Curbed Architecture Critic Alexandra Lange ‘Eavesdrops’ on Metro Design Icons

© Deane Madsen | Gallery Place–Chinatown Metro

In a recent post on Curbed, architecture critic Alexandra Lange dove into the history of the Washington, D.C. Metro (a.k.a. WMATA), finding that its designers envisioned a forward-looking transit system with longstanding appeal. Metro architect Harry Weese and his firm traveled the world studying existing transportation examples, noting details down to the fabric selection of ticket collectors’ uniforms, before returning stateside to design what has become one of D.C.’s most recognizable landmarks. The D.C. Metro system has been celebrated since its 1976 opening for its column-free, Brutalist vaults of concrete, and was the recipient of the AIA 25-Year Award for Architecture in 2014. This spring, D.C. Metro became the focus of controversy discussed elsewhere and on these pages for (in addition to longstanding issues of management, safety, and scheduling) an ill-advised whitewashing of the vaults at its Union Station stop.

One resource Lange studied was a self-published book with a cumbersome title–”For the Glory of Washington: A Chronicle of Events Leading to the Creation of the System-Wide Architectural Concept for the Design of the Washington Metro Stations, December 1965 – November 1967″–by Stanley Allen, who was chairman of Harry Weese Associates at the time. This book chronicles the firm’s deep involvement in the systemwide design of the D.C. Metro system. Lange sifts through accounts of a worldwide subway tour to preliminary sketches to CFA hearings, and links her findings to current stances on infrastructural maintenance across the country:

To honor the people who clean, upgrade, and augment, we have to see transit design as Weese did: distributed across the city, both as a network of connected stations, platforms, and trains, and as a network of connected tasks. Weese and his team identified the problem, but needed the sometimes harsh design critiques of the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA), “the only federal commission dedicated to design review and aesthetic excellence,” as it says on its website, to create a solution that spoke to place, operations and maintenance.

Maintenance has long plagued the D.C. Metro system. In response to outcry from the architectural community and preservationists over the Union Station paint job, some Metro riders voiced approval for the painting, citing the need for brighter conditions. But underground white paint can only reflect the light that shines on it, besides which, it is a temporary solution–a $100,000 bandage that will need to be re-applied continuously–when upgrades to William Lam’s lighting design, if budget allowed them, would provide a more permanent fix. Again, Lange:

If WMATA had consulted with the CFA or historians, they might have learned that the concrete, if cleaned, with the lighting maintained as Lam intended, would solve the very brightness problems the paint (three coats, easily soiled) provided a short-term solution for. … The paint offers a momentary ‘Ah!’ but the money would be better spent on soap and replacing the lightbulbs with new LEDs—work less likely to be noticed because it’s maintenance.

The purists among supporters of Brutalism note that the style’s moniker stems from béton brut–or, raw concrete–meaning that the paint not only issues a long-term repainting sentence that WMATA seems incapable of serving, but also detracts from the architectural and stylistic integrity of the D.C. Metro.

Former Washington Post architecture critic Benjamin Forgey raised a similar outcry in 1992 over the repainting of the Farragut North Metro station, comparing the D.C. Metro’s 600-foot-long, public great halls to classical architecture:

Like much of the city’s above-ground architecture–the barrel vaults in, say, John Russel Pope’s National Gallery West Building or Daniel Burnham’s Union Station–it is based upon classical precedents. But in its forthright expression of structure in those bold concrete vaults, it’s also modern–a shadowy, richly textured space of our own time. There’s no mistaking that the color and texture of the concrete contribute greatly to the architectural effect.

Perhaps Forgey gets to the point quicker: Paint applied to the vaults flattens out the texture for which the D.C. Metro stations and other Brutalist buildings are celebrated, and you don’t solve problems (of lighting, concrete deterioration, or any others) by painting over them.

BrutalistDC Featured in WaPo Going Out Guide

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, designed by Gordon Bunshaft of SOM.

On the evening of October 2, The Hirshhorn, IGDC, and BrutalistDC will co-host a World Architecture Day sunset tour of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The Hirshhorn, which was designed by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and opened in 1974, is a prime example of Brutalist architecture in Washington, D.C., sited at the midpoint between the Capitol and the Washington Monument along the National Mall. Its sunken sculpture garden offers a quiet, shaded refuge from the expansive lawn of the Mall, and the museum was envisioned by Bunshaft to be “a sculpture on the mall.”

From the Going Out Guide listing:

The Smithsonian’s lone brutalist building has affectionately (or derisively) been referred to as a “brutalist doughnut.” The museum will celebrate its round, empty-in-the-middle design on World Architecture Day with free Sugar Shack doughnuts for all visitors, in addition to architecture-focused talks and tours. Highlights include Amanda Kolson Hurley, author of a Washington Post Magazine article on preserving — and improving — brutalist architecture, discussing her story at 12:30 p.m., and @brutalistdc founder Deane Madsen leading an Instagram tour of the building at 6:15 p.m. 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Free.

We hope to see you there!

Read the full Going Out Guide list of upcoming events at The Washington Post. 

