Introduce an observer into any field of forces, influences or communications and that field becomes distorted. It is common opinion that Das Kapital has played old harry with capitalism, so that Marxists can hardly recognize it when they see it, and the widespread diffusion of Freud’s ideas has wrought such havoc with clinical psychology that any intelligent patient can make a nervous wreck of his analyst. What has been the influence of contemporary architectural historians on the history of contemporary architecture?
They have created the idea of a Modem Movement-this was known even before Basil Taylor took up arms against false historicism-and beyond that they have offered a rough classification of the ‘isms’ which are the thumb-print of Modernity into two main types: One, like Cubism, is a label, a recognition tag, applied by critics and historians to a body of work which appears to have certain consistent principles running through it, whatever the relationship of the artists; the other, like Futurism, is a banner, a slogan, a policy consciously adopted by a group of artists, whatever the apparent similarity or dissimilarity of their products. And it is entirely characteristic of the New Brutalism-our first native art-movement since the New Art-History arrived here-that it should confound these categories and belong to both at once.
Is Art-History to blame for this? Not in any obvious way, but in practically every other way. One cannot begin to study the New Brutalism without realizing how deeply the New Art-History has bitten into progressive English architectural thought, into teaching methods, into the common language of communication between architects and between architectural critics. What is interesting about R. Furneaux Jordan’s Parthian footnote on the New Brutalism-‘… Lubetkin talks across time to the great masters, the Smithsons talk only to each other’-is not the fact that it is nearly true, and thus ruins his argument, but that its terms of valuation are historical. The New Brutalism has to be seen against the background of the recent history of history, and, in particular, the growing sense of the inner history of the Modern Movement itself.
The history of the phrase itself is revealing. Its form is clearly derived from THE ARCHITECTURAL REVIEW’S post-war trouvaille‘The New Empiricism,’ a term which was intended to describe visible tendencies in Scandinavian architecture to diverge from another historical concept ‘The International Style.’ This usage, like any involving the word new, opens up an historical perspective. It postulates that an old empiricism can be identified by the historian, and that the new one can be distinguished from it by methods of historical comparison, which will also distinguish it from a mere ‘Empirical Revival.’ The ability to deal with such fine shades of historical meaning is in itself a measure of our handiness with the historical method today, and the use of phrases of the form ‘The New X-ism’-where X equals any adjectival root- became commonplace in the early nineteen-fifties in fourth-year studios and other places where architecture is discussed, rather than practiced.
The passion of such discussion has been greatly enhanced by the clarity of its polarization-Communists versus the Rest-and it was somewhere in this vigorous polemic that the term The New Brutalism was first coined. It was, in the beginning, a term of Communist abuse, and it was intended to signify the normal vocabulary of Modern architecture-flat roofs, glass, exposed structure-considered as morally reprehensible deviations from ‘The New Humanism,’ a phrase which means something different in Marxist hands to the meaning which might be expected.
The New Humanism meant, in architecture at that time brickwork, segmental arches, pitched roofs, small windows (or small panes at any rate)-picturesque detailing without picturesque planning. It was, in fact, the so-called ‘William Morris Revival,’ now happily defunct, since Kruschev’s reversal of the Party’s architectural line, though this reversal has, of course, taken the guts out of subsequent polemics. But it will be observed that The New Humanism was again a quasi-historical concept, oriented, however spuriously, toward that mid-nineteenth century epoch which was Marxism’s Golden Age, when you could recognize a capitalist when you met him.
However, London architectural circles are a small field in which to conduct a polemic of any kind, and abuse must be directed at specific persons, rather than classes of persons, since there was rarely enough unanimity (except among Marxists) to allow a class to coalesce. The New Brutalists at whom Marxist spite was directed could be named and recognized and so could their friends in other arts. The term had no sooner got into public circulation than its meaning began to narrow.
Among the non-Marxist grouping there was no particular unity of programme or intention, but there was a certain community of interests, a tendency to look toward Le Corbusier, and to be aware of something called le beton brut, to know the quotation which appears at the head of this article and, in the case of the more sophisticated and aesthetically literate, to know of the Art Brut of Jean Dubuffet and his connection in Paris. Words and ideas, personalities and discontents chimed together and in a matter of weeks-long before the Third Programme and the monthlies had got hold of the phrase-it had been appropriated as their own, by their own desire and public consent, by two young architects, Alison and Peter Smithson.
The phrase had thus changed both its meaning and its usage. Adopted as something between a slogan and a brick-bat flung in the public’s face, The New Brutalism ceased to be a label descriptive of a tendency common to most modern architecture, and became instead a programme, a banner, while retaining some-rather restricted-sense as a descriptive label. It is because it is both kinds of -ism at once that The New Brutalism eludes precise description, while remaining a living force in contemporary British architecture.
As a descriptive label it has two overlapping, but not identical, senses. Non-architecturally it describes the art of Dubuffet, some aspects of Jackson Pollock and of Appel, and the burlap paintings of Alberto Burri-among foreign artists-and, say, Magda Cordell or Edouardo Paolozzi and Nigel Henderson among English artists. With these last two, the Smithsons collected and hung the I.C.A. exhibition Parallel of Life and Art, which, though it probably preceded the coining of the phrase, is nevertheless regarded as alocus classicus of the movement.
The more instructive aspects of this exhibition will be considered later: for the moment let us observe that many critics (and students at the Architectural Association) complained of the deliberate flouting of the traditional concepts of photographic beauty, of a cult of ugliness, and ‘denying the spiritual in Man.’ The tone of response to The New Brutalism existed even before hostile critics knew what to call it, and there was an awareness that the Smithsons were headed in a different direction to most other younger architects in London.
Alison Smiths on first claimed the words in public as her own in a description of a project for a small house in Soho (Architectural Design, November, 1953) designed before the phrase existed, and previously tagged ‘The warehouse aesthetic’-a very fair description of what The New Brutalism stood for in its first phase. Of this house, she wrote: ‘… had this been built, it would have been the first exponent of the New Brutalism in England, as the preamble to the specification shows: “It is our intention in this building to have the structure exposed entirely, without interior finishes wherever practicable. The contractor should aim at a high standard of basic construction, as in a small warehouse”.’
The publication of this project led to an extensive and often hilarious correspondence in various periodicals through the summer of 1954, a correspondence which wandered further and further from its original point because most writers were in fact discussing either the exhibition Parallel of Life and Art, or the (as yet) unpublished school at Hunstanton. When this was finally published (AR, September, 1954) the discussion took a sharper and less humorous tone, for here in three-dimensional and photographic reality, and in the classic Modern Movement materials of concrete, steel and glass, was the Smithsons’ only completed building. The phrase The New Brutalism was immediately applied to it, though it had been designed in the spring of 1950, long before even the house in Soho, but the Brutalists themselves have accepted this appellation, and it has become the tag for Hunstanton wherever the building has been discussed.
