted to include, but that didn’t quite fit:
– Sometimes, even a clumsy Brutalist building can be better integrated into the urban fabric through changes to landscaping and circulation; such repairs are underway at Boston’s City Hall.
– Over in supposedly kinder Ottawa, Brutalism was the house style for many cultural institutions, and insensitive changes to these buildings are proving controversial.
– The BBC is currently airing a two-part series on Brutalism.
– Some very highly expressive concrete canopies are on view now in an exhibit at the Art Museum of the Americas about the work of Félix Candela, whose soaring but paper-thin concrete shells enclosed everything from bandshells to cathedrals throughout Mexico.

* Favorite story about this: A cab driver in Shanghai didn’t know which Hyatt hotel I wanted to go to. Instead of fishing around for the address, I drew the shape of the building, and we were off. (It turns out that “Hyatt” was Sinicized in Cantonese, perhaps because the chain opened in Hong Kong before China, so when written in Mandarin it’s pretty much gibberish.)

MLK Library as preservation controversy

King Library
Take a photo tour of DC’s MLK Library

With the architectural future of DC’s central public library, the Mies van der Rohe-designed Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Library, currently being debated, I’m sharing presentation notes I wrote up for a recent historic preservation class — both a critique of MLK as a work of art, and a timeline of the recent (and still somewhat ongoing) controversy over preserving it as a library.

Overview & Program 

9th & G NW at Gallery Place. 400,000 sq. ft., 3 basements (including parking, storage, meeting rooms) & 4 above ground levels

Constructed 1968-1972 — began just before riots following MLK’s assassination touched even downtown DC, leading for calls to name library after King. (Was only memorial to King in DC from 1970-2011.) Mies died in 1969; other buildings were also in the pipeline but finished before, so this was “last Mies building.” Building is <40 years old (usual cut-off for National Register designation)

Replaced a Carnegie library on Mount Vernon Square (MVS), now home to the local historical society and used as event space.

Has always been DC’s central library, housing numerous special collections and programs including Washingtoniana on 4th floor, civil rights history, children’s, and adult literacy

The International Style

In Poppeliers et al, 92: “Concrete, glass and steel… Bands of glass became as important a design feature as the bands of ‘curtain’ that separated them… Balance and regularity… Cantilever and ground-floor piers”

International Style elements prominent in King library include an emphasis on the structural grid flowing inside and outside the building, wrapping around building with the I-beam mullions. Material palette is classic “less is more” Mies, honestly expressing the structure: black painted steel panels and beams, clear/bronze glass, tan brick, terrazzo and granite floors (no travertine, though), Helvetica Extended font on signage

The building displays many hallmarks of Miesian design (see this great MoMA online exhibit), particularly in its palette of materials, proportions derived from the golden ratio, and the use of ornaments like I-beam mullions. The quintessentially Modern design draws attention to its glass curtain walls and to the seamless flow between interior and exterior design elements through its large expanses of glass — most notably in a recessed ground floor lobby space that extends outside. (Gallery of Mies van der Rohe building photos.)

This is the only Mies mid-rise that I’ve seen; everything else is 1-2 stories or a skyscraper.

Interesting to note that architecture had largely moved on from Mies’ studious minimalism by 1972, embracing sharper angles, a wider palette of materials, and even some decorative flourishes. This was a bit old-fashioned at the time.

History, Threat, Controversy

1972 (Sep): building dedicated

1976: Air conditioning and heating both fail, temporarily closing library twice

1998: Anthony Williams, then CFO of DC (appointed by President Clinton) wins election as mayor, succeeding Marion Barry; Control Board cedes back executive authority. Launches several large construction projects, including Washington Convention Center [2003] and Nationals stadium [2006]

1999: pedestrian mall along G St removed

2003: Williams reported to be interested in $150M new library at old convention center site.

  • Construction began on new convention center (C.C.) north of MVS, opening up site of old C.C. (south of MVS) for development. City owns both C.C. sites. 
  • Hines consortium selected to develop old convention center site, included civic use in program.
  • 9th & G was revitalizing, and the corner would be sought after for retail, office, or another cultural use — numerous office redevelopments along 9th St, many recent retail and private museum developments along G: renovated Portrait Gallery, Spy Museum, Crime & Punishment museum, Verizon Center, Hotel Monaco, etc.
  • Many other cities (particularly in West) have built grand new central libraries as part of downtown redevelopment schemes, reflecting new library programs: Seattle (Koolhaas), San Jose, Salt Lake, Denver, Minneapolis, Montreal, Vancouver BC. Interestingly, many of these cities were replacing Brutalist libraries also built circa 1970.

