What Is A Building’s “Material”?

by Don Friedman on October 10, 2017

Curtesy of Marcin Wichary:

I’ll almost certainly be getting this map of “Concrete New York” but I find the discussion on Curbed to be problematic. In my opinion, New York does not have an iconic city-center concrete building the way that (among others) Boston, Chicago, and Washington do; the best concrete building nearby has been altered in a way that destroys its architectural integrity.

That does not mean that the city is lacking in concrete structure. The vast majority of high-rise apartment hoses built in the last forty years have concrete frames, as do many other buildings in the city. But this is where things get tricky: if the AT&T Long Lines Building*, pictured above, is a concrete brutalist building, despite having a steel frame, then we’ve reduced “brutalism” to a formalism. I’ve always considered a brutalist building to be one with heavy exposed concrete structure, but the Long Lines building has a granite and precast concrete facade over a steel frame. If only the appearance matters, then we’ve separated brutalism from its origin in béton brut.

If I were to refer to the Chrysler Building as a “brick masonry building” I would technically be correct, but ignoring the steel frame and steel external ornament would be misleading. We make exactly this mistake when we call the loft buildings of SoHo “cast-iron buildings” since the use of iron is a distinguishing characteristic of their facades, not their wood-and-brick structure.

On one end fo the spectrum, we’re calling buildings by their facade material and ignoring everything else; on the other we’re calling buildings by a style associated with a material that they use only in a limited form in their facades. Both seem wrong to me. There are three issues at hand here: structural material, facade material, and formal architectural style. The best solution is to mention all three and thus avoid confusion. Short of that, we should avoid making comments about structure unless there’s a reason. Saying that the Long Lines building has a Brutalist facade is accurate and does not, in my opinion, take away from the point that the map was trying to make.


* The structure was designed by Weiskopf & Pickworth, where I had my first job, and there were pictures of the building scattered around the office. Also worth mentioning, it was built to house an enormous number of phone switches and very few people, hence the lack of windows.

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