Hunstanton, and the house in Soho, can serve as the points of architectural reference by which The New Brutalism in architecture may be defined. What are the visible and identifiable characteristics of these two structures? Both have formal, axial plans-Hunstanton, in fact, has something like true bi-axial symmetry, and the small Gymnasium block alongside the school is a kind of exemplar in little of just how formal the complete scheme was to have been-and this formality is immediately legible from without. Both exhibit their basic structure, and both make a point of exhibiting their materials-in fact, this emphasis on basic structure is so obsessive that many superficial critics have taken this to be the whole of New Brutalist Architecture.
Admittedly, this emphasis on basic structure is important, even if it is not the whole story, and what has caused Hunstanton to lodge in the public’s gullet is the fact that it is almost unique among modern buildings in being made of what it appears to be made of. Whatever has been said about honest use of materials, most modern buildings appear to be made of whitewash or patent glazing, even when they are made of concrete or steel. Hunstanton appears to be made of glass, brick, steel and concrete, and is in fact made of glass, brick, steel and concrete. Water and electricity do not come out of unexplained holes in the wall, but are delivered to the point of use by visible pipes and manifest conduits. One can see what Hunstanton is made of, and how it works, and there is not another thing to see except the play of spaces.
This ruthless adherence to one of the basic moral imperatives of the Modern Movement-honesty in structure and material-has precipitated a situation to which only the pen of Ibsen could do justice. The mass of moderate architects, hommes moyens sensuels, have found their accepted, practices for waiving the requirements of the conscience-code suddenly called in question; they have been put rudely on the spot, and they have not liked the experience. Of course, it is not just the building itself which has precipitated this situation, it is the things the Brutalists have said and done as well, but, as with the infected Spa in An Enemy of the People, the play of personalities focuses around a physical object.
The qualities of that object may be summarized as follows: 1, Formal legibility of plan; 2, clear exhibition of structure, and 3, valuation of materials for their inherent qualities ‘as found.’ This summary can be used to answer the question: Are there other New Brutalist buildings besides Hunstanton? It is interesting to note that such a summary of qualities could be made to describe Marseilles, Promontory and Lakeshore apartments, General Motors Technical Centre, much recent Dutch work and several projects by younger English architects affiliated to ClAM.
But, with the possible exception of Marseilles, the Brutalists would probably reject most of these buildings from the canon, and so must we, for all of these structures exhibit an excess of suaviter in modo, even if there is plenty of fortiter in re about them. In the last resort what characterizes the New Brutalism in architecture as in painting is precisely its brutality, its je-m’en-foutisme, its bloody-mindedness.
Only one other building conspicuously carries these qualities in the way that Hunstanton does, and that is Louis Kahn’s Yale Art Centre. Here is a building which is uncompromisingly frank about its materials, which is inconceivable apart from its boldly exhibited structural method which-being a concrete space-frame -is as revolutionary and unconventional as the use of the Plastic Theory in stressing Hunstanton’s steel H-frames. Furthermore, the plan is very formal in the disposition of its main elements, and makes a kind of symmetry about two clearly defined axes at right angles to one another. And this is a building which some Brutalists can apparently accept as a constituent New Brutalist structure.
But, with all due diffidence, the present author submits that it still does not quite answer to the standard set by Hunstanton. For one thing, the Smithsons’ work is characterized by an abstemious under-designing of the details, and much of the impact of the building comes from the ineloquence, but absolute consistency, of such components as the stairs and handrails. By comparison, Kahn’s detailing is arty, and the stair-rail and balustrading (if that is the word for stainless netting) is jarringly out of key with the rough-shuttered concrete of the main structure. This may be ‘only a matter of detailing’ but there is another short-fall about Yale Art Centre which could not be brushed off so easily.
Every Smithson design has been, obviously or subtly, a coherent and apprehensible visual entity, but this Louis Kahn’s design narrowly fails to be. The internal spaces will be cluttered with display screens which, in the nature of his programme and his solution of it, must be susceptible of being moved, so that formal clarity is always threatened. But beyond this the relation of interior to exterior fails to validate the axes which govern the plan. Available viewpoints, the placing of the entrances, the handling of the exterior walls-all tend to lose or play down the presence of planning axes. No doubt there are excellent functional reasons for the doors being where they are, and excellent structural reasons for the walls being treated in the way they are-but if these reasons were so compelling, why bother with an axial plan anyhow?
This is a hard thing to have to say about a seriously considered building by a reputable architect of some standing, but contact with Brutalist architecture tends to drive one to hard judgements, and the one thing of which the Smithsons have never been accused is a lack of logic or consistency in thinking through a design. In fact it is the ruthless logic more than anything else which most hostile critics find distressing about Hunstanton-or perhaps it is the fact that this logic is worn on the sleeve. One of the reasons for this obtrusive logic is that it contributes to the apprehensibility and coherence of the building as a visual entity, because it contributes to the building as ‘an image.’
An Image-with the utterance of these two words we bridge the gap between the possible use of The New Brutalism as a descriptive label covering, in varying degrees of accuracy, two or more buildings, and The New Brutalism as a slogan, and we also go some way to bridge the gap between the meaning of the term as applied to architecture and its meaning as applied to painting and sculpture. The word image in this sense is one of the most intractable and the most useful terms in contemporary aesthetics, and some attempt to explain it must be made.
A great many things have been called ‘an image’- S. M. della Consolazione at Todi, a painting by Jackson Pollock, the Lever Building, the 1954 Cadillac convertible, the roofscape of the Unitéat Marseilles, any of the hundred photographs in Parallel of Life and Art. ‘Image’ seems to be a word that describes anything or nothing. Ultimately, however, it means something which is visually valuable, but not necessarily by the standards of classical aesthetics.
Where Thomas Aquinas supposed beauty to be quod visum placet(that which seen, pleases), image may be defined as quod visum perturbat-that which seen, affects the emotions, a situation which could subsume the pleasure caused by beauty, but is not normally taken to do so, for the New Brutalists’ interests in image are commonly regarded, by many of themselves as well as their critics, as being anti-art, or at any rate anti-beauty in the classical aesthetic sense of the word. But what is equally as important as the specific kind of response, is the nature of its cause. What pleased St. Thomas was an abstract quality, beauty-what moves a New Brutalist is the thing itself, in its totality, and with all its overtones of human association. These ideas of course lie close to the general body of anti-Academic aesthetics currently in circulation, though they are not to be identified exactly with Michel Tapie’s concept of un Art Autre, even though that concept covers many Continental Brutalists as well as Edouardo Paolozzi.
Nevertheless this concept of Image is common to all aspects of The New Brutalism in England, but the manner in which it works out in architectural practice has some surprising twists to it. Basically, it requires that the building should be an immediately apprehensible visual entity; and that the form grasped by the eye should be confirmed by experience of the building in use. Further, that this form should be entirely proper to the functions and materials of the building, in their entirety. Such a relationship between structure, function and form is the basic commonplace of all good building of course, the demand that this form should be apprehensible and memorable is the apical uncommonplace which makes good building into great architecture.