2004: Williams convenes Future of Public Library System task force. DC Preservation League, in nominating the site to its 2004 Most Endangered List: “[T]he only building in Washington, DC by any of the ‘big three’ (Mies, Wright, and Le Corbusier) Modernist architects. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library has stood as the only monument to Dr. King in the nation’s capital for the past 30 years… the only [library] ever designed by Mies, was constructed with a flexible interior plan and the capacity to add a fifth story when needed…”

2006 – The big push by Williams

  • January: task force appointed by Williams recommends $450M overhaul of libraries, including $280M for new central library (includes $100M opportunity cost of taking site from Hines) and $170M for neighborhood libraries. “Besides being depressing, and aside from all the deferred maintenance, the Mies building is a very inefficient building,” said developer Richard Levy, who heads the library board’s facilities committee.
  • February: federal budget includes $30M match for $70M in local funds for library system construction. (Laura Bush was a librarian.)
  • May 1: Library Transformation Act introduced by Mayor Williams into Council, requires “preserves the historic character of the building.” Estimated revenue of $60M from a 99-year lease + $50M from a 30-year PILOT (TIF-like mechanism that applies to leased land), leaving a $70M funding gap for the new library, to be filled by $40M TIF + $14M federal. Referred to council committee, not voted out
  • May 2: Hines unveils master plan for old convention center site, includes 2.5 acres for “potential new library”
  • Summer: Public Library Foundation solicits additional schemes (e.g., adding wings surrounding Carnegie Library)
  • Summer: DC Preservation League & Committee of 100 nominate library as landmark, raise concern over cost of new library
  • September: Adrian Fenty wins Democratic mayoral primary (and general election in November); during campaign, supported Williams plan for new central library

2007 – Fenty backs down

  • January: elevator replacement begins (they last worked in 2001)
  • Spring: discussions begin with library, HPO, and “interested groups”
  • June 27: Fenty shelves new library plan, report on library repairs
  • June 28: HPRB unanimously votes to list King Library as landmark, forwards to National Register; library director testifies in favor
  • July: elevators fixed
  • September: MLK Design Guidelines Committee formed, DC Public Library Foundation retains firm to draft Design Guidelines
  • November 22: added to National Register (building is 35 years old)

Key Issues

  • Does a building under public ownership need to be landmarked?
  • Are public owners necessarily good stewards? Will they respect design guidelines to shape future updates?
  • Can a public owner perform “demolition by neglect”?
  • How can public owners benefit from preservation incentives, since tax incentives mostly apply to rented commercial buildings?
  • How do assumptions about construction costs shift public dialogue about preserving historic structures?
  • Are construction costs for replacement vs. rehab comparable?
  • Are all well-used public buildings going to become landmarks?
  • Do “keystone” public buildings need to be new in order to have an economic development impact? Is it easier to finance new buildings? Is TIF/PILOT funding transferable between sites?

Rationale for Preservation

The King library is a unique example of a mid-rise Mies building, besides the numerous other “only” distinctions that it holds. It deserves the protection of local and national historic recognition, as a locally unique example of the 20th century’s most notable architectural style. As a “universal space,” it is uniquely capable of adapting to changes in library programs as media continue to evolve; it was designed with the flexibility to last 150 years.

Unfortunately, accretions over the years have diminished the interior’s openness — a hallmark of Mies’s low-rise pavilion structures. However, these can be repaired and likely will, given the library’s renewed commitment to design.

DCPL recently initiated renovations, replacements, or expansions at 15 branch libraries, including historic buildings in Georgetown and Mount Pleasant. Several of the new libraries have very striking modern designs, including those in Shaw and Ward 7.

Kennicott writes in the Post: “Mies’s vision was symbolically perfect — at the time — for a library. It emphasizes a clear view into a glass box for books… These layers of accumulation, each a small response to a community need, deprive the building of the silence it needs to speak clearly. The rhythm of Mies’s black I-beams, which give the tiers of windows above street level their basic meter, can’t be heard against the low but constant cacophony of competing messages that have been attached to the building.”  

