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Bold, Beautiful, Brutal

Love it or hate it, the postwar architectural movement known as Brutalism was big in Chicago. Now, after years of being loathed, it’s gaining new appreciation.

ABOVE:River City, 800 S. Wells St., Bertrand Goldberg, 1986.

Not long ago, I found myself in the South Loop, leaning against my truck, eating a barbecue sandwich, and staring at Bertrand Goldberg’s River City housing complex, trying to figure out why I’ve come to like the look of it so much, when a guy on a bike stopped to make a phone call. Expensive glasses, nice messenger bag, one leg of his pants rolled up dutifully. The urban cyclist. He took a look at River City, sighed.

“Don’t like it?” I asked.

It’s fair to say he didn’t. He took a hard look at me, then back at the building. “My wife calls it the mother ship,” he said. He tilted his head and squinted. “It’s like some old-time bad-color-TV Logan’s Run sci-fi bullshit with some effed-up time-travel crystals or some shit.”

This may be the essence of the contemporary take on Brutalist architecture, the perception that these structures are somehow both vaguely futuristic and wildly dated in the same glance. Brutalism’s hallmark? Concrete. Lots and lots of raw, unfinished concrete, formed into huge stacked decks, often cantilevered, more often asymmetrically set against the surrounding city. Brutalist structures can feel oversize and somehow anonymous, featuring dark, unadorned windows and cryptically obscure entrances that reveal little about the goings-on inside. Born in a rebuilding post–World War II Europe and popularized in the ’50s and ’60s, Brutalism came to be a cultural echo of a numbly bureaucratic city-state. The works are very much what people thought of when they thought of East Berlin, like the future as a faulty history.

But history is constantly revised and revisited. And Brutalism has begun to be celebrated again. Here in Chicago, architects such as Goldberg, Harry Weese, Walter Netsch Jr., and Charles Murphy built a generation of noteworthy Brutalist champions—from the hulking encampments of the city’s campuses (UIC, University of Chicago, and Northwestern) to Goldberg’s iconic Marina City (think: the towers on that Wilco album cover) and Weese’s squat, raised cauldron that is the Seventeenth Church of Christ, Scientist, guarding the river on Upper Wacker. These structures are worth looking at again. Despite the huffing assertion of their size, they need not overwhelm. Mushed now into the landscape of the city that has grown around them, they are a reminder of a time in architecture when the word “brutal” referenced honesty, when cement and steel were not so much the skeleton of a structure as its flesh.

In Brutalism, the construction is uncamouflaged; the imperative is functionality and strength. Sure, concrete was a cheap solution. But these architects made no secret of that. (“Brutalism” is drawn from the French term for raw concrete, béton brut.) The beauty of Brutalist form is revealed in delicate shadows, cast along tiered balconies, where windows angle to reflect the changing colors of the daylong sun onto the ubiquitous skin of concrete. Look again at the mother ship.

And beyond. Brutalism is big, heavy, rough to the touch. In many ways, this reflects the Chicago you know. But a Brutalist building—be it a condominium complex or jail or church or newspaper office—hides nothing as it sits among us. Modesty is sacrificed to honesty. And these days, dear urban cyclist, you have to appreciate honesty, no matter how brutally it sits in our midst.

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