The fact that this form-giving obligation has been so far forgotten that a great deal of good building can be spoken of as if it were architecture, is a mark of a seriously decayed condition in English architectural standards. It has become too easy to get away with the assumption that if structure and function are served then the result must be architecture-so easy that the meaningless phrase ’ the conceptual building’ has been coined to defend the substandard architectural practices of the routine-functionalists, as if ‘conceptual buildings’ were something new, and something faintly reprehensible in modern architecture.
All great architecture has been ‘conceptual,’ has been image-making-and the idea that any great buildings, such as the Gothic Cathedrals, grew unconsciously through anonymous collaborative attention to structure and function is one of the most insidious myths with which the Modern Movement is saddled. Every great building of the Modern Movement has been a conceptual design, especially those like the Bauhaus, which go out of their way to look as if they were the products of ‘pure’ functionalism, whose aformal compositions are commonly advanced by routine-functionalists in defence of their own abdication of architectural responsibility. But a conceptual building is as likely to be aformal as it is to be formal, as a study of the Smithsons’ post-Hunstanton projects will show.
Hunstanton’s formality is unmistakably Miesian, as Philip Johnson pointed out, possibly because lIT. was one of the few recent examples of conceptual, form-giving design to which a young architect could turn at the time of its conception, and the formality of their Coventry Cathedral competition entry is equally marked, but here one can safely posit the interference of historical studies again, for, though the exact priority of date as between the Smithsons’ design and the publication of Professor Wittkower’sArchitectural Principles of the Age of Humanism is disputed (by the Smithsons) it cannot be denied that they were in touch with Wittkowerian studies at the time, and were as excited by them as anybody else.
The general impact of Professor Wittkower’s book on a whole generation of post-war architectural students is one of the phenomena of our time. Its exposition of a body of architectural theory in which function and form were significantly linked by the objective laws governing the Cosmos (as Alberti and Palladio understood them) suddenly offered a way out of the doldrum of routine-functionalist abdications, and neo-Palladianism became the order of the day.
The effect of Architectural Principles has made it by far the most important contribution-for evil as well as good-by any historian to English Architecture since Pioneers of the Modern Movement, and it precipitated a nice disputation on the proper uses of history. The question became: Humanist principles to be followed? or Humanist principles as an example of the kind of principles to look for? Many students opted for the former alternative, and Routine-Palladians soon became as thick on the ground as Routine-Functionalists. The Brutalists, observing the inherent risk of a return to pure academicism-more pronounced at Liverpool than at the AA-sheered off abruptly in the other direction and were soon involved in the organization of Parallel of Life and Art.
Introducing this exhibition to an AA student debate Peter Smithson declared: ‘We are not going to talk about proportion and symmetry’ and this was his declaration of war on the inherent academicism of the neo-Palladians, and the anti-Brutalist section of the house made it clear how justified was this suspicion of crypto-academicism by taking their stand not only on Palladio and Alberti but also on Plato and the Absolute.
The new direction in Brutalist architectural invention showed at once in the Smithsons’ Golden Lane and Sheffield University competition entries. The former, only remembered for having put the idea of the street-deck back in circulation in England, is notable for its determination to create a coherent visual image by non-formal means, emphasizing visible circulation, identifiable units of habitation, and fully validating the presence of human beings as part of the total image-the perspectives had photographs of people posted on to the drawings, so that the human presence almost overwhelmed the architecture.
But the Sheffield design went further even than this-and aformalism becomes as positive a force in its composition as it does in a painting by Burri or Pollock. Composition might seem pretty strong language for so apparently casual a layout, but this is clearly not an ‘unconceptual’ design, and on examination it can be shown to have a composition, but based not on the elementary rule-and-compass geometry which underlies most architectural composition, so much as an intuitive sense of topology.
As a discipline of architecture topology has always been present in a subordinate and unrecognized way-qualities of penetration, circulation, inside and out, have always been important, but elementary Platonic geometry has been the master discipline. Now, in the Smithsons’ Sheffield project the roles are reversed, topology becomes the dominant and geometry becomes the subordinate discipline. The ‘connectivity’ of the circulation routes is flourished on the exterior and no attempt is made to give a geometrical form to the total scheme; large blocks of topologically similar spaces stand about the site with the same graceless memorability as martello towers or pit-head gear.
Such a dominance accorded to topology-in whose classifications a brick is the same ‘shape’ as a billiard ball (unpenetrated solid) and a teacup is the same ‘shape’ as a gramophone record (continuous surface with one hole) is clearly analogous to the displacement of Tomistic ‘beauty’ by Brutalist ‘Image,’ and Sheffield remains the most consistent and extreme point reached by any Brutalists in their search for Une Architecture Autre. It is not likely to displace Hunstanton in architectural discussions as the prime exemplar of The New Brutalism, but it is the only building-design which fully matches up to the threat and promise of Pamllel of Life and Art. ‘
And it shows that the formal axiality of Hunstanton is not integral to New Brutalist architecture. Miesian or Wittkowerian geometry was only an ad hoc device for the realization of ‘Images,’ and when Parallel of Life and Art had enabled Brutalists to define their relationship to the visual world in terms of something other than geometry, then formality was discarded. The definition of a New Brutalist building derived from Hunstanton and Yale Art Centre, above, must be modified so as to exclude formality as a basic quality if it is to cover future developments and should more properly read: 1, Memorability as an Image; 2, Clear exhibition of Structure; and 3, Valuation of Materials ‘as found.’
Remembering that an Image is what affects the emotions, that structure, in its fullest sense, is the relationship of parts, and that materials ‘as found’ are raw materials, we have worked our way back to the quotation which headed this article ‘L’ Architecture, c’est, avec des Matieres Bruts, etablir des rapports emouvants,’ but we have worked our way to this point through such an awareness of history and its uses that we see that The New Brutalism, if it is architecture in the grand sense of Le Corbusier’s definition, is also architecture of our time and not of his, nor of Lubetkin’s, nor of the times of the Masters of the past. Even if it were true that the Brutalists speak only to one another, the fact that they have stopped speaking to Mansart, to Palladio and to Alberti would make The New Brutalism, even in its more private sense, a major contribution to the architecture of today.
Text by Reyner Banham, The Architectural Review, 1955 December
Kostis Velonis Kωστης Βελωνης
So-called Samuelsonian economics is the main sort at American universities today. It says that all human behavior can be captured in “maximizing a utility function,” which says that happiness depends on how much stuff you get. The only character in Samuelsonian economics is a fellow called Max U. Max treats everyone as a vending machine. His pleasure tops everything.
