Urban Planning

Three Myths About Brutalism

by Don Friedman on October 25, 2017

Neave Brown, the architect of the Alexandra Road housing estate in London (above, click to enlarge) as well as other brutalist housing projects, has recently been recognized for his work. In architectural terms, this is undiluted brutalism, with nearly all exterior surfaces as bare concrete or glass.

The article at the second link above summarizes the fortunes of the estate, from being used as a symbol of decay to having a lot of long-term happy residents. A structure like this can’t hide – it doesn’t look like traditional housing and it’s quite large – so it has to succeed or fail while in the spotlight.

The first myth I wanted to mention is quite simple: that brutalism is universally reviled among ordinary people and only liked by architects or people with architectural training. The Guardian article at the second link makes it clear that a lot of the people at Alexandra Road love living there specifically because of the features that set it apart, including its appearance and the megastructure aspects of joined buildings.

The second myth is even simpler, that brutalism, unlike other styles, can’t be used for residential buildings, or at a small scale. This is a big building only by the standards of London housing. In New York its size would be unremarkable, although its architecture obviously would not be. The fact that there are relatively few brutalist apartment houses and even fewer row houses or single-family houses has more to do with the social issues surrounding the style’s birth and use and less to do with its fitness for any given purpose.

The third myth is directly related to our work. Exposed concrete is not somehow uniquely ill-suited as a facade material. It does not necessarily deteriorate faster than other materials. The exposed concrete of brutalism got a bad reputation because (a) a lot of the time the original construction was not of the proper quality. Exposed concrete has to be placed and finished more carefully than concrete that will be hidden from the weather, and this was unfortunately not always recognized before construction. Even more important, every material will deteriorate if not maintained, but somehow people got the idea that they could simply ignore the exposed concrete and it would stay in good shape forever.

Not Quite What They Meant

October 1, 2017

An idyllic small-city residential street: But let’s look close up at that sign: A sign to warn drivers that children are playing (and might, for example, chase a loose ball into the street) is a good thing. This sign, though, is a bit confusing. If the children are playing on a seesaw then they’re not […]

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Planning For Future Floods

September 30, 2017

The South Ferry subway station after Hurricane Sandy, courtesy of the MTA: Here’s a good article on infrastructure improvement, specifically on repairs to mitigate future disasters: 6 rules for rebuilding infrastructure in an era of ‘unprecedented’ weather events. The third rule, “Design for climate change” jumped out at me as it’s something we see every time we […]

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The Two Extremes of Subway Planning

September 13, 2017

An accidental but informative juxtaposition: planning to make the entire city a one-fare zone in 1920 by building a lot of new subway lines and the decay of subway development after World War II. The Second Avenue subway is, of course, a symbol of the change in fortune: it was first planned in 1920 but the […]

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Code Intersectionality

September 12, 2017

There’s been some discussion in the last couple of weeks on the topic of Belgian Block paving – usually and somewhat incorrectly referred to as cobblestones – being impassable for people with mobility issues. A solution exists for this particular problem, which is to provide smoother pavement at crosswalks. This allows people in wheelchairs or […]

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Rail For The Future

August 25, 2017

The Regional Plan Association has a really good suggestion – a plan, one might even say – for running a new mass transit rail line from southern Brooklyn through central Queens to the south and east Bronx. It is potentially much cheaper per mile than other projects, like the Second Avenue Subway, because it uses […]

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Mental Mapping

July 13, 2017

This article from the Architectural League on avoidance mapping is interesting in itself – it has a lot to say about what different people feel is important in their local environment – but it’s also interesting in what it has to say accidentally about how people see those environments. Some of the people interviewed have […]

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July 12, 2017

It’s hard to overstate the rapidity of New York’s growth in the nineteenth century. Just the bare facts of the census – Manhattan had 60,000 people in 1800 and 1,850,000 in 1900 – are astonishing. When you add in the construction required to provide housing, workplaces, and all the other functions of a city, it’s […]

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Why Green Roofs Are Not A Fad

June 21, 2017

People have known about the heat island effect for some time, where the concrete, asphalt, stone, and brick of buildings and streets absorb more heat than a natural landscape would, where black roofs absorb heat, where human activity generates heat, and the relatively lesser amount of vegetation means that the natural cooling from plant respiration […]

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The Best Form Of Adaptation

June 13, 2017

Former Sperry Gyroscope Factory, now offices: Here’s a decent read on industrial innovation and incubation: Brooklyn’s Industrial Revolution. It’s got a nice description of some reuse of industrial buildings by potentially interesting businesses. The article doesn’t discuss the topic of adaptive reuse but it has, by absence, something to say on that topic. I’ve talked […]

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