Under continued scrutiny from the FBI, President Trump reportedly ranted this week about the agency’s imposing concrete headquarters in Washington. “Even the building is terrible,” a source for the news website Axios quoted him as saying. “It’s one of the brutalist-type buildings, you know, brutalist architecture. Honestly, I think it’s one of the ugliest buildings in the city.” Why does Trump harbor such disdain for this architectural movement? After spending a decade researching Boston’s Brutalist architecture, we suspect there are two reasons — the first political, the second aesthetic.
Brutalism is, after all, the official style of the federal agency that has been dogging him throughout his presidency. The J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building (designed by Charles F. Murphy and Associates, 1964) is guilty by association with a group of people Trump detests. Brutalism as a wider movement rose to prominence during the Kennedy-Johnson era of the 1960s, and became synonymous with the modern international bureaucratic order that the nation was then attempting to build, an order that Trump is now recklessly disassembling.
The movement also represents the antithesis of the chintzy glamor of Trump’s own personal aesthetic. His vision is of gold glass facades, polished brass, glittering chandeliers, and Rococo furnishings — in other words, unabashed ornament and superficial projections of wealth. Brutalism’s ethic is much more rugged and forthright. It celebrates the realities of construction and the noble roughness of concrete, with a sense of weighty monumentality and an almost Puritan aversion to applied ornament.
The two aesthetic visions could not be more incompatible, and are, in many respects, perfect complements to the characters they represent. The brash and outrageous Trump meets the lumbering earnestness of those investigating him.
Buildings such as the FBI or Boston’s own (much more architecturally sophisticated) City Hall were meant to express a socially conscious government and ideals of collective democracy that underpinned the Great Society and other political movements of the decade. Monumental architectural forms distinguished government facilities from the common commercial architecture around them, much like a classical building might have in its time. They were forward-looking visions, embracing a belief in the future, rather than miming a whitewashed past glory.
You can see why brutalism is such a stark threat in the era of divisiveness and distrust that Trump has spawned. Concrete buildings recall a time when our country invested in the civic realm, when government could be a positive caretaker of its most vulnerable people, when the nation could sincerely express collective aspirations and openness through monumental structures, and when the future could be embraced with optimism. Much like the FBI’s methodical, reliable, and unflashy investigations into Trump’s potential wrongdoings, we need to have these tough buildings around as reminders that the pessimism of the Trump era is flimsy — and unlikely to last.Mark Pasnik and Chris Grimley are Boston-based architects. They are the authors, with Michael Kubo, of “Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston.”