The only way Samuelsonian economics can acknowledge anything else, such as love, is to reduce it to food for the implicitly male and proud Max U, on a par with the other “goods” he consumes, such as ice cream cones or apartment space or amusing gadgets from the airport shop. In C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the senior devil Screwtape is in fact suspicious of the very existence of “love,” and reinterprets it as interest. God’s “love” for human beings “of course, is an impossibility. . . . All his talk about Love must be a disguise for something else—He must have some real motive. . . . What does he stand to make out of them?”
A Samuelsonian economist will say, “Oh, stop it. It’s easy to include ‘love’ in economics. Just put the beloved’s utility into the lover’s utility function, U(Lover) [Stuff(Lover), Utility(Beloved)].” Neat. Some German economists, for example, think of a taste for social justice as merely another term, J, in Max U’s utility function. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who seems to have had little to do in his life with love, wrote in the economistic way in 1651: “That which men desire they are also said to Love. . . . so that desire and love are the same thing. . . . But whatsoever is the object of any man’s appetite or desire, that is it which he for his part calleth Good.
” Or, the modern economists say, “goods.”
But to adopt such a way of talking is to absorb the beloved into the psyche of the lover, as so much utility-making motivation. (A certain kind of Marxist economist also makes the reduction to interest, such as class interest.) Your mother loves you, in one restricted sense, for the pleasure you provide to her. When you graduated from high school she got utilitarian pleasure directly—that she is the mother of such a brilliant child. It reflected on her own brilliance, you see, or on her own excellence in mothering. It added to her utility-account some points earned, straightforward pleasure, like frequent-flyer mileage. And she got some pleasure indirectly, because you did so well—for yourself, to be sure, yet as a pleasure to her.
It is not for your sake. It is as though you were happy and accomplished for her. Even if no one else knew that you had your degree, she would know, and know the material pleasure and higher satisfactions your education would give you, and would be glad . . . for her sake. It is “on her account,” as the revealingly bourgeois expression says. That is, she absorbs your utility into hers. If you are happy, she is happy. But derivatively. It is a return on her capital investment in motherhood. It’s still a matter of points earned for her utility. Means, not ends.
Economists think this is a complete description of your mother’s love. A greeting card company could make a card for the economist to send to his mother: “Mom, I maximize your utility.” The great Gary Becker of the University of Chicago, for example, thinks in this fashion, as do his numerous followers. He realizes that love — or as he usually styles it, with embarrassed male scare quotes, “love” — entails more than “caring” in his restricted sense: “If M cares about F, M’s utility would depend on the commodity consumption of F as well as on his own.
” But treating others as “inputs into a self’s utility function,” as Becker puts it, is to treat the others as means, not as ends. Immanuel Kant said two centuries ago in effect that your mother, if she is truly and fully loving, loves you as an end, for your own sweet sake. You may be a rotten kid, an ax-murderer on death row in Texas. You’re not even a high-school graduate. You give her “nothing but grief,” as we say. In all the indirect, derivative ways you are a catastrophe. And yet she goes on loving you, and stands wailing in front of the prison on the night of your execution. Economists need to understand what everyone else already understands, and what the economists themselves understood before they went to graduate school, that such love is of course commonplace. It is common in your own blessed mother, and everywhere in most mothers and fathers and children and friends.
You see it in the doctor’s love for healing, in the engineer’s for building, in the soldier’s for the homeland, in the economic scientist’s for the advance of economic science, down in the marketplace and up in the cathedral. Such loves, or internal goods, defeat the economistic view that all virtues can be collapsed into utility. Utility is the measure of an ends-means logic, prudence only. Lovingsome end, however, goes beyond means. The Samuelsonians can deal only with the means of life, not its meaning.
Δέν είμαι, εκεί μέσα, τό Αγκριτζέντο εκεί μέσα καί η Κατάνη καί η κοιλάδα των ναών καί τό στεφάνι μέ τά ρόδα μέ τά κρίνα; - όχι;
Δέν είμαι τό άστρο-πόλεμος κι όταν νυχτώνει αγάπη κι ύστερα πάλι αυγερινός η Αστάρτη, η Αστραδενή, η Αφροδίτη-Αφρούλα; Πώς; Πώς δέν;
Δέν είμαι επτά νότες, επτά παύσεις, επτά οξίες πού καί στήν Κίνα ακόμα αν θά πάς, άλλες δέν έχει; - όχι; Έχει;
Δέν είμαι η αίγια η κότσιηνη, ωριά θωριά κατάφυτη, η μαύρη γη κατάφυ- τη, φούλια τριφύλλια κλωστικά καί χέννα η λάγια - βάψτε με! η θεριακή, η αντίδοτη, βάψτε με καί στολίστε με! κι όλα τά αντίθεα ποτά χαλάλι της νά πείτε θολώνει πού επιθύμησε στης δαγκωνιάς τό κέντρο, πράσινα όλα πράσινα, ζεστό φιλί επιθύμησε καί σκουροζώνιν ρίφιν - όχι χαλάλι; Όχι μού;
Δέν είμαι ο ρηχός βυθός, ο παφλασμός, eros, himeros, pothos, η γλώσσα φλοίσβος γλώσσα τού νερού, υγρή φωνή, η προγονή του ωκεανού μέ τό παλάτι μάρμαρο, μέ τό παλάτι ολόλευκο καί τά άλογα ζεμένα στόν θυμό του κοσμοσείστη, εδώ σταθείτε, κατεβείτε οι ουρανοί, καθρεφτιστείτε, στεριές οι δασωμένες, οι στεγνές, οροσειρές, οι λαξευτοί, διώροφοι από τά Μύρα της Λυκίας οι τάφοι, περίτεχνοι φιλάρεσκοι οι τάφοι, μικρή Ασία, εγγύς Ανατολή, τό χέρι μου νά ξεχαστεί ποτές μου αν σέ ξεχάσω...; Νά ξεχαστεί; Τό χέρι;
1949, photographer Robert Sullivan, at R.M. Schindler's request, made
some images when the Janson's house was still under construction. In
one, Ellen Janson is standing alone on the deck against the skyline.
"Skyhooks" was the nickname for her residence.
thanks to the Art, Design & Architecture Museum at the
University of California, Santa Barbara, and especially to Melinda
Kostis Velonis Kωστης Βελωνης
“By the end of the nineteenth century, the gestures of the Western bourgeoisie were irretrievably lost”: so writes Giorgio Agamben in his 1992 essay, “Notes on Gesture.”1 The early years of the twentieth century were marked, the philosopher contends, by a frantic effort to reconstitute the vanished realm of meaningful movements: hence the exaggerated articulations of silent film and the mad leaps of modern dance. Certain “invisible powers”—the economic forces responsible for the simultaneous loosening and mechanization of the social sphere—had rendered daily life, for many, almost indecipherable. It’s a complaint that has echoed through the decades since, as subsequent generations have been characterized as increasingly shambling, ataxic, and slack, but also regimented, uniform, somehow less than human. The gestures of the (racial, national, or generational) other appear both random and programmed, meaningless and mechanical. Why, the gestural conservative wonders, do they keep doingthat thing with their hands, arms, shoulders, crotches?
