The Role of Popular Opinion

My last post featured Le Corbusier’s magnificent Carpenter Center at Harvard, a building renowned throughout the world of architecture. But ask anyone on the street — even most Harvard students and faculty members — what they think of the building, and they’ll probably tell you it’s ugly. They don’t like the raw concrete, or the pilotis. They don’t like how it doesn’t blend in, or how it blurs the line between exterior and interior. They don’t like that it’s devoid of ornamentation.

More after the break.

Those with any knowledge of architecture can easily dismiss such arguments as the products of ignorance and fear, and retort with far more well-founded responses, regarding how the Corbusian esthetic is so much more expressive of its time than the Faux-Georgian schlock America seems to prefer, or how the building makes use of innovative circulatory patterns, or how its subtle use of color brings the facade to life, to name just a few.

But the Carpenter Center, like many other great but reviled buildings (like, say, the Art & Architecture Building at Yale, by Paul Rudolph, or Boston City Hall, by Kallmann, McKinnell and Knowles) was built for the layman, for the client, for the people who would interact with it every day. What does it mean when said people can’t stand it? Even if the building works on a theoretical and functional level, what does it mean when it prompts aggressive reactions in its users?

Is it simply that Brutalism is out of style? That concrete is rough and tough to like?

And what of popular opinion, anyway? What much of American thinks it wants — small government, ultra-low taxes, privatized healthcare — is not necessarily what’s best for it. Similarly, I was recently given a tour of UMass Amherst’s Fine Arts Center, an early 70’s Brutalist masterpiece by Kevin Roche (expect a much more lengthy post on this building later) by a friend of mine who works as a theater professor in the building. And he hates it. He finds its concrete oppressive and prison-like, its complex layout frustrating and separating, and its lack of windows depressing. But when I toured the building, I felt none of that. I saw functionality empowered by sculptural form, unique spaces given life by raw materials. And I’m not the only one — UMass’s architecture department is also housed in the building, and they too love it. So much, in fact, that they may be nominating Kevin Roche for an honorary degree this year.

So this seems to boil down to a question of taste. The educated will favor the challenging, the inventive, and the bold. The masses will favor the traditionally likable, the comforting, the banal. Architecture that strikes a balance between the two seems to be a viable option, but perhaps not in all cases. Architecture can elevate behavior and understanding, and much of the best architecture that does those things is the most challenging. I would go so far as to say that architects have the responsibility to design the buildings that push the limits of our thinking and move our society forward, not the ones that clients think they want.

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