Bad Buildings: Still Brutal After All These Years
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Bad Buildings: Still Brutal After All These Years

robarts.jpgRobarts is sinking. And no, we’re not talking about Sam, the actor, and the dwindling of his already-iffy reputation since a stint on the stinkiest of stinky TV shows, CSI. Besides, he’s spelled Robards, but if we must stretch for the metaphor, we’ll do it.
No, we mean John P. Robarts, as in the awful main humanities library on the otherwise (largely) splendiferous University of Toronto campus. We mean not to dogpile on poor Robarts, as it has received mounds of malignment since its opening in the early 70s (this being the case, we will not mention the architect, who has been through enough already).
However, we do not believe it has received, as the phrase goes, its fair share of malignment. And after all, a library built without account for the weight of books, thus the sinking? For shame. Malignment will, and should, continue for generations.
But really, what we’re interested in is not the clunky pretension of the structure, with its misguided (and frankly, self-fellating) grand metaphor of a peacock or othersuch nonesense. No, it’s buildings like Robarts, and how they give Brutalism (one of our favourite, and alas, badly named forms) a, er, bad name. Or make a bad name … badder. And unfairly so. Good God, Brutalism? Who came up with that one?
Photo by hyfen from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

But onward. “By its grace of line and air of permanence, it must bespeak and create an attitude of respect for books and delight in the learning they offer. The fabric and detail of the building must have beauty as an important function,” read a 1965 planning report for U of T, regarding its soon-to-be-constructed library.
Robarts, alas, is what they got. “It is in short, a building that will return to haunt its authors for the coming years as a blunder on the grand scale,” wrote Robert Gretton in Canadian Architect in 1974, not long after its completion.
And so true it has been. But damned if the blunder didn’t paint all of our lovely Brutality with the same brush. As a late Modern movement, Brutalism had decent chops, in theory: A building boiled down to its essence, all material and form.
Think of it as the architectural equivalent of Abstract Expressionism evolving into the late, brief, and ultimately doomed Colour Field movement. Clement Greenberg couldn’t let go of Modernism, so he took essentialism, which Abstract Expressionism most clearly was, and reduced, reduced, reduced, until there was almost nothing left.
salk_pool.gifDitto Brutalism. And, like the Colourfields, in the hands of a master, it worked beautifully. Think of Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute, at right, a deeply gorgeous spatial arrangement of deliciously warm (warm!) concrete. Or closer to home, Vancouver’s Arthur Erickson, and his best Brutalities, the Mac-Blo building or Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver.
Arty was hit or miss on this stuff, of course; have a look at the entire campus of Simon Fraser University, for example (we’re iffy on Roy Thomson Hall, but the concourses ain’t half bad; they could teach the Four Seasons Centre a thing or three). But he, and Kahn, and plenty of others, understood that Brutalism, which was really just an exploration of pure form, could function nicely in the context of an urbanity of variance (which is why SFU is terrifying: numbing sameness).
So what did Robarts do wrong? Well, for one thing, it forgot, or just ignored, or plain just didn’t care about the notion with which it was working. Modernism, and by extension, Brutalism, means something essential about form. So fellas, um … a peacock? Really? Modern was about the letting go, the absence of metaphor: a building was about being a building. Le Corbusier called it a “machine for living,” and while that’s about as warm as calling something “Brutalism,” it sure as heck doesn’t mean one should wander about building concrete peacocks.
So what we get, in Robarts, is not just a bad building, but a bad building done worse with silly, inappropriate ornate-ness. Avian heads, staggered concrete pods, and fluted cement cladding affixed to the poor old concrete box which, frankly, would have been better off alone.
Fluted? Seriously? Okay, not quite, but we see you reaching, and reaching hard, into the po-mo future of the 80s, and we loathe you even more. How dare you aspire to be Brutal? Shame, shame.
Brutalism has a serious PR problem. No questioning that. But it’s also become a target for those looking for someone to blame. It was, in and of itself, a tiny, short-lived movement that produced some real beauty (and, admittedly, a few clunkers).
But let us be clear: All concrete buildings are not Brutalism. It’s just an easy thing to pawn off on the Brutes, lumping all sorts of anti-architecture at its front door. The vast majority of that stuff isn’t Brutalism at all. It’s just plain brutal (note the small ‘b’.) End of story.