In truth, a generalized sense that something is awry in the world of gesture is considerably older than Agamben allows. Classical authors already fretted at the unruly manner in which public speakers utilized various parts of the body. As well as regretting the tendency to alter the tone of voice in a theatrical fashion, Aristotle disparaged the use of gesture. For Cicero, too, theater was the model of physical expression that was most tempting for, and most emphatically to be avoided by, the untutored orator. Rather, a measured and dignified movement was all that was required or allowed. In the first century CE, however, the Spanish rhetorician Quintilian elaborated what he called a “universal language of the hands”: a gestural tongue, as it were, that spoke also through the head, face, eyebrows, and even the nostrils. With the discovery of a manuscript of Quintilian’s Institutio oratoriain 1416, the modern era of movement studies began.
In the treatises and manuals that appeared in the centuries to follow, there is a growing sense that instruction in the proper use of gesture answers some widespread failing in public life. For a start, gesture seems a sort of anti-Babel, supplying meanings that language cannot: in Giovanni Bonifacio’sArt of Signs (1616), the whole body is employed to counter this tendency of the spoken word toward opacity. In their “mute expressiveness,” the head, face, arms, hands, fingers, nails, chest, abdomen, genitals, knees, and feet have all got something to say. In his Chirologia (1644) and Chironomia(1648), John Bulwer calls gesture “the only speech which is natural to man; it may well be called the tongue and general language of human nature which, without teaching, men in all regions of the habitable world do at the first sight most easily understand.” Bulwer, who also contrived a finger-spelling alphabet that he called “the deaf and dumb man’s friend,” claimed that his gesture manual had another application, being “so ordered to serve for privy ciphers for any secret information”: in the latter instance, he apparently forgot for a moment his own assertion of the universal legibility of gesture. Crucially, his volumes also include illustrations of the gestures he describes.
In the eighteenth century, the interest in gesture took a chauvinist turn. English writers on oratory, in particular, seemed proud of their nation’s public speakers but acknowledged at the same time that a more bodily effusive presence might raise the standard of public debate. “Our preachers stand stock still in the pulpit,” wrote Joseph Addison, “and will not so much as move a finger to set off the best sermons in the world. We meet with the same speaking statues at our bars, and in all the public places of debate. Our words flow from us in a smooth, continued stream, without those strainings of the voice, motions of the body, and majesty of the hand, which are so much celebrated in the orators of Greece and Rome.”2 At the start of the nineteenth century, Addison’s observation had hardened into a received wisdom: the British (more especially the English) were ineloquent in the gestural department.
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In the introduction to his Chironomia (1806), the most ambitious and influential study of gesture published in this period, Gilbert Austin notes: “It is not the genius of the people of Great Britain to gesticulate; they are grave people. To saw the air perpetually is absurd.”3 (Austin was himself born in Dublin—he was a graduate of Trinity College and, as a Church of Ireland clergyman, a much admired preacher—but does not advert to any more daring or expansive gestures on the part of the Irish.) While the insular orator lacks the panache of his Continental coeval, he is not to be thought a mere dullard or plank: “Though in our temperate climate the people are less disposed to vivacity of manner, and are not easily excited; yet the cool, the solid and the cultivated understanding of the British speaker, under the direction of rational principles, is capable, as well in action as in composition, of all that is graceful and persuasive, and even of all the energetic and irresistible powers of delivery.”4
Gilbert Austin, Chironomia (1806), plate 9.
The full title of Austin’s book is Chironomia; or a Treatise on Rhetorical Delivery: Comprehending Many Precepts, Both Ancient and Modern, For the Proper Regulation of the Voice, the Countenance, and Gesture. Together With an Investigation of the Elements of Gesture, and a New Method for the Notation Thereof; Illustrated by Many Figures. It is in certain respects quite conventional, drawing upon classical sources to argue for a rational mean between expressiveness and restraint. As is usual by this time, Austin warns against the corrupting effects of bad theater—he exempts from censure the celebrated performances of David Garrick and Charles Kemble—and entreats his reader to maintain a degree of self-possession: “Where he is incapable of governing himself, he falls into undignified gesticulations, and into absurd distortions; and instead of inspiring others with his feelings, he will frequently become ridiculous, and be laughed at himself.”5 It is in the second half of the book’s title that the real novelty of Austin’s project is revealed. He is exercised, he says, by “the want of a copious and simple language” to represent the many gestures that the orator may deploy. The prospective public speaker “sees few models which are worthy of imitation.” Chironomiais meant to “represent every action of an orator throughout his speech, or of an actor throughout the whole drama, and to record them for posterity, and for repetition and practice, as well as common language is recorded.” To this end, its author has recruited a Lilliputian army of exemplary orators; page after page of tiny figures that embody, by their numerous and subtly distinguished movements, the gamut of human gesture.
The figures are well-dressed and mostly male: in some instances they appear in classical costume, but they are in general, one may assume, diminutive gentlemen of the early nineteenth century. They have been trained, so to speak, in the opening pages of the book—put through their paces inside a sphere that illustrates the various quarters in which their gestures may be made. This space is divided first into zenith, horizon, and nadir; a more detailed mapping of movements is indicated by dotted lines that surround the speaker like a web. The whole apparatus is an invisible presence in all the images that follow; it provides the notional geometric arena in which gestures are to be described (in both senses of the word). Within their imaginary bubbles, Austin’s tiny avatars are to be seen looking quizzical, aggrieved, eager, despairing, emboldened, dismissive, and emphatic. In eight instances, they raise an arm and splay a flat hand to ward off some notional assailant or unconscionable idea.6 Elsewhere, close-ups of sketched hands record the precise lineaments of waving, flourishing, sweeping, beckoning, repressing, advancing, springing, striving, recoiling, throwing, clinching, collecting, shaking, and pressing.
Given the precision of his spherical method, and the care with which each flourish of the hand or trajectory of the arm has been named and plotted, it comes as a surprise to find that Austin was less than sure of the efficacy of his book’s illustrations. He had intended, he tells the reader, a far more elaborate set of plates, but the initial drawings confirmed that the plan was ruinously expensive. Several times, Austin remarks upon the considerable labor and reflection to which his book has put him, as if aware that the move from illustrations of movement to annotated text—a necessary transition if the book is to be at all useful—is about to prove difficult for author and reader alike. A visual typology of gestures is all very well, but it does not exactly lend itself to easy marking-up of the orator’s text. Having drawn up the semaphore of possible gestures, Austin then needs to translate that language into a further set of ciphers that will sit legibly alongside the words to be spoken.
