Wednesday, July 20, 2016

A Brutal Reminder of our Past

I don't post much about architecture, my chosen profession, but the renovation of Paul Rudolph's government center in Orange County, New York, caught my eye.   Brutalism is not everyone's cup of tea, but as far as such buildings go this one was quite modest in scale and had served the county well for decades until it was closed due to hurricane damage in 2011.

There were many proposals on the table, including one by a prominent New York architect who offered to buy the Rudolph building and convert into an artist colony, if he was given the commission for a new civic structure.  The county executive nixed the idea and slated the building for demolition in late 2015.  However, the legislature overruled him, preferring a more cost-effective renovation and expansion of the existing structure instead.

The building is listed in the World Monuments Fund, as it is considered one of Paul Rudolph's best works.  Zaha Hadid wrote admiringly of it last year,

"As a center for civic governance, it enacted democracy through spatial integration, not through the separation of elected representatives from their constituents.  Many similar projects around the world have also suffered neglect; yet sensitive renovation and new programming reveal a profound lightness and generosity, creating exciting and popular spaces where people can connect.  Rudolph's work is pure, but the beauty is in its austerity.  There are no additions to make it polite or cute.  It is what it is."

Not everyone thought so well of Brutalism.  Jane Jacobs felt it was destroying NYC and many other cities around the country, which led her to write The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  However, ferro-concrete construction was a low-cost solution to rapidly expanding civic and housing needs in the late 1950s, and many city officials, including Robert Moses in NYC, promoted Brutalist architecture.

Granted, the results were sometimes terrifying, but Paul Rudolph made Brutalism human in scale, ranging from his modern Florida houses to his Yale Art and Architecture Building.  It may have been a "perplexing legacy," as Herbert Muschamp wrote in this 1997 obituary, but it was a very important one, as Rudolph had a big influence on succeeding generations, including yours truly.

I'm happy to see the Orange County government center was spared.  If nothing else it serves as a unique marker, especially now that it has gotten all this attention.

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