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Lay off the Brutalists

The J. Edgar Hoover Building, seen here, occupied by the FBI, is, like Boston City Hall, an example of Brutalist architecture.Jason Andrew/The New York Times

I have enjoyed Alex Beam’s column for many years; however, I must strongly disagree with his Nov. 27 article about architecture (“Trump may be right about one thing: architecture,” Opinion).

While it has been both celebrated and reviled, Brutalism is certainly one of the most misunderstood styles of architecture. The name itself has been misunderstood; it is derived from the French phrase for “raw concrete” rather than having anything to do with “brutal” or cold design.

Boston City Hall, a Brutalist building famously hated by the late Mayor Menino, who wanted to replace it with a new building in the Seaport, won architectural awards when it was completed in 1968. Many of the buildings at the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus were built in the Brutalist style and were designed by well-known architects such as Marcel Breuer and Kevin Roche. The Colonnade building and reflecting pool of the Christian Science Center in Boston, stunning examples of Brutalist architecture, were designed by Araldo Cossutta of I. M. Pei and Associates.

Brutalist architecture is known for deep window recesses, which serve as sunshades, and repetitive design elements that give the building a sculptural quality. They are monumental in nature, suitable for government buildings, just as classical architecture is monumental.


The photograph of the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington included with the article illustrates one of the unfortunate features of Brutalism. Over the years, the bright natural concrete becomes dirty with water staining and grime, requiring a good cleaning. And because the surfaces are typically poured into concrete forms, any patching of cracks and broken areas is difficult to hide. The Hoover building suffers from deferred maintenance outside and inside. Unfortunately, any building that is neglected begins to look shabby after a while.

Because of their sculptural quality, Brutalist buildings are easily marred by changes in their design and surroundings. The Fine Arts Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst lost its carefully designed exterior lighting shortly after completion. Later, the reflecting pools on the south-facing side were removed; they served the same purpose as the reflecting pool adjacent to the Christian Science Center, which was also almost lost until protest saved it. Most recently, a new UMass Amherst business school has been erected on the site of the original reflecting pools, eliminating all perspective of the building on its northern side.


Mid-20th-century modern architecture — whatever hasn’t been torn down yet — is enjoying a resurgence. With some cleaning and careful restoration, Brutalism will find renewed appreciation as well.

Jonathan Leamon