“It is necessary,” admits Austin at this point, “to give a short account of the difficulties which occurred in this system of notation of gesture, and of the manner in which they have been got over.” The problem, as he sees it, is that while the number of gestures is theoretically infinite, the range of symbols is, and must remain, limited. How then to render the stab of a finger, the attitude of an elbow, or the arc of a raised arm into a readable, and repeatable, code? The introduction of new names for the gestures in question, Austin concludes, is likely to prove “embarrassing” and “offensive”: he does not say whether the objections would be directed at the awkwardness of the lexicon or at an overly intimate attention to the outline of the body beneath the tailcoat and breeches. In any event, he decides instead on a system of symbolic letters: they will simply be easier to recall. In this last assertion, he was spectacularly mistaken.
The actual workings of Austin’s system of annotation are horrifically complex, so much so that the editors of the 1966 edition of his book sincerely doubt that any prospective public speaker could marshal the necessary information and acquire the proper skills to follow it. Each movement of the hand is denoted by four letters: they mark in turn the position of the hand, the elevation of the arm, the transverse situation of the arm, and the motion or force of the gesture. Thus, phfd means prone horizontal forward descending; seqn signals supine elevated oblique noting. Often, the last letter is omitted, but a further three letters then added for the left hand: phq—pdb, then, according to a complex table to which the orator would first have to refer (having already appraised himself of the names of the various movements depicted in the illustrations), means prone horizontal oblique—prone downwards backwards. At this point, things become more complex: a capital letter at the start of a sentence fixes the position of the head and the direction of the gaze; another set of symbols, below the line of spoken text, instructs the orator where to place his feet; a marginal mark suggests the force, rapidity, or interruption of the voice. To attempt to follow one of Austin’s annotated extracts from canonical texts—Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard,” Edward Young’s “Night Thoughts,” a speech of Brutus’s from Julius Caesar—is to become, inevitably, a clumsily articulated automaton, a mechanized monster of crippling self-consciousness. The gesticulating figures, with their elegantly executed actions, are overacting energetically to hide the degree of confusion and exhaustion that awaits any reader rash enough to put the system to the test.
Despite its rigors, however, Chironomia was remarkably influential among later authors of Victorian gesture manuals. It is the model for several volumes published in the United States in subsequent decades. Dr. Jonathan Barber went so far as to construct a bamboo replica of Austin’s sphere, which he used to teach students at Harvard and recommended in his 1831Practical Treatise on Gesture. The average American orator, it seems, presented the opposite problem to his British counterpart. As A. M. Bacon avers in his Manual of Gesture of 1875, the native public speaker is grievously in need of the prince’s counsel to the players in Act III, Scene ii ofHamlet: “In the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.”7 Drawing explicitly on Austin’s system, Bacon merely simplifies it somewhat and updates the attire of his illustrative figures, so that they appear less flamboyantly dressed, sober-suited, and stately. (Also, sporting a modish variety of facial hair.)
From A. M. Bacon, Manual of Gesture (1875). Like Austin, Bacon uses an imaginary sphere to map the speaker’s gestures.
Introducing Chironomia in 1966, Mary Margaret Robb and Lester Thonssen comment that, in discovering a method for recording the gestures of great orators, Austin “anticipated the electronic wizardry of tape and disc.” Oddly, the editors do not mention cinema, which is surely the closest analogue to the illustrations in Chironomia. Like the motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge, the frozen gestures of 1806 almost demand to be set in motion, to be stitched together in a flicker-book approximation of the cinematographic technology to come. As with cinema, the paradox at the heart of Austin’s system is that in order to describe (never mind begin to prescribe) bodily movement, one has first to decompose it into its constituent parts. The mobile orator actually has to become one of Addison’s “speaking statues” before being allowed to breathe, move, and live once more. In this sense, Chironomia is but the first step in a vast project undertaken by the arts and sciences in the nineteenth century: the isolation of the instant so that physical expression may be pictured, comprehended, and archived before it passes away. It is the ambition, for example, of Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals(1872), with its photographic register of grinning and gurning faces. It is the impulse behind Jean-Martin Charcot’s record of the unruly but typical gestures of the hysteric. The photographs taken at the Salpêtrière clinic are now better known than the tabulated drawings produced by Charcot’s colleague Paul Richer, whose “complete and regular form of the great hysterical attack,” rendered in eighty-six disheveled female figures, resembles nothing so much as Austin’s anatomizing of the rhetorical gestures of the erudite gentleman. The orator, like the hysteric, is the anxious object of an abstracting gaze, made to perform his every natural affect and impulse according to a predetermined plot. At times, you can almost imagine that he revolts against this inhuman regimen, that he is madly signaling for assistance, or raises his arm at a random and rebellious angle, letting it drift along a dotted line of his own choosing, through the air’s uncharted ways.
1 Giorgio Agamben, “Notes on Gesture,” in Infancy and History: Essays on the Destruction of Experience, trans. Liz Heron (London: Verso, 1993), p. 135.
2 Joseph Addison, The Spectator, no. 407, 17 June 1712.
3 Gilbert Austin, Chironomia: or a Treatise on Rhetorical Delivery, ed. Mary Margaret Robb and Lester Thonssen (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1966), p. 134. Austin, it seems, may not have read Bulwer’s Chironomia, but arrived at the same title by reference to sundry classical sources.
4 Ibid., p. xi.
5 Ibid., p. 138.
6 This venerable gesture, which we may assume was a staple of nineteenth-century stage melodrama, was preserved and perfected in silent film, then abandoned with the advent of cinematic sound, and relegated to the practical repertoire of the traffic cop. It was only in the televised performances of the girl groups of the 1960s that it found its proper emotional valence again. In particular, the Supremes’ 1965 entreaty to “Stop! In the Name of Love” would have meant nothing without this gesture. Nowadays, it has only an ungracious and anomic significance, as the (somewhat dated) title of this essay confirms.
7 A. M. Bacon, Manual of Gesture (Chicago: S. C. Griggs, 1875).
If, as a friend recently suggested, we ought to construct a monument to our present political culture as an homage to the principle of the “lesser evil,” it should be made in the form of the digits 6-6-5 built of concrete blocks, and installed like the Hollywood sign on hillsides or other high points overlooking city centers. This number, one less than the number of the beast—that of the devil and of total evil—might capture the essence of our humanitarian present, obsessed as it is with the calculations and calibrations that seek to moderate, ever so slightly, the evils that it has largely caused.
The principle of the lesser evil is often presented as a dilemma between two or more bad choices in situations where available options are—or seem to be—limited. The choice made justifies harmful actions that would otherwise be unacceptable, since it allegedly averts even greater suffering. Sometimes the principle is presented as the optimal result of a general field of calculations that seeks to compare, measure, and evaluate different bad consequences in relation to necessary acts, and then to minimize those bad consequences. Both aspects of the principle are understood as taking place within a closed system in which those posing the dilemma, the options available for choice, the factors to be calculated, and the very parameters of calculation are unchallenged. Each calculation is undertaken anew, as if the previous accumulation of events has not taken place, and the future implications are out of bounds.