Still, is Mies’ Universal Space really functionally suitable as a library? The reading rooms are nice, and it has many library-specific features like book elevators (dumbwaiters), but:

  • Dark, undersized corridors in interior of building
  • Circulation confusingly hidden along back or sides of building — most of the new libraries handle circulation very well, epitomized by Seattle’s glowing escalators
  • Stacks exposed to light (even indirect, bronzed glass)
  • HVAC problems over the years contribute to deterioration of materials
  • Owners don’t have resources to maintain fixtures/furniture, fix or replace systems
  • Potential energy efficiency implications of old glass
  • “Covered front porch” attracts vagrants; there’s no way to better activate the space without compromising the front wall of building

Stipe’s prologue provides a few rationales that might apply to a defense of MLK Library:

  • “1. Physically link us to our past” — libraries are places of great collective memory 
  • “4. Relation to past events, eras, movements, and people” — MLK memorial, an International Style exemplar in a prominent location, and a formidable investment in Downtown DC at a time of precipitous decline
  • “5. Intrinsic value as art, designed by some of America’s greatest artists” — only structure in DC by a world-leading Modernist architect (well, except maybe Breuer)

Stubbs, on the other hand, argues “To save the prototype” and only the prototype: “There can only be one true original of an authentic work of art, although copies can be made.” The King library is one of many of Mies’s works, and not his best; it suffers in many ways. It’s an adept copy of Mies’ groundbreaking high-rise or pavilion works, but it suffered from a shortchanged budget and the form (reminiscent of a truncated Mies high-rise) is too unwelcoming for use as a library, which involves extensive internal circulation. Stubbs takes a rather dim view of modern architecture in general: “Tens of millions of buildings from this period are found throughout the world; many have neither proven durable nor served their inhabitants well… In the early years of the world’s adoption of the International Style, protection of interior spaces from direct sunlight… was minimal or nonexistent…”

Bibliography

Philip Kennicott, “Mies’s modernist D.C. library building is getting a complementary companion,” Washington Post, May 30, 2010, E09.

“Most Endangered Places for 2004: Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library,” D.C. Preservation League, accessed 5 September 2011, http://www.dcpreservation.org/endangered/2004/mlklibrary.html

John C. Poppeliers, S. Allen Chambers, and Nancy B. Schwartz, What Style Is It (Washington: National Trust, 1983), 92.

R. E. Stipe, “Prologue: Why Preserve?” in A Richer Heritage: Historic Preservation in the Twenty-first Century (Chapel Hill: UNC, 2003), xxvii-xv.

J. Stubbs, “Why Conserve Buildings and Sites?” in Time Honored: A Global View of Architectural Conservation (Hoboken: 2009), 33-63

G. E. Kidder Smith, Sourcebook of American Architecture (Princeton: Princeton Architectural, 2000).

Alice Sinkevitch, ed., AIA Guide to Chicago, Second Edition (New York: Harcourt, 2004).

“King Library,” Docomomo, accessed 6 September 2011.

Kriston Capps, “For once in a public building in Washington, there is excellence throughout,” Grammar.Police, accessed 3 October 2011, http://grammarpolice.net/archives/000929.php

“CityCenterDC In The News,” Hines|Archstone, accessed 3 October 2011, http://www.oldconventioncenter.com/news_inthenews.php

“Designation Procedures and Criteria,” DC Preservation League, accessed 3 October 2011, http://www.dcpreservation.org/districtscrit.html

EHT Traceries, Inc., Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library Design Guidelines (Washington: DC Public Library Foundation, 2008?), 22-26.

Rob Goodspeed, “What Will be the Fate of Washington’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library?,” Goodspeed Update, accessed 3 October 2011, http://goodspeedupdate.com/2006/2051

Rob Goodspeed, “New Central Library Plans ‘Shelved’,” Goodspeed Update, accessed 3 October 2011, http://goodspeedupdate.com/2007/2113

“Library Transformation Act of 2006, Bill 16-734,” DCWatch, accessed 4 October 2011, http://www.dcwatch.com/council16/16-734.htm

“Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library the newest DC Landmark,” DC Preservation Advocate (DC Preservation League newsletter), Summer 2007, 1.

Elissa Silverman, “D.C. Library Gets Sorely Needed Lift,” Washington Post, July 24, 2007, B1.

Debbi Wilgoren, “Overhaul Urged For D.C. Libraries,” Washington Post, January 18, 2006, A1.

Debbi Wilgoren, “Libraries Could Get Federal Funding,” Washington Post, February 6, 2006, B1.