BrutalistDC to host Instagram Takeover for SWBID, Oct. 5

BrutalistDC will take over the Instagram feed of the Southwest Business Improvement District (@SWBID) on Thursday, October 5. Expect a walking tour starting from the Waterfront Metro and ending at the U.S. Department of Energy.

We plan on covering a lot of ground, and hope to make it to the following buildings, most of which are on the Brutalist Washington Map:

  • Waterfront Metro
  • Tiber Island Cooperative & Carrollsburg Square Condominium
  • The View at Waterfront
  • Arena Stage at the Mead Center
  • The Banneker Fountain
  • L’Enfant Plaza
  • The Robert C. Weaver Federal Building (HUD)
  • The Forrestal Building (DOE)

Be sure to follow @SWBID and @BrutalistDC on Instragram to join in.

Hirshhorn x IGDC x BrutalistDC for #WorldArchitectureDay Oct. 2

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is once again pulling out all the stops to host a full day of Brutalist programming (and doughnuts!) on World Architecture Day, which falls this year on October 2. Following on the success of last year’s collaboration with WalkWithLocals, BrutalistDC has been invited back for another evening walking tour of the Hirshhorn grounds, starting at 6.15pm.

Here’s the Hirshhorn’s full schedule of #WorldArchitectureDay events:

For kids
10 a.m.: For a special edition of STORYTIME, the museum’s youngest visitors are invited to explore architecture through a read-aloud of Iggy Peck Architect by Andrea Beaty and a hands-on building activity.

For all ages
12:30 p.m.: Architecture specialist Amanda Hurley talks Brutalism and color, expanding on her Washington Post Magazine article arguing in favor of preserving brutalist architecture in Washington.

1–1:10 p.m.: Visitors can witness the motorized magic of “The Project for the Preservation of Natural Resources” as the miniature model—complete with working windmills and running water—comes to life in the exhibition “Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: The Utopian Projects.”

2 p.m.: A Gallery Guide-led tour will explore architecture-inspired art on view, including the fantastical world of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s models in “The Utopian Projects.”

4 p.m.: Kelsey Keith, editor-in-chief of Curbed, debates the good, bad, beautiful and ugly of Brutalism, and the Hirshhorn’s groundbreaking design in architecture history.

6:15 p.m.: Deane Madsen (@deane_madsen), former design editor of Architect magazine, will lead an IGDC (@igdc) brutalist Instameet tour #atHirshhorn. Founder of the Instagram account @brutalistdc, Madsen will explore the exterior and lush garden at sunset.

From the Hirshhorn:
Known best for the art displayed within its walls, the Hirshhorn will devote the day to spotlighting its sculptural Gordon Bunshaft-designed building, which opened to the public in 1974. Standing out among the classical buildings of the National Mall, the Hirshhorn—affectionately nicknamed the “Brutalist donut”—is one of the most popular examples of the Brutalist architectural style, which erupted from the 1950s through the 1970s.

For the second year in a row, visitors of all ages can drop by the museum to enjoy complimentary donuts, while supplies last, and partake in a wide-ranging schedule of architecture-themed activities led by Washington-based experts. Architecture, photography and art enthusiasts alike will be drawn in by local Instagram community IGDC to join in appreciating the monumental stature of this much-debated architectural style.

More information is available via The Hirshhorn

BrutalistDC Lecture at GWU Museum, Oct. 2

Join BrutalistDC founder Deane Madsen for a public lecture at the George Washington University Museum on Monday, Oct. 2 at noon. As part of the Mondays at the Museum series, this lecture will discuss the rise of Brutalist architecture in Washington, D.C. and its many examples of the architectural style. Whether you like or loathe it (or don’t know what it is), you have likely seen it around the city.

WHEN: Monday, Oct. 2, 12pm-1pm
WHERE: The George Washington University Museum,
701 21st Street, NW, Washington, DC 20052

More information is available via the GWU Museum.

DocomomoDC to host Rediscovering Brutalism tour

DocomomoDC announced today that it will feature Washington, D.C.’s Brutalist architecture in a walking tour to be held on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017. The tour, called “Rediscovering Brutalism,” will begin at the AIA National Headquarters (which was designed by The Architects Collaborative) with a lecture by Michael Kubo, followed by a walking/Metro-riding tour to Dupont Circle. Kubo is co-author of both Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston and the Brutalist Boston Map.

​Details for the tour, courtesy of DocomomoDC, are below:
Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, 1pm to 5pm, rain or shine
Downtown Washington, D.C.

Lecture followed by Walking + Metro Tour with happy hour.

Registration for the tour is through Eventbrite. Tickets cost $35. Students and members of Docomomo, the DC Preservation League, and APT DC receive a discounted admission of $25. Those in attendance will each receive one keepsake copy of the Brutalist Washington Map.