Those who seek to justify necessary evils as “lesser” ones, especially when searching for a rationale to explain recent wars and military expeditions, like to appeal to the work of the fourth-century North African philosopher-theologian St. Augustine. Augustine’s rejection of the principle of Manichaeism—a world strictly divided into good and evil—meant that he no longer saw evil as the perfect mirror image of the good; rather, in platonic terms, he saw evil as a measure of the absence of good. Since evil, unlike good, is not perfect and absolute, it is forever measured and calibrated on a differential scale of greater and lesser. Augustine taught that it is not permissible to practice lesser evils, because to do so violates the Pauline principle “do no evil that good may come.” But—and here lies its appeal—lesser evils might be tolerated when they are deemed necessary and unavoidable, or when perpetrating an evil results in the reduction of the overall amount of evil in the world.
More recently, Pope Benedict XVI has appealed to the lesser evil principle in a decree permitting the use of condoms in places with high rates of HIV. Similar to this logic of contraception, some in the Vatican thought that implicit support for the government of Silvio Berlusconi, albeit plagued by sin, ridicule, and corruption, might be considered as the lesser evil in protecting Christian values. In cases such as these, the economy of the lesser evil is always cited as a justification for breaching rigid rules and entrenched dogma; indeed, it is very often used by those in power as the primary justification for the very notion of “exception.”
In fact, Augustine’s discourse of the lesser evil was developed at a time when the church had started to participate in the political government of its subjects and had acquired considerable financial and military power. Through the ages, the Christian church saw its task as keeping human evil to a minimum. It pastorally ruled over a vast and complex intrapersonal economy of merits and faults—of sin, vice, and virtue—operating according to specific rules of circulation and transfer, with procedures, analyses, calculations, and tactics that allowed the exercise of a specific interplay between conflicting goods and degrees of evil. In his lectures on the origins of governmentality, Michel Foucault argued that, on the basis of this “economical theology,” the modern, secular form of governmental power has itself taken on the form of an economy.1
The theological origins of the lesser evil argument cast a long shadow over the present. In fact, the idiom has become so deeply ingrained, and is invoked in such a staggeringly diverse set of contexts—from individual situational ethics and international relations, to attempts to govern the economics of violence in the context of the “War on Terror” and the efforts of human rights and humanitarian activists to maneuver through the paradoxes of aid—that it seems to have altogether replaced the position previously reserved for the term “good.” Moreover, the very evocation of the “good” seems to invoke everywhere the utopian tragedies of modernity, in which evil seemed to lurk in a horrible Manichaeistic inversion. If no hope is offered in the future, all that remains is to insure ourselves against the risks that it poses, moderate and lessen the collateral effects of necessary acts, and tend to those who have suffered as a result.
In relation to the War on Terror, the terms of the lesser evil were most clearly and prominently articulated by Michael Ignatieff, former human rights scholar and leader of Canada’s Liberal Party. In his book The Lesser Evil, Ignatieff suggested that in “balancing liberty against security,” liberal states should establish mechanisms to regulate the breach of some human rights and legal norms, and allow their security services to engage in forms of extrajuridical violence—which he saw as lesser evils—in order to fend off or minimize potential greater evils, such as terror attacks on civilians in Western states.2
If governments need to violate rights in a terrorist emergency, it should be done, he thought, only as an exception and according to a process of adversarial scrutiny. “Exceptions,” Ignatieff states, “do not destroy the rule but save it, provided that they are temporary, publicly justified, and deployed as a last resort.”3
Film still from Sylvain George’s documentary on North African and Middle Eastern refugees’ attempt to reach the U.K.. Here, one of the characters shows his obliterated fingertips—a strategy to evade identification through fingerprinting. May they rest in revolt (Figures of wars I), 2011. Copyright: Independencia.
The lesser evil emerges here as a pragmatic compromise, a “tolerated sin” that functions as the very justification for the notion of exception. State violence in this model is a necro-economy in which various types of destructive measures are weighed in a utilitarian fashion, not only in relation to the damage they produce, but to the harm they purportedly prevent and even in relation to the more brutal measures they help restrain. In this logic, the problem of contemporary state violence resembles an all-too-human version of the previously mentioned mathematical minimum problem of the divine order, one tasked with determining the smallest level of violence necessary to avert the greatest harm. For the architects of contemporary war, this balance is trapped between two poles: keeping violence at a level low enough to limit civilian suffering, yet high enough to bring a decisive end to a given war.4
More recent works by legal scholars and legal advisers to states and militaries sought to extend the inherent elasticity of the system of legal exception proposed by Ignatieff into ways of rewriting the laws of armed conflict themselves.5Lesser evil arguments are now used to defend anything from targeted assassinations and mercy killings, to house demolitions, deportation, and torture,6 to the use of (sometimes) non-lethal chemical weapons, the use of human shields, and even “the intentional targeting of some civilians if it could save more innocent lives than they cost.”7 In a macabre moment, it was even suggested that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki might be tolerated under the principle of the lesser evil. Faced with a humanitarian A-bomb, one might wonder what, in fact, might qualify as a greater evil. Perhaps it is time for the differential accounting of the lesser evil to replace the mechanical bureaucracy of the “banality of evil” as the idiom to describe the most extreme manifestations of violence. Indeed, it is through this use of the lesser evil that self-proclaimed democratic societies can maintain regimes of occupation and neocolonization.
Text from Eyal Weizman’s most recent book The Least of All Possible Evils
1 Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College de France 1977–1978, ed. Arnold I. Davidson, trans. Graham Burchell, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 164–73, 183.
2 Michael Ignatieff, The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).
4 These refer respectively to jus in belloand jus ad bellum.
5 A former Israeli military lawyer Gabriella Blum opines that if international humanitarian law “is designed to minimize humanitarian suffering within the constraints of war, then it is not at all clear why measures intended to further minimize suffering … a choice for the lesser evil – cannot serve as a justification,” she says effortlessly, “for suspending the law in the name of the law.” Gabriella Blum, “The Laws of War and the ‛Lesser Evil,’” (35 YJIL 1, 2010), 3.
6 Relying on what is essentially a proportionality analysis, the Israeli Commission of Inquiry into the Methods of Investigation of the General Security Service Regarding Hostile Terrorist Activity, otherwise known as the Landau Commission, of 1987 reaches the conclusion that the prohibition on torture is not absolute, but is rather based, in its own words, upon the logic of “the lesser evil.” Thus, “the harm done by violating a provision of the law during an interrogation must be weighed against the harm to the life or person of others which could occur sooner or LATER” [upper-case in the original]. US Department of Justice attorney John Yoo similarly referred to a balance of interests when authorizing forms of torture during the Bush Administration. Itamar Mann and Omer Shatz, “The Necessity Procedure: Laws of Torture in Israel and Beyond, 1987–2009,” Legalleft, 2011, see →.
