Thursday, March 19, 2009


This is the latest installment in Nicolai Ouroussoff's architectural tour of Europe and Russia. It is an attempt to enter the debate on the value of brutalist architecture which dominated in the post-war era and which I most associate with Boston City Hall in the United States. Le Courboussier's design for Chandigarh and Oscar Niemeyer's for Brasilia are also often exhibits in the case against this thread of modernism.

Ouroussoff does a nice job balancing between the different camps in his description of Robin Hood Gardens in London. For example, the small detail that the architects shortened one of the two buildings to bring in more southern light is important and inspired. Also, the gentle bend of both buildings is quite beautiful. But the physical and social isolation and lack of public safety are familiar to anyone who has read about, visited, or lived in public housing towers in the U.S.

These conditions are not a necessary consequence of the architecture but the result of lack of money, opportunity, and hope. While I am usually sympathetic to explanations that feature externally imposed structural constraints on people just trying to survive, the critics of brutalist architecture focus on the wrong structure. It is the society -- not the buildings -- that chooses to warehouse poor people in public housing, overcrowded schools, and prisons.

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