Brutalism: A failed architectural urban plan and piece of Chicago's history.
—INGRAIN, Winter/Spring 2020
STORY / Paul Cade
Whenever I stand in front of a building like 55 West Wacker along the Chicago River, I like to pretend that I am a person from 1968, the year it was built. I imagine that I have never seen anything quite like it. How would I feel about this new building? It would certainly be shocking, maybe even upsetting.
The building firmly declares that the future is here.
Would I celebrate a future of gravity-defying structures with grand aesthetics and egalitarian ideals? Or would I be terrified by the uncompromising materials, severe façades, and lack of human scale? Often I don’t know the answer, but I do know that I am entranced by these kinds of buildings.
A subcategory of
forms and the use
Chicago’s 55 West Wacker and buildings like it came to be known as brutalist. (The word is not a reference to a harsh or “brutal” style but instead is taken from the French phrase béton brut, meaning “raw concrete.”) These buildings began to pop up during the reconstruction of Europe after World War II. The style grew quickly and spread around the world during the 1950s and ’60s, but in the Windy City, much of modern architecture had a different face.
Chicagoans like Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright were making their mark globally, and particularly here in their hometown with their respective International and Prairie styles. Although brutalist buildings weren’t ubiquitous in Chicago, brutalist ideas did make a huge impact on the city in the form of the urban planning scheme called “towers in the park” (we’ll get to that in a minute). The Cabrini-Green and Robert Taylor Homes public housing developments were notable examples of this scheme. (The Cabrini-Green homes were commissioned by the Chicago Housing Authority beginning in the 1940s on Chicago’s Near North Side; the last was demolished in 2011. The Robert Taylor Homes buildings were completed in 1963 on Chicago’s South Side; the last was bulldozed in 2005.) And while the Cabrini-Green and Robert Taylor Homes buildings may or may not have been considered truly brutalist, they were certainly related, as both ideas came from one mind: Le Corbusier.
The Swiss/French architect Le Corbusier is credited with pioneering the aesthetics and ideology of brutalism and the concept of “towers in the park.” He believed that with the knowledge and technology of the time, humanity could fix the problems of urban life—namely, overcrowding, poverty, and unsanitary conditions.
MODERN LIFE DEMANDS, AND IS WAITING FOR, A NEW KIND OF PLAN, BOTH FOR THE HOUSE AND THE CITY.
Poured concrete was Le Corbusier’s material of choice. Cheap and plentiful, it could be easily formed into almost any shape. He felt that leaving the raw concrete exposed was the most honest way to clad a building. Like most other modernist architects, brutalists did away with the ornate decorations that were prevalent in earlier architectural styles. Windows were placed strategically and sparingly to highlight particular views or frame certain light. Although the material looks heavy, the forms appear weightless. Balconies and cantilevers hang in midair; sometimes entire buildings are propped up on only a few slender pillars. These features became the aesthetic hallmarks of brutalism. The buildings embrace that innate juxtaposition, looking both weighty and earthy while also gravity-defying and clean.
By the mid-1950s, Le Corbusier and modernists all around the world were changing the face of entire cities. No longer content to build just one brutalist building, they envisioned entire cities full of concrete monoliths—rows and rows of uniform, organized buildings full of perfectly planned apartments. These buildings wouldn’t be packed together like most high-rises of the time. Brutalists wanted their towers to be surrounded by open spaces and landscaped fields so that light could pour into the units, air could flow through the windows, and residents could look out at the green spaces below and watch their kids play. This is the “towers in the park” form of urban planning that was born of brutalist architecture.
Cities in America and around the world embraced this utopian scheme. But almost none with as much enthusiasm as Chicago.
On the north, south, and west sides, “slums” and “blighted areas” were quickly flattened, often with little concern for the communities being displaced. In place of Chicago’s notorious slums of the 1930s and ’40s rose the publicly subsidized Cabrini-Green homes based on Le Corbusier’s “towers in the park” vision. These barracks-style row houses and twenty-three towers were surrounded by landscaped plots that separated the area from city streets.
CHARACTERISTICS & BUILDINGS
REPEATING PATTERNS CANTILEVERS
PILLARS "BOXY" FORMS
We now know that the brutalist utopia envisioned by Le Corbusier’s system did not come to fruition. The towers that were meant to lift residents into the sky and into the middle class often turned into isolating islands with little access to local amenities. The parks that were supposed to give residents areas to play and relax became vast and barren. What might have been small design problems became exacerbated by poor management, corruption, systemic racism, and intentional discrimination. Elevators, trash chutes, public lighting, and playground equipment all broke and didn’t get fixed. The poverty and crime that plagued these communities became their defining features in the eyes of the American public, but it is important to remember that these were not just buildings. The stories inside those walls were complex and nuanced; they were the places many Americans called home.
The flaws in the brutalist urban planning scheme were well understood by some, even while the Cabrini-Green homes were being constructed. In her groundbreaking book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, urban planner, writer, and activist Jane Jacobs convincingly argued against “slum” clearing solely for the construction of “towers in the park” urbanism. She believed that small streets, mixed-use spaces (cities with commercial, residential, and retail outlets intermixed), and high population density are vital attributes of a city, allowing the layers of communities to exist and engage with one another. As a resident of Greenwich Village while New York was under the tyrannical rule of master planner Robert Moses, Jacobs organized her neighbors and thwarted city plans to demolish her neighborhood and her home. Here she almost seemed to be writing directly to Le Corbusier:
“Towers in the park”–style urban planning and the construction of brutalist architecture came to a complete halt in the 1980s. Ironically, all of these public housing high-rises in Chicago have now been demolished, with almost as little thought about the communities that called the buildings home as when they were first erected. Brutalism has fallen out of favor and iconic examples of the style have been torn down, even in Chicago. (In addition to the Cabrini-Green homes, Prentice Women’s Hospital was demolished in 2013 with little resistance.) The brutalist buildings that do remain are usually compared with Stalinist architecture, disregarded for being out of touch and allowed to fall into disrepair.
It is unfortunate that brutalism isn’t more broadly recognized and embraced as part of the history and fabric of this city. The impact of Chicago’s “towers in the park” has never been broadly understood. And though brutalism was not without its flaws, its idealism and aesthetics are something to be admired and appreciated. It requires the viewer of the building to think and question. Brutalist buildings deserve to be celebrated, even if only for their peculiarity. And again it is Jane Jacobs who summed it up in The Death and Life of American Cities:
“By its nature, the metropolis provides what otherwise could be given only by traveling; namely, the strange.”
I hope that brutalism and strangeness continue to be a part of the city of Chicago for decades to come.