 

 

DC Brutalism in WaPo Magazine: Crushing on Concrete

The May 28, 2017 edition of the Washington Post Magazine features a 10-page feature on D.C.’s Brutalist architecture. Cover art by Peter Chadwick/This Brutal House

In the smashing cover story of the Washington Post Magazine last weekend, Washington, D.C.-based architecture critic Amanda Kolson Hurley makes the case for local Brutalism. Hurley’s 10-page feature, entitled “Crushing on Concrete,” boasts a cover illustration by Peter Chadwick, author of This Brutal World, and includes striking black-and-white photographs by Astrid Riecken.

Hurley’s story begins with a recap of the recent Union Station kerfuffle, “Paintgate,” wherein WMATA whitewashed Harry Weese’s vaults (and faced subsequent backlash), before delving into a primer on the history of Brutalist architecture. Michael Kubo, co-author of Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston, was interviewed for the article:

There’s this kind of weird valley in which people either love or hate the buildings. I definitely feel like brutalism is in exactly that zone.–Michael Kubo

Despite the losses of some Brutalist buildings Washington, D.C. (namely, Araldo Cossutta’s Third Church of Christ, Scientist, and Marcel Breuer’s American Press Institute), Hurley argues, there have been a few Brutalist triumphs, such as Boston City Hall and U. Mass. Dartmouth’s Claire T. Carney Library by Paul Rudolph. Hurley also exposes the renewal in Brutalism’s popularity, citing the blog F— Yeah, Brutalism, maps by Blue Crow Media, and even our Walk With Locals x Hirshhorn collaboration for last year’s World Architecture Day.

Washington’s impressive catalogue of Brutalist buildings, however, means that the preservation battles are only just beginning. Many of the structures that face greatest peril are those that have aged enough to be in disrepair, yet aren’t quite old enough to have been designated as landmarks. As Hurley puts it, “In Washington … brutalism’s ubiquity means we will have many chances to decide whether it is worth saving.” One notable case in point is the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building, which tops many a list of “Ugliest Buildings in D.C.” for its impenetrable massiveness. Its future is a story to which we’ll be paying close attention as it develops.

Read the full story at The Washington Post

For further reading, pick up these Brutalist titles:


 

Update: Not all of the readers of the WaPo article are concrete lovers, and maybe that’s not news. One particularly scathing comment on the article: “Any chance we get to remove a polyp of this soul-crushing, dismal, ugly architecturally worthless concrete crap from our beautiful city, we should take. It is joyless, ugly and represents all that is sick about sick buildings.” Couldn’t disagree more, chum! 

FBI Building on ArtNet

The fabulously #brutal J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building #brutalistdc #blueskyandbrutalism

A post shared by Brutalist Architecture in DC (@brutalistdc) on

As a follow up to Blake Gopnik’s New York Times piece, Growing Up in a Concrete Masterpiece, he wrote another for ArtNet that includes a photo from the BrutalistDC feed. The ArtNet article, Smash the FBI Building and Stonehenge Will Be Next, discusses the historicity of buildings and artworks. The J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building is particularly reviled amongst the majority of D.C. dwellers, and its uncertain future is faltering now that the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) has approved a plan amendment for the Pennsylvania Avenue squares currently occupied by the FBI Building.

Gopnik argues that the FBI Building represents an era and a way of thinking that have value beyond that of the building itself: “We need to save the buildings on our city streets that stand for who we were. Demolishing the FBI building would be like tearing up a childhood snapshot because we don’t like the clothes we were wearing in it.”

BrutalistDC in the New York Times

Brutalism has been catching flack for far too long, and it’s refreshing to see a take on Brutalism from someone (else) who appreciates the architectural style. Blake Gopnik wrote a lovely reflection called “Growing Up in a Concrete Masterpiece,” on Moshe Safdie’s Habitat ’67 in Montreal, which came out in the May 4, 2017 edition of The New York Times.

BrutalistDC founder Deane Madsen was lucky enough to be interviewed for the piece, and a short snippet of that conversation was included in Gopnik’s piece:

Last fall, a British publishing house called Blue Crow Media added a “Brutalist Washington” map to a series that includes maps of Brutalism in London, Paris and Sydney, Australia. The one on Washington, D.C., was the brainchild of a local writer named Deane Madsen, a fan of postwar concrete who was also aware of the abuse it still suffers. “I’d seen so many lists of the least popular and ugliest buildings in D.C., and almost all were Brutalist,” said Mr. Madsen in a recent phone call.

His map applauds concrete buildings like the cylindrical Hirshhorn Museum, once reviled but now widely admired, and the block-spanning F.B.I. headquarters, still so disliked that its demolition seems almost certain.

Read Blake Gopnik’s full “Growing Up in a Concrete Masterpiece” in The New York Times.

Atlas Obscura x BrutalistDC – May 6!

BrutalistDC will host an architectural tour of L’Enfant Plaza with Atlas Obscura, the definitive guide to the world’s hidden wonders, on Saturday, May 6. We’re thrilled to bring you an in-depth look at one of the major clusters of Brutalist buildings in the nation’s capital.

Attendees will follow along with a copy of the Brutalist Washington Map, which is included in the price of tickets. More information is available through Atlas Obscura’s listing of the event.