History demolished by architectural Brutalism

By Jan Dichter

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The supposedly accidental demolition of the historic trolley stop over the summer would not appear so suspicious, not only if it hadn’t so conveniently happened when no one was around to see it, but if it weren’t so in line with the long string of architectural disasters already perpetrated on campus. Some authority may soon descend on these pages to explain, but any such explanation will only serve to further obscure the mission of modern architecture, which is precisely not to be noticeable. It’s the perfect backdrop for, and example of, life in a modern society in which the structures that surround and shape our lives are not meant to be noticed as any kind of contingent historical fact, let alone an actual presence. Any unique qualities of that old brick hovel will now be replaced with those of another generic bus stop, identical to each of the others, transparent and abstract in form. In that way, modern architecture is just like a bus stop: a space you wait in without noticing it, a space that organizes the motion of bodies without calling attention to itself.

Collegian File Photo

Collegian File Photo

Consider the paradigm of classical (pre-industrial) architecture: every structure had a kind of a narrative, some ‘point’ to get across. The whole structure expressed symbolic as well as material support for the kind of presence the visitor was supposed to be immersed in. Think of cathedrals with their spires like antennas to heaven and their floor plans in the shape of a cross; even the simple dwellings of indigenous tribes were conceived of as metaphorical maps of the cosmos. Since the early 20th century, however, the point of architecture has been to not appear, but, through the bland repetition of abstract shapes as a kind of perceptual camouflage, to give as little an impression of presence as possible – to be the décor of absence and alienation.

‘Brutalism,’ a particularly significant wave of modernist architecture, left several notable examples on campus as a collection of monoliths, those monuments without monumentality – the Fine Arts Center, Lederle, Dubois, SWRA and the Campus Center. Initiated by socialist architects in the 1950s, the style originated both as a way to quickly rebuild the cities of war-torn Europe and to introduce a social engineering of space that quickly spread both East and West. The term is derived from the French brut, or ‘raw’ as in raw concrete, but carried within this fixation toward material abstraction, the brutal purpose of expressing the supremacy of material production and social power over human life. Its creators viewed this as a utopian goal. In fact, according to Alison and Peter Smithson of Architectural Design, they fine define it as this: “Brutalism tries to face up to a mass-production society, and drag a rough poetry out of the confused and powerful forces which are at work. Up to now Brutalism has been discussed stylistically, whereas its essence is ethical.” [“The New Brutalism,” (April 1957)]

The pre-modernist heritage of the campus is neglected until it can be rid of – the chapel, by far the most historic and beautiful structure remaining, is closed indefinitely, as is the 19th century horse barn by the new marching band building with its graceful Queen Anne gables and cupolas. Several other old barns and farmhouses are left to slowly rot into pieces on the wooded periphery, including one just north of the parking lot across from the Computer Science building. The Univesity of Massachusetts is erasing its past; nowadays everything must be as modern (as absent) as possible. Obviously, historical preservation costs something, but the counter-claims that can be made against our budgetary priorities constitute a can of worms much too big to fully open in this piece.

Suffice to say there is plenty of material for indictment in the architectural realm as well: $12.5 million for a new ‘eco-friendly’ police station when the old one is still standing, and another $12 million on the recent rebuilding of Southwest Concourse, a securitized redesign to facilitate surveillance and crowd dispersal.

Why are they going to tear down and replace Bartlett, which is ironically the first modernist building on campus? I feel like I’m probably going to die in that elevator every time I step in it, but the rest of the building seems pretty OK. And don’t get me started on the CHC project. Capital improvements improve only capital.

So why do we need presence, why do we need the past? Why did we need the trolley stop? I don’t really know how to answer any of these questions to even my own satisfaction, so I suppose it’s possible we don’t. Against that consideration, however, I would like to provide some raw materials toward sketching a critique of UMass’s particular architectural trajectory, and of the spaces of a society and an era. I went to see a math TA once in the lofty heights of Lederle; her office was at the end of a corridor with a window at the end, but the window was locked shut and almost too filthy to see the sun setting behind the hills outside of it. Her office was a tiny cinderblock cell, which although it could easily have had a window of its own, didn’t.

Last year someone painted “Ceci n’est pas une universite” across the sweeping ceiling of the Southwest underpass. In certain places, it really isn’t; it isn’t much of any sort of place at all. What on earth is the Munson Hall Annex doing sitting there like a mausoleum in the midst of one of the liveliest stretches of campus?

The various architectural abjections briefly listed here may nonetheless be seen in a different light, one that illuminates a more visceral experience of presence, an encounter with that which is normally walled off behind planes of plate glass and fogged by the unpleasant glow of fluorescents. It isn’t a matter of claiming that we need any particular experience or space and the opportunity to find it, but of the possibility of abandoning ourselves to the process of actively having to look for it, or building it ourselves. The roof over our heads is a good a place as any to begin looking.

Jan Dichter is a Collegian contributor and can be reached at [email protected]