Hmm? links

1. Is WaPo Style really writing about “hipster glasses”? [Original article by Ned Martel.] I had a bear of a time with my most recent glasses purchase, ultimately reverting to special ordering a pair of frames that I’d seen a while back in Chicago. They’re a tad larger than my last pair, with which I was explicitly rejecting the aviator-sized frames that were then just coming into vogue. I’ve never liked that style: the outside corners hide the cheekbones and magnify any under-eye puffiness.

Glad to hear that “the nation’s public wonks[‘] glasses are getting smaller and smarter,” although as long as I’ve known MSNBC’s foxy Chris Hayes, he’s always worn little, squarish glasses. (Hopefully, this is the only article which compares him to Eric Cantor and Milhouse.)

2. “Flood insurance is the federal government’s second-largest fiscal liability after social security,” writes Jay Gulledge for Pew Climate. Unfortunately for the Know-Nothings, that particular ledger item will not magically decline anytime soon.

3. Speaking of the Know-Nothings, the Skeptical Teacher decries how their maddening contempt for science continues to spill into ever more policy matters. In particular, unverified anecdotes appear to be the basis of public health policy.

4. Hmm! A new idea for a DC bicycle tour, maybe incorporating interpretive performance art: famed local sex scandals. I’d add Marion Barry’s hotel room(s), the 14th St whore march, and infamous bygone strip clubs.

Tidbits, 11 May

  • In a classic case of Manhattan myopia, Ed Glaeser makes an oversimplified argument that high-rises can spur economic diversity in Economix. Two crucial shortcomings to the argument: (1) high-rises have inordinately high construction costs per unit, due to expensive steel/concrete structures and elevators; and (2) their highly standardized units and interiors, and high ratio of communal-but-not-common space, resist any efforts to meaningfully mix price points within.
  • “The Deepwater Horizon spill illustrates that every gallon of gas is a gallon of risks — risks of spills in production and transport, of worker deaths, of asthma-inducing air pollution and of climate change, to name a few. We should print these risks on every gasoline receipt, just as we label smoking’s risks on cigarette packs. And we should throw our newfound political will behind a sweeping commitment to use less gas — build cars that use less oil (or none at all) and figure out better ways to transport Americans.” — Lisa Margonelli in the NYT (h/t Ryan Avent)
  • Brookings (via TNR) unveiled an interesting new metro-area cluster typology. Larger growing regions can be low-education “border growth,” better educated and whiter “New Heartland” (Charlotte, Columbus, KC, MSP, SLC), or diverse and highly educated “Next Frontier” (they bet on Albuquerque, Austin, DC, Denver, DFW, Houston, Sacramento, Seattle, and Tucson). The “rust belt” divides into stable, better educated “Skilled Anchor” (Hartford, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh) and declining, less educated “Industrial Core” cities (Memphis, New Orleans, Toledo).
  • Seems like I’m not the only one who’s disappointed by the New United Airlines’ adoption of Continental’s whiffleball clip-art logo. It offers some peculiarly ugly typography — notably the stem on the uppercase U, which appears to be, in a sad twist on the false small caps of UA’s 90s look, an inverted and enlarged n. Contrast that with the “Helvetica on fast forward” look of the current wordmark, so clean and detailed that it draws attention to the angles snipped into the T. What also worries me is that the new company seems, so far, to be taking its design cues from Continental’s graphically blunt advertising, which features all-caps headlines, underlines (more appropriate for emphasis on typewriters than in digital media), high contrast colors, and predictable visuals — quite different from UA’s almost too elegant, soft-sell approach of spare watercolor illustration, in greys and pastels, set against lots of whitespace. In fact, Continental’s ad agency deliberately says about its strategy: “forgo the flowery imagery and messaging of typical airline ads and focus on what really matters to business travelers: getting basic needs met with consistency. Our campaign… talks to travelers in a simple, straightforward style and voice…” The visual contrast is nowhere more evident than in comparing their recent TV spots; particularly the parting shot that introduces the logo:


    (Interestingly, in choosing blue as the new airline color, it appears that US aviation is joining other duopoly markets that have coalesced around red vs. blue. Coke-Pepsi, Colgate-Crest, Labour-Tory, Republican-Democrat, TWA-Pan Am, and now Delta-United.) [originally posted to FT]

  • A recent article on “Chinglish” in the NYT reveals that the Shanghai government has been cracking down on poor English translations. That might explain why the amusing picture book cited in the article was one of the few English-language books widely available at most bookshops, gift shops, and the like — having it everywhere sure seemed strange given China’s strong aversion to embarrassment.