These days, when architecture is supposed to be either pleasant or slick, it can be startling to remember that for a brief, brilliant moment, the reigning style, particularly for civic buildings, was something called Brutalism. It’s worth considering what we’ve gained and lost since that moment, especially with the passing away, reported at the end of June, of Gerhard Kallmann, one of the authors of Boston City Hall (1968), which represented perhaps the apex of that style in the United States.
When we think of modern architecture, two modes come to mind. The first is the sleek, planar, glass-and-steel style established by Mies Van Der Rohe and his interpreters at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and elsewhere, epitomized by Mies’s Seagram Building (1958). The second is heavy, sculptural steel-reinforced concrete, with much of its artistry in the treatment of the cast concrete surface, most closely associated with the late work of Le Corbusier. The architectural term brutalism is said to have its origins in Corbusier’s use of the phrase béton brut, or “raw concrete,” thebrut connoting not brutality or brutishness (although critics would play up that association) but the decision to leave the concrete’s surface rough and unfinished, and often impressed with the wood grain, joints, and other irregularities of the boards with which it was cast. The concept of “the New Brutalism” was brought into being by the critic Reyner Banham’s 1966 book of that name, which highlighted the work of postwar British architects Alison and Peter Smithson.
In public housing projects and more corporate work, like the Economist’s London headquarters, the Smithsons developed their concrete modernism in a particular way. The finishes and details had a rawness and roughness that spoke not only to postwar austerity but also to a new ideal of social and political transparency in a society that was rebuilding itself. The detailing was deliberately modest, but the big picture look of Brutalist architecture was unashamedly the opposite: it was monumental and aspirational, expressive and expansive (and to its critics, bombastic, relentless, and insensitive to the scale of human activity). The Smithsons took it as a given that public housing should have the visual impact of a Gothic cathedral, and part of their invention, and struggle, was finding a set of forms and geometries that, without explicitly borrowing from the great historical styles, would be their equals in expressing the spirit of the age. (Their American contemporary in this search was Paul Rudolph, who as dean of the Yale School of Architecture in the 1960s turned much of New Haven into a landscape of moody cement, and who also designed government buildings for Boston.) Perhaps the Smithsons’ greatest project, unbuilt, was a proposal to replace the bombed-out Coventry Cathedral with a single, massive, crushingly heavy concrete roof. Like a giant wing, it would have appeared to soar over the ruins, both sheltering them and, poignantly, brutally, leaving them behind.
Gerhard Kallmann’s competition-winning design for Boston City Hall, developed in collaboration with Michael McKinnell, embodied a similar idea of heaviness poised above lightness. The building is a brooding, fortress-like mass of concrete resting on fins and columns rendered in concrete and brick. The brick was also used for a stepped podium and vast plaza that physically isolated the monumental building from its surroundings but materially connected it to the federal and colonial architecture nearby. From some angles, the building looks like a cement spaceship perched on more firmly terrestrial landing pads. From others, it looks like a ruin almost Roman in its complexity, with a thousand cutouts and panels and skylights and landings and lines that speak both to its designers’ anxious virtuosity and their desire to produce something timeless. There is something deeply moving about seeing the words “Boston City Hall” incised over the uncompromisingly modern entry in lettering that would not be out of place on Trajan’s Column.
In the fifty years since its conception, the design has remained divisive. It was part of an urban renewal project that committed the familiar crime of destroying a piece of historic urban fabric and replacing it with a windswept plaza. And even its fans (myself included) must concede that it is not an easy building. It’s not always easy to look at or to find your way around, and from the perspective of a contemporary sensibility that favors Cupertino-inspired ease of interface and simplicity of form in all arts and artifacts, it’s not easy to see why any building, especially a public building, should be so hard. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino put forward a short-lived proposal in 2006 to move the city government out of the building. A New York Timesarticle about the proposal included this quote from a citizen standing in line at the parking clerk’s window: “It’s prime real estate. Just nuke this and sell it. It’s such a waste of space.”
Nukes are to the point. In the popular conversation about architecture and design,modernism has been oddly domesticated by the term midcentury. As with the proliferation of the surname Eames as a catchall for retro-futuristic connoisseurship,midcentury reduces form-follows-function to form-follows-fun: it connotes the sophisticated yet familiar good taste you see in shelter magazines, all those chairs that are timelessly good to sit in yet somehow, in their charismatic profiles, make life seem smart and great. “Atomic-age” and “Jet-age” have become swingin’ signals for ring-a-ding-ding consumer goods made in swoopy and sexy plastic and chrome. And yet there is another side to this story, one in which the Smithsons are a kind of Yin to the Eames’ Yang, an eternally rainy Britain to their perpetually sunny California.
That other side is the cold war, in which atoms and jets had a different role and connotation. Think of the Mad Men episode in which Don Draper travels to California for a presentation by military contractors; recoiling from the high-tech apocalypse they describe, he retreats to a milieu of sybaritic lotus-eaters in an Eamesian house of steel and glass. There’s much to debate about that particular hall of mirrors, about one popular culture’s incarnation of another—but something about the juxtaposition of high stakes and high design rings true. While the Eames’ (who developed much of their bent-plywood technology for military contractors during World War II) supplied a stylish refuge from the era’s tensions and terrors, the Brutalists deliberately attempted a more ambivalent response to their moment.
The Smithsons, along with Reyner Banham, described their New Brutalism as “an ethic, not an aesthetic,” and that ethic can be said to have had two essential premises. The first was that tough and complex times called for tough and complex architecture. The ruins of World War II (and intimations of a World War III) inspired architecture so massive as to be nuclear-proof but also so special and soaring in form that it might transcend a fear-struck moment. The awfulness of the era called for awesomeness in its buildings. (“It will outlast,” New York Timesarchitecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote of Boston City Hall in 1969, “the last hurrah.”) The second premise was that buildings built by governments, from city halls to public housing, answered to a higher calling than those created by private development, which needed only to be efficient and entertaining. What exactly that calling was and is, and whether structures like Boston City Hall answered it, is a matter of perpetual debate—and that debate, and the notion that architecture can and must summon it, is thrilling.
It’s the same thrill and admiration one feels for the town council of Goshen, New York. In 1967 the Council built a Paul Rudolph design for its county government center, which in its intricately turbulent upwards-and-outward form, like a massive concrete coral reef, is quite similar to Boston City Hall. Today civic leaders in Goshen want to replace Rudolph’s building, now weather-beaten and unfashionable, with a gingerbread colonial pastiche. That replacement may be a much easier building, but it won’t be a better one.
So it’s worth asking about those Brutalist architects and the public servants who were their primary patrons: What did they know, and aspire to, that we don’t? The last word, for now, goes to Kallmann, who on the fiftieth anniversary of Boston City Hall told the Globe: “It had to be awesome, not just pleasant and slick. [It should] remind you of ancient memories, history. It’s not a department store. It’s not an office building. Come on.”
Text by Thomas de Monchaux
Kostis Velonis Kωστης Βελωνης