Lemony fresh

I have heard a lot over the years (particularly from one individual) about how Wicker Park-Bucktown should be like a neighborhood as well known for the arts as New Orleans’ French Quarter. While I empathize with the general concept, I’ve been skeptical of how pleasant it would be to actually live in the Quarter, and very much skeptical of the particulars that have been suggested. I think that the physical form of the Quarter — there being so few human-scale places, much less human-scale neighborhoods, in the USA — is a large part of its intrinsic appeal. (I would love to live amidst a skein of 38.5′ streets, but 2.5 FQ streets could easily fit into Ashland or Western.) It also has a very long (over a century older) and uniquely colorful social history that can’t be replicated anywhere else.

So I just got back from my first visit to New Orleans, and guess what? We’re doing something right, although not what this individual thinks. The French Quarter’s streets aren’t just swept and washed, they are deodorized every day by a private contractor, at a cost of $3.36 million a year. (Despite 2009 budget cuts in that sadly struggling city, the “popular” and “Disney-like” service is likely to remain in some form.)

There is also almost no notable public art to be seen on any of the sidewalks or squares, and likewise relatively few architectural monuments: just great background buildings, housing countless businesses both arts-related and otherwise. Oh, and you can stumble across some astonishing jazz.

One other aspect of efficient and effective municipal management where New Orleans (of all places!) seems to be ahead: deployment of the Pothole Killer machine, instead of three-man crews, requires 90% less labor for the same task — one-third the laborers and one-third the time. If faster turnaround leads to smaller potholes, the savings would increase further. It seems to leave a lot of gravel on the road, though.

Colonizing Cermak

Alby Gallun from Crain’s reports on a potential “creative industries” focus for the heroic loft buildings of the Cermak Bridge landmark district:

Yet the property’s prospects are brightening as city officials consider a proposal that could fill Mr. Mumford’s buildings with a new class of tenants: graphic design firms, fashion designers, dance companies and other artsy businesses. The plan would turn the gritty neighborhood into a “creative industries district,” potentially employing as many as 1,600 people.

They also provide the full PDF report, from ULI’s panel.

Interesting follow-on by David Gonzalez in this an NYT piece:

Such is the New York factory in the 21st century. The smokestacks are gone, taking jobs (and pollution, sometimes) to places where hands are cheap. But according to advocates for industrial development in the city, newer specialty companies like Mr. Horgan’s occupy a growing part of the city’s industrial landscape, along with makers of food products, especially for the burgeoning ethnic market. Many other firms that make construction materials, furniture or lighting have also grown in response to increased demand for environmentally friendly buildings.

“The most important thing we found was the need for more and smaller industrial spaces,” said Adam Friedman, executive director of the New York Industrial Retention Network, which assists manufacturers with space and advice. “Big guys like Farberware and Swingline left the city. What survived here are the niche manufacturers where proximity to their market makes a big difference…”

“We’re thinking of a trust for industrial space,” [Ron Shiffman, a veteran planner and chairman of the Industrial Retention Network] said. “The same way we realized we have to save small farms, I believe we are going to need to save places for manufacturing in urban areas.”

…which reminds me of an idea that I had, to buy development easements from artist-studio buildings so that they can remain artist studios in private hands, not to be resold for other purposes and without the public necessarily buying the building or land. (A land trust could work the same way, but sounds more expensive.) I’m not sure exactly how this works — perhaps just through a standing purchase option? — but it’s an interesting thought.

Yo mama

This poem caught my eye at a performance of Shostakovich’s fourteenth symphony this summer. The symphony is a set of eleven symphonic poems, all about death, with the poems sung in Russian by an alternating bass and soprano. Needless to say, it’s a little bit somber. I’d never heard of the Cossacks’ insult before, but I’d say it’s history’s sharpest “yo mama” diss. This particular translation was the one in the Ravinia program.

Réponse des Cosaques Zaporogues au Sultan de Constantinople (The Zaporozhian Cossacks’ Answer to the Sultan of Constantinople) by Guillaume Apollinaire, translated by M. Kudinov

You are a hundred times more criminal than Barabbas.
Living as the neighbour of Beelzebub,
you wallow in the most foul vices.
Fed on filth since childhood,
know this you’ll celebrate your Sabbath without us.

Rotten cancer, Salonica’s refuse,
a terrible nightmare which cannot be told,
one-eyed, putrid and noseless,
you were born while your mother
was writhing in fecal spasms.

Evil butcher of Podolye, look:
you are covered in wounds, sores and scabs.
Rump of a horse, snout of a pig,
may all the drugs be found
for you to heal your ills!